We love agricole rhum, and so does our friend Ashera Goonewardene, so she’s here to help introduce you to a spirit that you won’t be able to resist once you fall in love…

If you’ve never tasted rhum agricole before, you’re in for an experience. You can typically expect a complex array of grassy, floral, fruity, and funky flavours. It’s also a product that represents the region and culture it comes from, most notably the French Caribbean islands, but it’s spread as far afield as Madeira, Thailand, and even Australia. It can be aged, or unaged. Both are delicious.

However, to the uninitiated, it’s an unfamiliar spirit that’s called a rum, but spelt wrong, and one that’s raw and vegetal, almost like a freshly-opened can of sweetcorn. Right now it exists in a similar space to mezcal in the Tequila world, or like the rye of American whiskey. A ‘challenging’ outsider in a popular category that’s rooted in history and tradition, and cherished by hipsters, bartenders, and the die-hards.

This is an issue, not just for the category, but for me. A big rhum agricole fan. So I thought it was high time we went back to school and put together a 101 on the MoM blog to introduce those who aren’t yet a fan to this wonderful world. 

Ashera Goonewardene

Say hello to the agricole-toting Ashera Goonewardene!

Outrageously outcast

To help, I ventured to Beachcomber to speak with Ashera Goonewardene, an award-winning bartender, agricole expert, and London account manager for Spiribam (distributor of Rhum Clément Beach House, Arcane, and St. Lucia Distillers, who make Chairman’s Reserve, Bounty, Admiral Rodney, and more). The UK champion in Rhum Clément’s annual Ti’Punch Cup cocktail competition in 2017, she used to work at our chosen venue, which was founded in 2014, and took the bold risk to become a house of agricole in late 2015. Behind all that Polynesian decor lies a back bar dedicated to the spirit, with rum-fuelled tiki drinks being made with the largest selection of agricole rhums in the UK. 

It’s the perfect setting to learn more and dispel some myths. Straight off the bat, Goonewardene is remarking how misunderstood agricole is, for consumers and bartenders alike. “The ‘h’ in ‘rhum’ is not a typo,” she says. “I get why people find it challenging. You think rum and you think sweet. Or you think rum and Coke. Before I fell in love with agricole my favourite rum was Diplámatico. There’s nothing wrong with molasses-based rum. But agricole really stands out because it isn’t pummelled with sugar.”

What makes agricole different is the way it’s made, where it’s made, and how it’s drunk. Most people in countries like the UK won’t have been exposed to it in the right context. It’s not like it’s a product you find on supermarket shelves or bar menus regularly. “Every palate is different and the typical rums everyone drinks first are great because they introduce to people the category,” Goonewardene says. “But the consequence is people are used to a certain style, and those who haven’t trained their palate and become accustomed to the flavour won’t necessarily love agricole straight away.” 

Rhum Agricole

It all starts with sugar cane

How it’s made

Fundamentally, agricole tastes like the product it’s made from – sugarcane, specifically the juice pressed from it, which is fermented and distilled. Most rums are made with molasses, a dark, sweet syrup made by refining sugarcane. Rum is sometimes (unfairly, in my book) referred to as the ‘wild west’ of spirits, because of a lack of category-wide legislation protecting it from terrible or imposter products. You can add flavour, colour, or sugar in most regions, and as a result, a lot of rums don’t preserve their local agricultural provenance. If you tasted freshly pressed sugar cane juice and molasses side-by-side, it would be a bit like the difference between drinking freshly-pressed blackcurrant juice and Ribena. 

The style has been produced since at least the 19th century and originated in Caribbean islands that were former French colonies. Hence the ‘h’ in rhum, it’s a French spelling. Today the likes of Martinique, St. Lucia and Guadeloupe produce some of the best-known and beloved agricoles. The former (about 90% of which is covered in sugar cane) has a strict geographical indication called the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Martinique Rhum Agricole, a guideline that separates it from the likes of other great sugar cane spirits like Cachaça and Clairin.

Since 1996, it’s been guaranteeing certain standards of production and bottling. “First, you can only use freshly-crushed sugar cane juice, no syrup or molasses, from an area authorised by the AOC decree. You have to squeeze the juice within three hours after harvest (January to June), otherwise it will spoil like milk. It’s directly fed into fermenters, with both natural yeast and a drop of cultivated yeast, which are open to ensure you attain all the estery, funky flavours and atmosphere from the environment,” Goonewardene explains. “The wort must then go into column stills only, and ones heated by hot vapour injection with between five to nine rectifying copper plates, and no less than 15 copper or stainless steel stripping plates. Rectification (distilling again to achieve higher ABV), and it must come off the still at 65-75% ABV, you can’t run this high like certain rums as flavour can be sacrificed.” 

rhum agricole

An example of an aged rhum agricole

Cane, character, and culture

The distillate then goes into vats to rest. The leftover by-product of distillation (vinasse) becomes fertiliser, while leftover material mass from pressed sugar cane (bagasse) is used to fuel the mills. It’s a whole ecosystem where sustainability isn’t a buzzword, it’s a way of life. Blanc (white) is the most common and traditional form of agricole, and in Martinique, it can’t be rested for more than three months. But referring to agricole as white rum can be confusing for those used to Bacardi or Malibu. This is part of the problem when trying to get people into the spirit. Don’t refer to it by colour, is my advice. Articulate your agricole by flavour, production method, and what makes it unique locally. 

