I promised in my Neisson Vieux review that I’d further discuss Martinique Agricole rhum, especially its AOC. But first, I’m going to go into how agricole came to be.
The agricole that turned me onto this sugarcane juice baser style of rhum is, fittingly for this review, Rhum JM’s VSOP. I asked a friend to grab me a bottle from Hong Kong Duty Free because someone recommended it to me. For something that cost around $50 USD, I thought it was a great balance of oak influence and grassy funk. This ultimately also made my friend a rum convert. So, I immediately thought the French must really be a great civilization for creating this delicious style of rhum. That high opinion got distilled down a few notches upon learning a couple of things.
Firstly, the French only started making agricole in Martinique during the early 1800s. Before this, the French Caribbean also made molasses-based rhum like everyone else in the Caribbean. Napoleon was at war with England at this time. The English Navy blockaded France’s routes to the French Caribbean. This was France’s main source of sugar. With their main source of sugar cut off, Napoleon encouraged a focus on sugar from sugar beets. A lot less demand for sugarcane made a lot of plantations suffer. Someone must have thought that instead of going through a more laborious process of separating sugar from molasses, the plantations just fermented the sugarcane juice then distilled it. Hence the term agricole because it’s an agricultural product. This also differentiates agricole from molasses-based rhum which is referred to as traditionnel in Martinique.
Secondly, Brazil was already making Cachaca since the 1550s. So, this means the French aren’t the first to make sugarcane juice-based spirits. There goes my initial misconception that they created this style of sugarcane spirit.
To my knowledge, there were still a fair amount of molasses-based rum distilleries in Martinique even after the switch to agricole. According to Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove book, there were plenty of larger molasses-based distilleries near Mt. Pelée. The eruption of the volcano in early 1902 greatly reduced the molasses-based rum producers in Martinique.
It’s also safe to assume that demand for agricole rhum grew in France after World War 1 and 2. I’m more familiar with the events of WW2, so I know the Nazis sacked Normandy. I’m told this made Calvados, which is from Normandy, grow in demand in Germany. With parts of France in ruins, home-grown spirits production would be an issue. This made the French islands of Martinique, Guadalupe and Marie-Galante ramp up production to fill the demand.
Now to talk about Martinique’s Agricole AOC. In order to be called Rhum Agricole, it must meet the following conditions:
1. The cane and production area must come from and be within the 23 areas designated on Martinique. There is a list of allowed cane varieties that can be used which is approved by a national committee.
2. Harvesting of cane must be between January 1st and the 31st of August.
3. Spreading substances on cane fields to promote growth is prohibited.
4. Only fresh juice from good quality cane can be used.
5. The minimum brix (sugar level) is 14, and minimum pH is 4.7. The minimum values can be adjusted by a committee based on weather data, as needed. (The methods of measuring brix and pH of the juice of each batch of cane are approved by the national committee of wines and eaux-de-vie).
6. The processes allowed for extracting cane juice are approved by a committee.
7. Fermentation must be discontinuous in an open tank no greater than 500 hectoliters. (50,000 liters, or 13,200 gallons.) Fermentation cannot exceed 72 hours,
8. The yeast must be of the genus Saccharomyces.
Addition of the yeast must be by:
● Mother Tank
● Leftover yeast at the base of a prior batch
● Centrifuged yeasts
9. Distillation must be in columns. (I’m told these are refurbished Armagnac stills)
A. Heating is steam-injection to the column.
B. The column width must be between 0.7 and 2 meters.
C. Rectification: This part of the still must have between 5 to 9 copper trays.
10. If a distillery makes both AOC and non-AOC products, the operations must be carried out to guarantee absolute separation of the products, so that non-AOC compliant rhum is not mixed with AOC rhum.
11. No coloring can be added to blanc rhum. It must also be rested (usually in stainless steel tanks) for at least three months after distillation. If rested in oak, the resting cannot exceed three months.
12. Minimum abv for an AOC Martinique rhum is 40%.
13. Vieux rhum has to spend a minimum of three years (uninterrupted) in oak containers of less than 650 liters.
14. Rhums sold with the AOC designation must say Appellation d’origine controlee very clearly.
15. The term Agricole rhum should be used when referring to the rhum and must appear alongside Martinique.
16. The words blanc or vieux must also appear clearly near the AOC designation.
These are only the main points of the AOC, for me at least. If you want to read the complete thing, look here.
Rhum JM Millesime 2002 – review
Barreled: Oct 2002. Bottled: Nov 10 2012 (ex-bourbon cask), ABV: 46.3%.
