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.