Defining rum can be difficult. Is it the clear spirit used in daiquiris and other frozen cocktails? Or is it the amber sipping spirit that has been aged for decades and tastes a little like a whiskey or a cognac? Rum is the lawless Wild West of spirits categories and pretty much any flavoring or coloring can be added without mention on the bottle. Even age statements can be tweaked. And when you consider rhum agricole, things get even more confusing.
It’s rum, to be sure, despite the spelling (French-speaking rum-making islands like Martinique and Haiti add the “h”). But it’s not rum in its most traditional sense. Rum is generally distilled from molasses (a sugarcane byproduct). Rhum agricole, on the other hand, is distilled from pressed sugarcane juice. The difference is distinct and delicious. In general it is somewhat lighter than molasses-based rum with more earthy, grassy, and even vegetal notes. (For a comparison, think of high-rye bourbon compared to one heavier on wheat or a less extreme version of peated versus unpeated single malt.)
And unlike standard rum, officiél rhum agricole is strictly controlled. It needs to come from sugarcane grown in one of 23 approved regions (or appellations) on the island of Martinique—the same way brandies produced in the Cognac region of France are the only ones that can be called Cognacs. There are also stringent regulations about how it can be produced and what can be added to the final product (essentially, nothing). There is also unofficial rhum agricole, which can be produced anywhere, and plenty are still worthy of your time. Four of the five rhums reviewed here are made in Martinique, and they’re all aged. The fifth is an un-aged beauty from California—included not only because it is astoundingly tasty, but also to illustrate that white rhums can be just as complex and fascinating as their amber counterparts.