Agricole Rhum & Cachaça
While the vast majority of rum is made from molasses, a small percentage (around 3%) use pure sugar cane juice as their base. These rums have more grassy, vegetal and sometimes funky flavors, as opposed to the fruity, brown sugar notes found in molasses based rums.
The are two types of cane juice rums: agriocle rhum (the French spelling of rum), which can be made anywhere but is most common in the French Caribbean, particularly Martinique, and cachaça, which can only be made in Brazil. Cachaça is best known as the base of the Caipirinha cocktail, which is a great way to introduce yourself to the category. Some consider it to be a separate spirit category (and probably object to me including it on a rum page), but the way I see it, cachaça is a rum the same way cognac and pisco are brandies, and bourbon and scotch are whiskies. That doesn’t make it any less unique or wonderful.
The flavors of agricole rhum and Cachaça can throw people through a loop the first time they try them. They’re intense and to be quite honest a little weird, but in the absolute best way. Like other initially challenging spirits - Islay scotch, high-ester Jamaican rums, mezcal - once you get to know them, that brief skepticism will shift to appreciation, then fascination, and eventually, in my case at least, obsession. Give them a chance!
Agricole rhum was developed in the French carribean - they call it rhum agricole - which is why cane juice based rum is also known as the French tradition of rum production. The French approach their rhum the same way they approach to everything else, meticulously. They consider their rhum, to be the true rum. The word agricole means agricultural, they call molasses based rums rum industriel.
Agricole rhum is traditional on the French, or formerly French, islands and provinces of Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion and Haiti. But Martinique is the standard bearer of the style and where most of the available brands are from. Production is regulated by an AOC from the French government, just like Cognac, Armagnac and other French spirits. The sugarcane for rhum production can only come from 1 of 23 municipalities on Martinique, along with a host of other rules and regulations. But all this fuss is ultimately a good thing. Martinique rhums are delicious and reliably full of grassy, funky and - for lack of a better word - agricole-y flavors.
The agricole producing areas that do not have an AOC, have more room for variation, such as using a combination of cane juice and molasses. Not inferior, just different.
If you’re new to agricole rhum in cocktails, it’s best to start small because their strong flavors can easily overwhelm. Trying add ¼ ounce to your Daiquri or Mojito to get a feel for how the flavors express themselves. When you’re for the next step, try agricole rhum's flagship cocktail: the delicious and incredibly simple Ti’ Punch.
Barrel Aging: There are three official aging classifications used by Martinique and some of the other islands. These top out at three years and are listed below. Rhums aged for longer shift to the Cognac aging labels: VSOP (4 years), XO (6 years), etc. Agricoles that don't use this system following the same aging rules as other rums: none at all.
Blanc - white or unaged.
Élevé Sous Bois ("Raised in Wood," roughly) - Aged more than one but less than three years, 18 months is common.
Vieux ("Old") - Aged more than three years.
Personally, I think agricole’s true uniqueness is most apparent when it's unaged. Barrels round out the higher aromatics, bringing agricole closer to resembling an aged molasses-based rum. There’s no doubt that aged agricoles rhums can be excellent, just less - to use my made up word again - agricole-y.
Recommended Brands: For cocktails I think unaged agricoles are the most important, and preferably ones that are high proof.
A certified Martinique argicole rhums will say: “Apellation d’Origine Contrôlée Martinique” on the label.
Rhum JM - Their 100 proof blanc is my favorite agricole to mix with (they also have an 80 proof). I'ts extremely grassy along with some tropical fruit flavors and just enough funk that's not overwhelming. Other aged bottlings: Amber, VO, VSOP, XO as well as some vintage offerings.
Duquesne - (du-KANE) Their 100 proof blanc has the best price point of the bunch and is excellent. Other bottings: élevé sous bois.
Neisson - One of the more premium, and delcious, agricoles. They have a 100 proof blanc, 18 month old sou bois and a spectacular 10 year old “Réserve Spéciale.” Other bottings: 15 and 18 years.
La Favorite - Another 100 proof blanc at a solid price point. This one is more sharply aromatic than the others, so it's probably not the best option as an introduction to the category, though some swear by it. They also make an amber aged 18 months and a Vieux that’s over 3 years old.
Damoiseau (Guadolape) - The premier agricole from Guadolape. Full of classic agricole flavors. The standout is their overproof blanc at 110 proof, a great cocktail tool. Other bottlings: 80 proof blanc, VSOP and XO.
St. George Agricole (California, U.S) - An excellent true agricole coming from the folks at St. George, one of the original (and best) craft distillers. They make an unaged, bottled at 43%, and reserve aged four years in french oak.
Barbancourt - (Haiti) A blend of sugar cane juice, molasses and sugar cane syrup that sort of bridges the gap between agricole and molasses based rums. They make a white, a "three star" aged 4 years, a "five star" aged 8 years (my favorite) and a 15 year old "special reserve".
