Throughout the 19th century, sugarcane was the dominant agricultural product of Martinique, an island highly regarded for its terroir and thus, appropriately originally named “Madinina” – the island of flowers. The once soaring sugar economy plunged heavily due to over production in South America, and the growing availability in Europe of much cheaper beet sugar, eventually driving sugar factories of Martinique into bankruptcy. One of the most famous that fell to bankruptcy, Domaine de l’ Acajou, is now one of the most popular destinations in Martinique. Habitation Clement, known as the mecca for Rhum Agricole, is visited by more than 125,000 people each year to learn how Rhum Agricole came to be, and the culture that has reared this spirit into one of the most distinctive styles of rum in the world.
The surviving distilleries made other products from sugarcane. An obvious option was to make rum directly from fresh sugarcane juice and not from molasses, avoiding the sugar production process all together. Rhum J.M was an early pioneer to make only Rhum Agricole in Martinique. And why not? With vast hectares of lush sugarcane growing on the slopes of Mt. Pelée, Rhum J.M moved to crafting rhum directly from sugarcane juice, long before the rest of the island’s distilleries made this necessary transition. Rhum J.M thus has been for generations the crown jewel of Martinique rhum for the world’s most serious spirit enthusiasts.
It is not a mistake to draw parallels between Rhum Agricole and the other distinctive jewels of French spirituous tradition such as Calvados, Armagnac or Cognac. Rhum Agricole shares the same ethos as the brandies of its mother country. It is due to the success of aged French eau de vie’s, as well as the void of French spirits during WWII, that gave momentum and solidified Rhum Agricole’s place as one of the world’s most sought after fine spirits today. Today, the Rhum Agricole distilleries of the French Caribbean carry on the tradition, producing distinctive world-class spirits that speak of its unique place and held to the highest standards and restrictions of any rum producing region in the world.
Rhum Agricole starts with the sugarcane, and the terroir from which it is cultivated. The phrase: “from grass to glass” emphasizes the remarkable pulse of the spirit. Each producer works with the sugarcane and how they feel delivers the character of the place where the sugarcane is grown, which in Martinique requires special attention according to the standards set forth by the AOC of Martinique. While agricultural rhums produced in French speaking islands are produced in similar fashion and follow highly regarded industry standards, Rhum Agricole of Martinique stands alone with the official label of: Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
The A.O.C Martinique Official Label counts 3 categories:
The Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique Blanc (White Agricultural Rum):
3 months before bottling, the rum must rest in stainless or wooden vats to be “rounded out”. It is then brought to desired degrees for market (40° to 62°) with water.
The Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique élevé sous bois (Golden Agricultural Rum or Amber Agricultural Rum):
Amber rum is stored for at least 12 months in wooden containers. Its name is derived from its light golden color, mostly due to its short period spent in an oak vat.
The Rhum Vieux Agricole AOC Martinique (Old or Aged Agricultural Rum):
Must be placed in an oak barrel a minimum of 3 years for the VO label (rhum vieux), 4 years for the VSOP label (rhum très vieux) and up to 6 years for an aged vintage XO label rum (rhum hors d’âge). It is the tannin in the wood which bestows the warm hues while the taste is transformed as the years go by.
Following the decree published on November 5, 1996 in the Journal Official of November 8, 1996 of the French Republic, the agricultural rum from Martinique has obtained on this date “AOC Martinique”, the Official State Accreditation of Origin for the rhums of the island of Martinique.
As of November of 1996, Martinique agricultural rums benefit from the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée official label. To date, Martinique is the sole French overseas region to possess this distinction.
Only those rums obtained by distilling freshly fermented sugarcane juice have the right to bear the label Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée “Martinique” guaranteeing origin, followed by the term, “Rhum Agricole” (Agricultural Rum), which meets high standards regarding:
– Sugarcane fields
– Sugarcane variety
– Sugarcane juice extraction
– Fermentation process
– Distillation process
– Oak container storage and aging process
– Age statements
By law, the sugarcane is grown to a single, annual harvest and juiced within 36 hours of the time it is cut. Fermentation starts immediately to preserve the fresh, grassy flavors and unique, organic intricacies of each varietal and growing condition. The fermented sugarcane juice is then distilled to between 65% abv. and 75% abv. through a single pass creole column still. This style has evolved from a continued desire to leave as many large, grassy flavonoid molecules intact as possible. Finally, the rhum is bottled as Rhum Blanc, or left to age in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years, eventually becoming “Rhum Vieux”.
Rums claiming the AOC Martinique origin label cannot be marketed without an official certificate issued by the Institut National des Appellations d’Origine – INAO (National Institute of Origin Accreditation).
Rhum Agricole is held to the highest standards within the world of rum, and has such a unique flavor profile and character that there truly is no other parallel in rum to Rhum Agricole. The hand of the maker works with the pure character of the sugarcane, and brings soul to the rhum.
Soon after the sugarcane is cut, it is crushed and fermentation of fresh sugarcane juice initiates immediately. After 24 to 48 hours, the distiller has sugarcane wine of approximately 4% to 5% abv. to feed a “Creole Column” to distill Rhum Agricole. The product is distilled one time to between 65% & 75% pure sugarcane alcohol. After distillation, the pure agricultural rhum is transferred to large vats to mellow out, for a minimum of three months, before it is bottled or transferred to oak casks for aging. The crushed sugarcane, known as “bagasse”, is dried and is fed to the furnace to provide steam for the column still. What excess bagasse is left is mixed with the processed distillate, known as “vinasse”, and is spread as compost back on the plantations.
Nothing can be added to modify the color, flavor, or aroma of Rhum Agricole. The age statements must reflect the youngest rhum in an aged rhum expression. The rum produced in the oversees departments of France, such as Reunion, Guadeloupe, and Martinique, is made with strict and fair labor practices of the European Union and French labor laws. Each employee, from the sugarcane fields to the finished bottle, has a standardized hourly work week, with mandatory paid holiday time, along with social services and benefits such as state-funded education and health care.