You can age agricole, typically in ex-bourbon or virgin French oak casks. In Martinique, it must spend at least 12 months to be called a cask-aged rhum (élevé sous bois) and at least three years to be bottled as an extra-aged rum (vieux). Crucially, you cannot add or alter anything. No colour, no sugar. What you see and what you taste is just a pure distilled expression of the sugar cane juice, or if it’s aged, the natural effect of wood the raw material. Most agricole will be made in a process similar to the above, although other regions don’t have to conform to such strict methods. 

That means that agricole is an example of a spirit that displays terroir. “My moment of falling in love was driving through a field that has just been harvested. It was humid, sticky, and sweet and the air tasted of agricole, it made me realise how what you got in the bottle is what you got in the soil,” Goonewardene says. “Taste two distillates from cane harvested at neighbouring farms and you’ll say ‘wow, this is very different’. With sugar cane produced by the sea, for example, you’ll get salty, coastal properties. A reason why the rhum is so flavourful is that fruits like bananas, guavas, pineapples, and coconuts feed into the soil locally where the cane grows.”

Rhum Agricole

The Maison where Rhum Clement is made in Martinique

Drinking agricole

Appreciating the love and heritage that goes into agricole is one route to loving it, but you should also drink it because the taste appeals to you. Master classes like the ones Beachcomber provide can open your mind to the complexity of agricole, while there’s nothing more effective than simply buying a bottle and going back to it in different moods and moments. I always think the spirit would naturally draw drinkers who love the likes of mezcal and whisky because they tend to like to get very geeky about their booze and are open to flavours deemed challenging. As with Tequila, using the familiar territory of aged products first is also a good tactic to bring people in. “We used to start with the aged to not shock your tastebuds, as most people will be familiar with flavours of oak, toffee, vanilla, coconut etc. It lets people understand the product without being overwhelmed by it. Then when they taste it neat, they’re mesmerised how the aged products came from this,” Goonewardene says.

Of course, you can’t really go wrong with cocktails. The traditional Ti’ Punch is a simple and tasty serve that’s just lime, sugar, and rhum. But that won’t necessarily convert people. Twists on the classics are better for this, like a Dirty Martini to show off those briny notes, with a lime twist to brighten things at the end. Beachcomber has an Old Fashioned that mixes molasses-baed rum (Doorly’s in this case) to show how they can work together, as well as an Agroni. This Negroni twist features rhum, Creole shrub, sugar cane syrup macerated in orange for 48 hours, as well as a gentle amount of Campari and vermouth to showcase the spirit. 

A piece of 75% dark chocolate is served with the cocktail to reintroduce the bitterness you lose from Campari. But it also demonstrates how food can play with agricole too. “When it comes to rum there is always space for food pairing,” Goonewardene says. “In Martinique, agricole is often served with saltfish Accra, while in Guadeloupe will have dishes like the pillowy, deep-fried bread bokit or féwòs, the French Caribbean answer to avocado that makes a dish that’s like a spicy guac with scotch bonnet chillies.” You can find recipes for all the above online, and pairing the rhum with local cuisine would be real treat. For simple solutions, you can stick with chocolate, while curry is also a surprisingly good sidekick (don’t forget how commonplace it is in the Caribbean). 

Rhum Agricole

Agricole can be enjoyed in a number of ways

Education, education, education

I should hasten to add that I’m not some intrepid explorer who has unearthed a hidden gem. Rhum agricole is drunk regularly across The Caribbean, while France and the US are strong markets. This is an honest style of rum that doesn’t hide its character behind masses of sugar and is made with traditional methods. Of course, it has fans. But it doesn’t have anywhere near the reach or support of molasses-based rum. I love the latter, but I’d also be made up to see agricole close the gap.

Beachcomber is doing its bit. It will soon host Agro School, created with belief that the constant availability of agricole education just makes sense. Goonewardene is putting together a curriculum which will cover topics like fermentation and distillation while constantly underlining the difference between molasses and sugarcane-based rum. “The monthly training will invite bartenders and anyone who’s at the beginning of their rum journey to learn how to play around with it,” Gonewardene explains. “By the end of the curriculum, you’ll have tasted a variety of different agricoles, aged as well, in different serves. The whole point is to keep educating. Keep, keep educating. It’s the most important thing.” 

It’s the perfect setting. Reading this blog has hopefully provided some useful context, but tasting agricole is the best way to learn. In a bar like Beachcomber, it’s easy to remember the whole point of a Tiki bar is to bring the place the spirits are from to you, or to help you escape. Jetting off on a rhum tour of the Caribbean isn’t exactly simple or cost-effective right now. But opening a bottle of agricole to share between friends at home or in a great bar is. 

Rhum Agricole

Rhum agricole is part of Caribbean culture

Rhum agricole: your next great spirit love

The best thing about agricole is how once you love it, you’ve formed an attachment for life. “When you get people down to a blanc agricole then they’re really screwed. There really is no way back,” Peter Holland told us back in OctoberThis blog is only scratching the surface. Rhum agricole is a rich, complex world that binds culture and heritage in a spirit that tastes of where it’s from. It’s a journey we recommend you start as soon as possible. A lifetime of adventure awaits.