The vast majority of the world’s rum is distilled as a near neutral spirit—think vodka but made with low-grade molasses. These rums are meant to disappear into coke and poolside piña coladas and many have added sugar, color and flavorings.
But rum is an expansive category and a small but growing number of rum producers make nuanced, flavor-packed spirits that reflect regional and hyper-local terroir. The best known of these are rhums with an “h”, or rhum agricole made on the Caribbean island of Martinique. Rather than molasses, these rums are made with fresh-pressed sugarcane juice and distilled just once to keep cane character intact.
“Rhum agricole is definitely a product of origin,” says Kiowa Bryan, marketing director of the Caribbean rum distributor Spiribam. “It has to be from the French Caribbean and made in a certain way. We have an AOC in Martinique and our bottles have to follow this long list of rules. Because of that, there’s no such thing as a bad rhum from Martinique.”
Because Martinique remains a French overseas territory, it’s eligible, just like Champagne or Camembert, for AOC status, which its rhums achieved in 1996. However, there are makers of cane juice rum almost everywhere the crop is grown—from the mountains of Oaxaca, Belize and Thailand to Japan, Mauritius and South Carolina.
With the exception of a few high-octane bottles, white and aged rums of this style are brilliant to drink neat. Younger aged rums can be substituted for whiskey in Old Fashioneds, Manhattans and Boulevardiers; and the white spirits make killer rum tonics, give Daiquiris character and work well in rum-based Negroni and Martini riffs.
In Martinique, ’ti punch is king. Everyone builds the drink to their own specs, but it goes something like this: pour white rhum into a glass; squeeze a thin lime cheek into the spirit, expressing the peel; and then add a touch of raw sugar or cane syrup. Ice is optional but discouraged by purists.
To build a collection ready for cocktail making and sipping neat, here are our recommendations for the best cane juice rums.
La Favorite Rhum Agricole Vieux
La Favorite’s white rums are readily available in the States, but high-humidity Caribbean aging makes a fast impression on even its youngest aged rhums. Most of the rhum in Martinique is aged in ex-bourbon barrels and bottles labeled “vieux” have a three-year minimum age requirement. La Favorite’s rhum vieux shows characteristic dried fruit and winter spice notes, which only intensify with age. The distillery’s 25-year Cuvée Flibuste is hard to find in America but tastes like dense Créole spice cake.
Neisson Organic Rum
Neisson is one of two remaining family-owned distilleries on Martinique (La Favorite is the other) and it produced the island’s first certified organic rhum agricole. As a category, white rhum agricole can have a kaleidoscope of flavor attributes: grassy, vegetal, spicy, peppery, fruit, floral, smoky and salty. Neisson’s organic bottling tastes like chewing on a sweet cane stalk with a hint of smoke, lemon peel and a touch of melon.
Rhum Clément 15 Year
Rhum Clément was founded in 1887 by Homère Clément as a response to the region’s sugar crisis. Sugar beets had decimated the price of Caribbean-grown cane and Clément was instrumental in pivoting the island from sugar to rhum production. Clément has one of the island’s most impressive and experimental aging programs and about 525 bottles of its newest 15-year release just arrived in the United States. This 2004 vintage rum has a punch of wood and smoke, softened creamy coconut and caramel. The finish is long and laced with tobacco. “With its concentrated flavor, this is a rhum for Scotch drinkers,” says Bryan.
Rhum J.M 10 Year
Rhum J.M’s distillery is fed by volcanic spring waters from Mt. Pelée, an iconic and active volcano that looms nearby. The distillery grows all of its own sugarcane in nearby plots and during harvest, the cane is juiced and transferred to fermentation tanks within an hour of being cut (i.e., it’s some seriously fresh juice). After a decade of Caribbean aging in re-charred ex-bourbon barrels, the resulting rhum is bottled at cask strength (41.9 percent ABV). It’s a more delicate sipper than the bold Clément 15 Year with brown sugar notes, a salty mineral quality and a hint of leather.
Trois Rivières Cuvée de L’Ocean
Trois Rivières’ rhums are now produced at nearby sister distillery La Mauny and in the trend of corporate consolidation on the island, both brands were recently purchased by Gruppo Campari. However, the sugarcane used to make Trois Rivières’ Cuvée de l’Ocean is grown close to its original distillery site and nearby Martinique’s Atlantic coast. This white rhum has a bold briny and mineral quality found in few rhums on the island and it’s an accessible, exceptional introduction to Martinique micro-terroir.