10 Cane - (Trinidad) Blend of sugar cane and molasses based rums, that aged in new French barrels for 6 months.
Cachaça (cah-SHA-sah) is Brazil’s national spirit. Like agricole rhum, it is made from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, though was it created independently and is actually a couple hundred years older than agricole. In Brazil, where they also call it pinga or caninha, cachaça runs like water. Over a billion liters are pumped out a year, 99% of which is consumed locally.
Outside of Brazil though, cachaça has struggled to gain a solid footing in the spirits market. The large scale cost-driven cachaças are about quantity, not quality. And as I said above, cane juice spirits are already a little adventurous tasting to begin with. When they’re made poorly they can be pretty foul. My 2013 BAR manual describes some of them as “difficult to distinguish from jet fuel.” So while the Caipirinha cocktail certainly has made chachaça relevant in the bar world - wavering quality has led to a reputation as a cheaper, lower quality spirit.
Artisanal Cachaça - But cachaça is in the midst of an image change. The last decade has seen a rise in quality driven producers who are doing cachaça right. They carefully source or grow their own sugar cane, distill in alembic copper pot stills, make good cuts and meticulously age and blend their products. These are being called artisanal cachaça, and they are on a level with the best agricole rhums. To distinguish, the large scale productions are tagged as industrial cachaça. While an artisanal cachaça won't necessarily declare itself on the bottle. The price is usually a good indicator. I’m all for affordable booze, but it’s generally a good idea to stay away from the $15 bottle of cachaça with a label that would look at home in a dollar store, another good indicator. The cash you save will basically be paying for your hangover.
As cachaça continues to be shaped through regulation, and the artisanal brands become more the norm, I imagine cachaça will become more respected as a stand alone category. Cachaça has yet to hit it’s stride. But it looks like it may be coming.
Yaguara Cachaca - Their flagship bottling (pictured above) is the best cachaça I’ve tasted to date. It's a blend of a silver cahcaça that’s been rested for several months and one that’s been aged for 5-6 years, then filtered to be clear. They also have a true unaged white that's very competitively priced and tasty, and a barrel aged ouro.
Novo Fogo - Their silver is another personal favorite of mine. They also offer multiple aged expressions, including some single barrels, which is particularly interesting. The aging is largely done in repurposed ex-bourbon barrels, though they use some native wood as well.
Leblon - One of the first artisanal cachaças to surface. It’s the most widely distributed and comes in at the best price point. They also recently released a very tasty aged "Reserva Especial" that's spent two years in French oak.
Avua - Another new-ish brand aiming to pierce the growing market. Their prata is a bit milder than some of the others and at a solid price point. They also have a very tasty aged release that uses native Amurbana wood, which has distinct toasted cinnamon and spice flavors.
Maturation and Aging
While cachaça is known widely as a clear, white spirit, barrel aging does occur and it is one of cachaça’s most interesting features. In addition to againg in the traditional American white and French limousin oak, cachaça is also aged in with native woods such as amburana, cabreúva, jequitibá, ipê, balm and carvalho wood. Each imparts unique and distinctive characteristics, like pepper, baking spice, honey, nuts and pine.
Brazil's labeling system of aging cachaça, which is outlined below, is a little involved. But outside of Brazil, most bottles will simply say the wood that was used and sometimes how long it was aged. Some are also labeled Ouro (gold) which tend to be lightly aged.
White Cachaça - Clear cachaças go by many names: white, branca, prata, silver, clássica, or tradicional. While they have no obvious barrel influence, many of them are still rested in stainless steel tanks or neutral wood barrels (such as jequitibá, freijó, and amendoim) for up to a year, to mellow them before bottling.
Yellow Cachaça - Yellow (amarela) cachaça covers any cachaça with color, whether it's from spending time in wood, or, in the case of some cheaper brands, from artificial coloring. Yellow cachaças may also be labeled ouro (gold) or envelhecida (aged). But as you can see, in the definitions below there is a lot of wiggle room and potential for overlap. within the lower categories, and no type of barrel is specified.
Yellow Cachaça Age Categories:
Ouro (gold) - The cachaça is stored in a barrel for an unspecified length of time.
Envelhecida (aged) - At least 50% of the cachaça in the bottle is aged for at least 1 year.
Premium - 100% of the cachaça is aged for at least 1 year but less than three
Extra Premium - 100% of the cachaça is "aged" for at least three years or more.
All Ages of Cane Juice Rums are this Page
This page is organized a bit differently than the other rums pages which contain groupings of different ages and styles of molasses based rums. Here, because cane juice rums are a relativley narrow cateogry, all ages and styles are included. So below when I recommend a brand I'll be referring to its entire line of age expressions, not just one specific bottle. Of course, I'll be sure to mention any standouts.
Cachaça vs Agricole Rhum - Though they are largely similar, there are some tanigle differences between cachaça and agricole rhum, other than where they’re made. Primarily, many artisanal cachaças are distilled in a pot still, while agricole is typically made with a column still. Industiral cachaça also uses column still, enormous ones. Another minor distinction is cachaça must be distilled to a minimum of 54% ABV,agricole is between 65-75%, and bottled between 38% to 48% ABV, though in the U.S. the minimum is 40% ABV.