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When is an Agricole Not an Agricole?

September 8, 2016

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:

sugar-production-pfdIn  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.

Postscript: I recently got a chance to make and taste two rums from the rawest forms of sugar available: piloncillo and jaggery. These sugars are made from a simple boiling of cane juice–a process where only water is removed and there is no added lime, nor any centrifugation. Because only water is removed and all the nutrients from the cane remain present, the distilled wines from these sugars are indeed rums. 

Piloncillo cones from Mexico

The jaggery was lighter than the piloncillo, indicating a very gentle evaporation process arrested prior to caramelization (see production video here). Indeed when it was rehydrated for fermentation, the resulting liquid was green like cane juice!

Jaggery from India

So how did these two rums taste? Well, they were both lovely and vaguely reminiscent of cane, but neither had any of the qualities of an agricole aside from a slight hint of grassiness. So let’s stop the insanity once-and-for-all. You can’t make an agricole style rum from anything other than fresh cane juice.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 8, 2016 3:34 pm

    Thanks for the article Josh, but of course I must ask: who are the American distillers mentioned, that make “…cane spirits being sold as either “agricole” or “agricole style” rum (that) are made from what they term “evaporated cane juice”?
    Be that as it may, it’s not at all clear what “evaporated cane juice” really is.
    The making of table sugar is really not that simple. First, the juice from the crushed cane is treated with lime and heated. This thin syrup then goes through a series of evaporators (some using vacumns) to arrive at a very thick, supersaturated syrup. At this point “seed crystals” of actual sugar are added to cause the supersaturated syrup to produce sugar crystals, which are then centrifuged out, leaving behind molasses. This “raw sugar” still contains some molasses, which is then refined out to leave pure white “refined sugar”.
    Now let’s compare to what some agricole distillers call sugar cane “semi-syrup”. In this case only a bit of water is removed to only very lightly concentrate the cane juice into what is called a “semi-syrup”. This “semi-syrup” is not at all comparable to the super-saturated, super thick syrup from which sugar is made.
    As stated by Josh the reason for making this thin “semi-syrup” is that it can be stored under modest refrigeration for a few weeks or a month or so, to accomodate distillation schedules. You may surprised to know that Saint James in Martinique – who makes AOC designated agricoles – does not have the capacity to use all their fresh cane juice, so some is slightly concentrated into a cane juice semi-syrup until needed, when it is diluted to its original concentration, fermented and distilled.
    It is important to know that water is added and removed during the entire process of fermentation, distillation, aging and bottling – all without real consequence to the profile. Think about it: if boiling altered cane juice, then that alteration would surely occur in the distillation where the wash is – yes – boiled to obtain alcohol vapor which is then condensed. Don’t forget that what we call fermentation is actually the conversion of sugars into various alcohols, esters and the like which are then evaporated/distilled, condensed and captured.
    It’s really a matter of degree and intent. The methods and extent of concentration is far different in the making of sugar than it is in the distillation of cane juice rums. St. James is not the only Martinique AOC Rhum Agricole producer using semi-syrup.
    The only exception to my thinking would be a distiller who makes a “rum” from a either a raw (brown) sugar or from a refined (white) sugar. These are legally rum, but are different from either cane juice or molasses based rums. They tend to be lighter. It is noteworthy that home distillers seeking a high alcohol moonshine often use refined sugar for its easy availablilty in smaller quantities and low cost, often to make high proof white rums or even vodka.

    • September 9, 2016 12:37 pm

      I presume one of them might be 11 Wells Maelstrom Rum from Minnesota.
      ” It is unfortunate that we don’t have access to fresh cane and fresh cane juice but we are able to get it dehydrated. It is not refined like sugar or even raw sugar but the juice is simply dehydrated. This locks in the flavor of the cane and concentrates it for us. This has allowed us the ability to make what we call a Minnesota Agricole.”

    • Ramon Fernandez permalink
      October 1, 2016 9:10 am

      Boiling fresh sugarcane juice absolutely does change it, for the whole reason it is done is to preserve what would otherwise quickly spoil due to the panoply of microbes naturally present in fresh juice. Destroying these bacteria and fungi prior to fermentation changes the profile of organisms participating in the ferment and therefore changes the profile of volatiles that end up in the final product, whereas distilling the wash is a necessary step in all rum production which obviously cannot impact the completed fermentation. If the fermentation is long enough, incorporating some evaporated cane juice in the wash won’t necessarily have a significant impact on the flavor, but a wash made from nothing but evaporated cane juice is a different story.

  2. September 8, 2016 7:54 pm

    Thank you for clarifying!! We also make Agricole style RHUM at High wire distilling. Every fall we press fresh SC sugarcane, ferment, distill and age in new toasted barrels. We make about 2-225 bottles a year- this year we hope to increase to 6-700 bottles. It’s a lot of work but so fun!
    Cheers! Scott

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      September 8, 2016 8:15 pm

      Great stuff, Scott! Need to get a taste of that. So much cool rum stuff happening down there. Need to get back for a visit (I lived in Charleston for a couple years in the early 90s).

      • Scott permalink
        September 8, 2016 8:20 pm

        Come on down!! yea it’s amazing to see the changes here- you wouldn’t recognize! Happy to send you a sample when we pull the barrels this fall. My email is Scott at shoot me an address and I’ll get some to you. Take care!!

      • Josh Miller permalink*
        September 8, 2016 8:21 pm

        Will do! Cheers

  3. September 8, 2016 11:52 pm

    “If you make a distillate from raw sugar, you have not made rhum agricole, you have made “sugarshine”.”

    I would even go so far to say “…you have not made rum, you have made sugarshine”. At least from an European standpoint (EU law).

  4. September 9, 2016 10:30 am

    “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.”

    I find this statement to be a bit confusing. I do know what we call “brown sugar” in the US is made by mixing molasses into white refined sugar. However, both Turbinado and Demerara are raw (or lightly processed) sugar products, not white sugar which has had molasses added.

    • Josh Miller permalink*
      September 9, 2016 11:22 am

      You’ve got it right, Erik. I assume the confusion is from this statement in which I describe raw/turbinado/Demerara sugar as “white crystalline sugar with a light coating of molasses on it.”

      What I meant by that is that although these sugars appear light brown, the actual sugar crystal within is white, and the color is a coating from the “mother liquor” in which the crystals are formed (which is molasses).


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