Learning to love agricole rum means throwing out everything you thought you knew about the spirit.
With our balmy weather, our island climate makes the perfect setting for serving the world’s most famous rum-based tropical cocktails (think daiquiris, piña coladas and mai tais), which means our cabinets are likely well-stocked with the basic white, golden and dark rums. But true spirits aficionados should consider shaking things up adding agricole-style rum to the mix: a rare, but rewarding style made from distilling fresh sugarcane juice.
Traditional rhum agricole comes from the French Caribbean island of Martinique. Throughout the Caribbean (and much of the world), rum is usually made by distilling molasses: a byproduct of sugar manufacturing. But on Martinique, a unique style of rum evolved from making rum in the model of Armagnac by distilling fresh cane juice in single pot stills. The style tends to be fresher and grassier tasting than many of the molasses-based rums, but in a twist, the fresh cane juice tends to reveal nuances of the terroir in which it is grown.
The French bestowed an A.O.C. (appellation d’origine contrôlée) on the rums from the region in 1996, and as such, Martinique rums must comply with production standards, including aging restrictions—a rarity in the rum world. Rhum vieux (aged rum), for example, must be aged for three to at least 10 years, and is often compared to fine cognac.
Lately, several stateside distillers—St. George in San Francisco, O`ahu’s own Manulele Distillers—have gotten in on the agricole game by distilling locally grown sugar cane. For legal reasons, they cannot call their product “rhum agricole,” but these rums are still some of the most exciting spirits on the market today—and are well worth seeking out.
For Mike Nishimoto, beverage director for Honolulu’s Livestock Tavern and Lucky Belly, the appeal of agricole-style rum comes precisely from its variable nature. He began incorporating locally made Ko Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum from Manulele Distillers on his menus around a year ago, when he learned that it was made from single varieties of sugar cane grown in Kunia and the North Shore of O`ahu.
“Being a wine geek, that stuck out to me,” he says, noting that each variety has its own flavor profile—its own “terroir.” The “Lahi” bottling, for instance, carries notes of lychee, bananas, flowers and grassiness.
When looking to incorporate Ko Hana into his cocktail program, Nishimoto says that because the rum has strong aromatic—especially in comparison to basic white rum—the key was finding a way to both showcase and balance those notes. And within that rubric, he and his team found lots of room for creativity. One option: playing off the rum’s molasses-like notes, and blending it with purées of winter squash—as with the cocktail featured on their list this past fall. Working with the bold flavors of amaro and absinthe, however, as in the cocktail provided below, provided another route. At home, consider experimenting with cocktail styles both minimal (the classic daiquiri) and maximalist (such as Livestock Tavern’s
Squints, opposite page) to see the full range of what agricole-style rum can do.
BOTTLES TO TRY
ST. GEORGE CALIFORNIA AGRICOLE RUM
Made from fresh sugarcane grown in Southern California, this rum is processed in small batches in a copper pot still for a peppery, grassy spirit with a smooth finish. A rum aged in French oak barrels for four years is also available in limited quantities from this distiller.
KO HANA HAWAIIAN AGRICOLE RUM
Made from single varieties of heirloom sugar cane grown in Kunia and on the North Shore of O`ahu, this relatively newish entry in the agricole-style rum category is turning heads among aficionados. Each variety skews slightly differently. The bottling made from “Lahi” sugarcane has grassy overtones, while the “Manulele” has more earthy notes.
BATISTE ECOISTE AGRICOLE RHUM
Made from sustainably grown sugar cane grown on the French Caribbean island of Marie-Galante, this entry carries notes of fresh herbs and tropical fruits.
This innovative combination of agricole rum, maraschino liqueur and dry curaçao from Chinatown restaurant Livestock Tavern gets a tropical twist with the addition of orgeat (almond syrup), and a hint of bitter from an amaro fl oat. Mike Nishimoto, beverage director, says the inspiration comes from the classic Trader Vic’s Mai Tai, but with the aromatic rum and absinthe, it moves to a bold new level.
SQUINTS (serves 1)
1 1/2 ounce Ko~Hana Hawaiian Agricole Rum
3/4 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 ounce maraschino liqueur (preferably Luxardo)
1/2 ounce Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao
1/2 ounce orgeat syrup (preferably Giffard)
Amaro Montenegro float
1. Add the first five ingredients to a cocktail shaker. Add ice, and shake until chilled.
2. Spray the inside of a chilled coupe or cocktail glass with a mist of absinthe. Strain the cocktail into the glass. Using a bar spoon, gently float the Amaro Montenegro over the top of the cocktail.
Recipe courtesy Allie Haines of Livestock Tavern. Recipes reprinted with permission from The Essential Bar Book, by Jennifer Fiedler, copyright 2014. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House LLC.
All photos courtesy Ari Espay and Liza Politi, Kohana Rum