When is an Agricole Not an Agricole?
Lately I’ve seen two American-made cane spirits being sold as either “agricole” or “agricole style” rum. Both are made from what they term “evaporated cane juice”. To the uninitiated, this seems logical enough—rhum agricole is made from cane juice, so evaporated cane juice is basically the same thing, right? Sorry, no. Not even close.
Evaporated cane juice is nothing more than raw sugar (aka turbinado, or Demerara sugar [often a misnomer]) which is to say it’s white crystalline sugar with a light coating of molasses on it. If you make a distillate from raw sugar, you have not made rhum agricole, you have made “sugarshine”. Let’s take a look at the sugar production process to clear this up:
In the diagram, we see the cane coming in from the fields at top left, and raw sugar leaving and bottom middle. That raw sugar is what these folks are buying as “evaporated cane juice”. Is there any possible way it could taste or have other properties similar to fresh cane juice? Sure, both the juice and raw sugar contain sucrose, but that’s essentially where the similarities end. Evaporated cane juice is simply a misleading term that fools consumers into believing they are consuming something more healthful than processed sugar, and the US Food & Drug Administration agrees.
So what is real agricole, then?
Real agricole is made from the fresh-pressed juice of sugarcane. Period. It’s mostly made in the French West Indies on islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe, but recently, some small distilleries in the United States have started making agricole style rums.
Saint George Distillery in Alameda, California, for example, sources fresh sugar cane from the Imperial Valley near the Mexican border and ships it directly to the distillery for crushing. There are a few more startups with similar arrangements in the American Southeast (and even more planned). Another example is Manulele Distillers on Oahu, which takes the process one step further by growing several different cultivars of its own estate cane, each of which brings a unique flavor to the end-product.
Time is of the essence when it comes to sugar cane harvesting. As soon as the cane is cut, it becomes susceptible to bacterial infection and in turn, a loss of sugar content. Hand-harvested cane is a bit more resilient than machine-harvested cane in this regard, but in either case the optimum scenario will see the cane crushed within a few hours of its harvest. The fresh juice then flows directly to the fermenter where yeast will convert the sugars into alcohol and CO2.
At some small distilleries with estate cane, cane production can exceed their fermentation and distillation capacity, so they need to stabilize the sugar for storage. In these cases, the sugarcane juice is boiled into cane syrup (no crystallization) to kill the naturally present bacteria and increase the sugar content to a shelf-stable level. Examples include Richland in Georgia and Saint Nicholas Abbey in Barbados. These rums may taste grassier than rums made from molasses, but the boiling process changes the flavor components significantly enough to make it something apart from agricole.
Cane juice is a delicious beverage on its own. Its grassy, sweet profile is not only pleasing to the palate, but it contains nutrients such as iron, potassium, magnesium and calcium. If you compare that flavor with “evaporated cane juice” (a product that has in fact gone through extensive processing) one can quickly see that beverages fermented and distilled from these two sugar sources will taste nothing alike.
So distillers take heed. And more importantly, taste a bunch of real rhum agricole and ask yourself if the product you’re making from raw sugar tastes anything like it.
Spoiler alert: it doesn’t
PS. Stop it.
Agricole rum lovers
For more sugar fun, check out my visit to the famous Enmore sugar factory in Guyana.
We are just two weeks away from the Second Annual California Rum Fest, which will take place at SOMArts in San Francisco. Federico Hernandez of The Rum Lab has gathered an amazing slate of rum producers and industry luminaries for this event, so let’s quickly break the weekend down into a schedule so you don’t miss a thing.
But first, click here to buy your tickets!
Friday, August 26
Drinks Industry Trade-Only Session
Pro bartenders, bar and restaurant managers/owners, distributors and off-premise booze folks will gather for a peek at the participating brands prior to the grand tasting.
Rum Aficionado Grand Tasting
If you are not already a rum enthusiast, you will be after attending this session! With over sixty different cane spirit marques from over thirty brands, you’re guaranteed to find something that wows you. Just look at this lineup:
|Banks Rum||Papa’s Pilar|
|Blue Chair Bay||Penny Blue|
|English Harbour||Ron Cartavio|
|Flor de Caña||Ron del Barrilito|
|Kirk & Sweeney||The Real McCoy|
As if the rum wasn’t reason enough to attend, there are some really great speakers talking about our favorite subject as well. Mark your calendars for these talks, all of which take place on Friday, August 26:
Learning in-depth about Panamanian Rums
Forrest “The Rum Connoisseur” Cokely, industry consultant
Effective Social Media in the Spirits Industry
Matt Pietrek, social media guru at CocktailWonk.com
“All in the Family”–a spirited examination of the distinct styles of punch that make up this convivial cannon of mixed drinks that came before the cocktail
Jim Meehan, author of The PDT Cocktail Book & co-creator of Banks Rums
Richard Seale, Owner of Foursquare Distillery
A short history and the future of rum
Ed Hamilton, Importer and The Ministry of Rum founder
Saturday, August 27
Save some strength for Saturday, as the rum fun keeps flowing at the Rum Bazaar with Tiki Diablo and other artists and vendors of tiki goodness and ephemera. There will also be live music and DJs playing as you sip tiki drinks from some of San Francisco’s top bartenders.
Just one presentation on Saturday, but it’s a doozy:
The Multi-Origin Rum Category
Jim Meehan, author of The PDT Cocktail Book & co-creator of Banks Rums
Rum Colada Cocktail Competition
Sponsored by Real Syrups and Don Q
The NorCal and SoCal finalists will face off against one another, and you are the judge! Taste the two drinks and vote for people’s choice using the Trophy Cocktail app. The stakes are high, as the winner gets $1,000!
Sunday, August 28
3:00pm ‘til Pau
While the Rum Fest technically ends on Saturday, the fun continues on Sunday at Forbidden Island. Join us in Alameda for the CA Rum Fest Wrap Party sponsored by Tanduay rum. Drink specials and pupus at one of the world’s most famous tiki bars.
So there you have it, folks. The Rum Fest is gonna be a doozy, so come on out an join in the fun!
Things always tend to slow down here in the Summer, but after another fantastic vacation in Hawaii, I’m back and reinvigorated! So let’s kick August off with a review of a really exciting rum from Foursquare in Barbados: the 2004 single blended rum. This eleven year-old rum was aged in ex-Bourbon casks and bottled at a whopping 59%.
If you’re in California later this month and would like to meet the distiller of this rum, please join me on August 26th at the second annual California Rum Festival in San Francisco!