Caribbean Spirits

Rhum Agricole

Sugar Cane   /  Fermentation   /   Distillation   /   Aging   / A. O. C. /   Brief History of Rum  

Rum is distilled from wine fermented from sugar cane juice, sugar cane syrup, or fermented molasses. Imagine the taste of a sugar cane juice wine compared to wine made from fermented molasses. A lot of rum companies like to talk about the quality of the cane used to make their rum. But most rum sold in the US today is distilled from fermented molasses.

Rhum agricole begins with only freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice and not the cheaper molasses by-product of the sugar making industry. And since rhum agricole can be made only when the sugar cane crop is at the peak of maturity, production is limited to the short tropical dry season. The first weeks of the year, the hard stalks of cane are harvested. Then steam-powered cane mills at French West Indies distilleries crush the stalks releasing the sugar-laden juice.

The freshly-squeezed juice is collected in large vats where it is fermented to make a sugar cane wine, called vesou. Once fermentation is complete, the vesou is distilled in single-column stills to about 70% alcohol to capture as much of the fresh flavor and character of the fermented sugar cane juice as possible. Much of the distillation equipment employed in the islands was built by coppersmiths in France who also build stills for the brandy and cognac industry.

After distillation, the crystal-clear spirit is allowed to rest in large vats from one to six months while the tropical flavor blossoms. At this point in the process, some rhum agricole is bottled as rhum blanc and enjoyed as an aperitif in cocktails.

The remainder of the fresh rhum is put in oak barrels to age. A variety of used and new barrels are used to age these rhums. During the years spent aging, the spirit mellows and takes on smoky wood and warm vanilla flavors from the casks. Tannins in the wood also impart a rich, copper hue to the maturing spirit.

According to French West Indies law, after three years the aged rhum can be called rhum vieux, or old rhum, though some are aged much longer. These aged rhums are commonly enjoyed after dinner, neat or with a little ice or water on the side, though they also lend themselves to premium cocktails.  TOP

Located in the middle of the Caribbean island chain, the French West Indies islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie Galante are home to RHUM AGRICOLE, a sugar cane juice spirit that compares favorably with the most luxurious cognacs and armagnacs in the world.

Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and what it means.

All of the rhums imported by Caribbean Spirits Inc. are made from only freshly-squeezed sugar cane juice at small family estates where quality is the most important product. Every aspect of production from growing and harvesting the cane, fermenting the fresh juice, distilling, aging and bottling is done at the estates by families who have been making fine spirits for generations.

Each label bears the Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée, reserved only for those spirits distilled to the highest standards in the French West Indies. Look for the words 'Rhum Agricole' and the ' Appelation d’Origine' on the label. To assure you of the highest standards, all of the rhums in the Caribbean Spirits portfolio are bottled at the distillery where they are born.

Though not legal in France, there are other marks being used to promote spirits bottled in France for other markets. Since exports from France are not closely regulated, look for the words Appelation d’Origine Contrôlée and Rhum Agricole on the front label. Imports to the US are also required to state where the spirit was Produced or Bottled. Look for the words ' Martinique' or ' Guadeloupe, French West Indies' and not simply 'France,' which could mean the spirit could have been distilled almost anywhere and then bottled in France.      TOP

A Short History of Rum

Rum, spirits made from sugar cane, sugar cane syrup or molasses, is more tightly woven into the fabric of America than any other spirit. In the second half of the 18th century, more than 40 colonial New England distilleries were busy making rum from Caribbean molasses. Then the British Parliament passed the Molasses Act of 1774 raising the duty on the raw material that fueled the economy of the fledgling colonies. The Act also prohibited importing the sticky, black raw material from anywhere other than British islands. French Caribbean planters suddenly lost a market for their molasses and enthusiastically allied with the New England colonies in the Revolutionary War, and cannons echoed all the way to the smoky halls of the British Parliament. When George Washington planned his inauguration party, he ordered a hogshead of the finest, aged Barbados rum for the festivities.

Sugar cane, originally from Papau New Guinea was taken to Asia where it was cultivated and then carried to Africa, India and then Spain. European explorers came to the West Indies lured by legends of El Dorado, a city paved with gold. Ironically, the tall sweet grass that Columbus brought to the Caribbean in 1493, and the sugar and rum made from that sugar cane, was ultimately worth more than all the lustrous metal taken from the Caribbean basin.

In the early days, mature sugar cane stalks were cut by hand in the fields and carried in ox-drawn carts to wind or animal-powered mills where they were crushed and the juice boiled in a series of progressively smaller copper pots. Today the conical stone foundations of wind mills and boiling houses can be seen on almost every island in the Caribbean.

After boiling a few hours, the thickened, dark syrup was put in clay pots to cool. Molasses, the heavy black liquid that didn’t crystallize, was separated from the crystallized sugar by opening a hole in the bottom of the pot. After a week or so the sugar pots were broken and the coarse dark sugar called `muscovado,’ was collected.

In the 17th century, thousands of sugar works dotted the island landscapes and nearly every plantation employed a copper pot still to make alcohol from the fermented skimmings and molasses. The molasses wine was heated and the alcohol-rich vapor condensed to make what Robert Lignon in 1651, described as ‘ . . . a hot, vile liquor. . . called kill devil.' Sales of the potent liquor to the Navy not only brought extra coins to the planter’s ledger, butmore importantly, it attracted a naval presence that deterred pirates lurking in the area. When the British Parliament finally made rum an official part of the sailor’s daily ration in 1687, generations of sailors and planters had already consummated the improbable marriage between the planters and the Royal Navy. By 1775, a ton of sugar from Nevis was worth more than 20,000 of today’s dollars. Sugar was king!

Over the next two hundred years ago the sugar making process was mechanized with the introduction of the centrifuge and better filters. As sugar production techniques improved the amount of fermentable sugar in the black liquid declined while the concentration of minerals like sulfur and iron increased. Today, most rum is made from fermented imported molasses but distillers still like to talk about the quality of the cane.

Most molasses-based rum is distilled to about 95% alcohol by volume, neutral spirits. After aging a year or so, some of this neutral spirit is carbon-filtered and bottled as white rum. Other rum is aged. Spirits that were born as neutral spirits are sometimes flavored with raisins, oranges, coffee, chocolate and other flavoring before being bottled as aged rum.     TOP

© Copyright Caribbean Spirits Inc 2005 -2010