On the nose: There’s a sharp menthol note that quickly mellows out. It’s followed by bits of red grapes, grass jelly, almonds and cherry syrup. After that are bits of leather, old wood and a mix of herbs (mainly dill and thyme). There’s also a thin but long scent of cinnamon and vanilla.
In the mouth: Red grape, grass jelly and cherry syrup at the front. These tastes extend further and give way to flashes of orgeat, nutmeg, vanilla, menthol, tannins, rye, cucumber and cloves. The red grapes and grass jelly extend further to the end.
Quite a unique and relentless agricole. This is the only sugarcane juice-based rum where I’ve sensed flavors of grass jelly and menthol. I also got these flavors in the JM VSOP, but they don’t last as long and aren’t as complex. This shows that it’s hard to generalize the flavors of aged cane juice rum.
I expected more from a special release. I like how main flavors persist all the way, but this lacks complexity. This is something I can enjoy when I just want to drink something good and lasting. JM makes yearly releases called Millesime which means vintage. I haven’t had other Millesimes to be able to compare. The main bummer for this rum is the price. I found this in Japan for around $90 USD a few years ago. I have to wonder if the price changed throughout its time in the market and as rum prices increased.
What a stringent list of rules! I had no idea about all that. Surprised the cost of agricole rhum isn’t higher. £50 for the Rhum J.M VSOP seems good value. Sounds like an intriguing drink too. We’re spoilt for selection on all these different beverages!
Yup, lots of rules for the Martinique AOC. I even thinned down this list. It’s more technical in the Cocktailwonk article. Thankfully this doesnt apply to all agricoles. Other Agricole producers can use pot stills for example.
Thank you, John, for the educational article. Really fun to read!
In Japan, the JM rums seem to be readily available, and the one you reviewed currently sells for ~USD 67 in my online retailer, and other vintages are available too, e.g., the 2003 and 2006 at similar prices. They also stock the 1999 and 2001 for around USD 145, which seems steep – do you know if there is anything that would justify the price for the older ones? Maybe it’s just the old-style labels… .
Hi Alex, thanks for the kind words.
I met a JM brand guy for Asia at the end of last year, he told me JM is actively buying back old Millesime releases. Probably for archiving. I think as rum gets more popular, the older stuff will get more expensive. I’d buy 1 each of those just to drink or to invest.
Ooh, good to know, thanks!
Wes could be half right and I could be half wrong regarding the Bellevue. I’ve heard of some Guadalupean rhum being mixed with molasses and cane juice.
Bally’s current reputation isn’t that high. But I know geekier drinkers who go after the older vintage stuff. Their newer stuff aren’t that well known.
St. James is a beast of a distillery from what I hear. Their basic stuff are ok and well priced. Their 15 year old seems to get the most love.
I gave a bottle of the 2004 to my father-in-law – it’s crucial to bring a gift when visiting in-laws in Japan. In Japan, even among family, it is not common that the receiver of a gift will open it in front of you or, in the case of a bottle, share it with you. But I was fortunate and was able to try a few tots. The nose, particularly was rich, fruity, grassy, and even a little funky. The mouthfeel is a bit thin, but I quickly became very fond of the grassiness and herbal qualities on the palate. I am now well into my own bottle of Rhum J.M. Millésimé (the 2003, 2004, 2005 vatting) and I really love it. It’s a bit more rounded and layered in the mouth, but less playful on the nose.
So thank you again for this review, which encouraged me to venture into rhum agricole. Lots more to explore, I have a Neisson and Bellevue in line.
Btw, I should have read the descriptions on my retailer’s webpage properly. It said that the 1999 and 2001 ones I was referring to that were more expensive were aged at least 15 years, compared to the other Millésimés which were aged at least 10 years.
Great to know you’re liking Agricoles. Your Bellevue is from a 1998 vintage? I should warn you that there was an excess of molasses based rum from Guadalupe that year. So there’s a lot of 1998 Molasses based rum Guadalupe rum bottled by independent bottlers like Black Adder.
Neisson is a great choice. I’d recommend looking for old vintages of Bally as well.
Thanks for the heads up on the Bellevue! Yes it’s from 1998 (hardly found any other vintages, but that might explain it) – and its a Kill Devil. A quick search online wasn’t conclusive, although Wes Burgin of the fatrumpirate has a hunch that its cane juice (though the tasting notes sound more like a molasses rum).
Bally is also on my radar, so is St James (any opinion on them?), and i’ll be shopping around a bit in my free time.