In rural Haiti, rum is produced much like it was in the 1800s—with hand-harvested sugarcane, wild fermentation and ester-boosting pot stills. There are around 500 micro distilleries, known as guildives, scattered around the island and the hyper-local rum they produce is known as clairin. Most distillers make just enough clairin for their surrounding village, but now, exceptional bottles like Clairin Vaval are available for the U.S. market. Clairin Vaval is produced by Fritz Vaval at Distillerie Arawaks in the village of Cavaillon. It’s made with 100 percent Madam Meuze sugarcane and bottled at still proof. (There’s not a drop of water added at any point in the process.) Vaval is an unabashedly tropical spirit with a bold bananas foster nose, salty vanilla and lime notes and a lengthy, dry finish.
Copalli Barrel Rested Rum
Copalli is the new kid of cane juice rum. The brand launched in 2018 with its organic white and barrel rested rums that are made from two local but unidentified cane varieties and it’s distilled on a 3,000-acre sustainable farm and eco-resort that’s nestled into a tropical rainforest in southern Belize. Master Distiller Ed Tiedge isn’t trying to replicate agricole in a different climate. He’s using a combination of cognac and pot stills (rather than single column) and twice distilling the juice, which tempers some of the cane flavor. Copalli isn’t old enough to have aged product, so they allow their white rum to take a short nap in ex-bourbon barrels. Just five months is enough to impart a light amber color and sweet vanilla and oak flavors, with the floral and grassy notes of the white still peeking through.
Cor Cor Okinawan Rum, Green
Sugarcane originated in China and Southeast Asia and was introduced to Japan’s southernmost Ryûkyû Islands islands in the late 14th Century (and more than 250 years before it arrived in Martinique). While Japanese rice and grain-based spirits are far better known, islanders have long produced sugarcane distillates, especially from Okinawan black sugar, or kokuto. Yuko Kinjo grew up on the tiny island of Minamidaito (population 2,000) and in 2004, she set out to produce a spirit that would reflect the heritage and terroir of her home. Grace Distillery is located inside the island’s only formal infrastructure: the airport. From there, she makes Cor Cor Red, using premium molasses and Cor Cor Green with fresh cane juice. The Green has a delicate briny olive nose, along with grassy cane, white flowers and sassafras on the palate.
High Wire Lowcountry Agricole
Sugarcane is a hobby crop in South Carolina. If farmers grow it at all, they plant just enough to make syrup for the year. Similarly, High Wire’s Lowcountry Agricole Rum is a side project that has gained outsize attention for the Charleston, South Carolina maker of gin, whiskey and vodka. “We were super curious if we could make a good agricole and do it justice,” says co-owner Ann Marshall. “We were also interested in how we could apply what we learned about terroir to the whiskey category.” So for six years, Marshall and her husband and partner Scott Blackwell have worked with farmers to secure enough blue ribbon sugarcane to make 300 hundred or so bottles. (They moved their distillery this year and will not have a 2020 vintage.) The rum is barrel rested for 11 months and the 2018 vintage was split between cane from coastal Lavington Farms and Blizzard Branch in the Carolina piedmont. The former has a brinier quality layered into honeyed banana and cola character and the latter has a potent butterscotch nose.
Long overshadowed by tequila and mezcal, Mexican rums, known as aguardiente de caña, are finally getting the attention they deserve. Like Haiti, Mexico has a long tradition of making rums using wild fermentation and heritage cane varieties. Production is small and much of it is sold from homes and roadside stands. Distilled in the mountains of Oaxaca by third-generation producer Jose Luís, Paranubes was among the first brands of aguardiente de caña available in the United States. Notably, Luís practices rolling fermentation, meaning he tops up vats of fermenting cane juice instead of distilling the entire batch. That process and the cane varieties—Caña Criollo, Caña Dulce,Caña Duro and Caña Morada—yield a complex, funky spirit that smells a bit like a dirty martini. Big banana and red hot notes rush the palate and linger over a long, fruity finish.