jeudi 5 octobre 2017

The Agricole Tour 2017

The Agricole Tour is in full swing across festivals and events around the world. Benoît Bail an Jerry Gitany undertook this journey to spread the message of agricole rhum from the French West Indies and Guyane, Tom Thumb of the rum sphere which is well known in France but would deserve more international renown.

Indeed, whereas this style of rum is an evidence in France, as it can be found in the smallest café or the remotest minimarket and as it has been anchored in our culture for many generations, it is not the case in the rest of the world, even with our closest neighbours.

So i attempted a state of play of agricole, gathering stories from various actors of the rum world, in order to understand the point of this Agricole Tour and measure the ground still to be covered for these fabulous rums to be understood. You will see that certain territories will be very difficult to conquer, while elsewhere you can already count on some great enthusiasts who worship rums made from pure sugar cane juice. 

I will first give the floor to Ian Burrell, great enthusiast, global rum ambassador and organizer of the UK Rum Fest :

"Agricole Rhum is one of the undiscovered treasures of the spirit world. This fresh sugarcane Rum not only captures the heart and essence of the sugarcane, but the spirit of the agricultural Rhum producer. Aged similar to molasses distilled it also has a range of aromatic flavours that would be enjoyed by spirit connoisseurs all over the world... Once they decide to try it."

Hervé Damoiseau - Rhums Damoiseau - Guadeloupe

"Jerry and Benoît undertook this pilgrimage to explain that the best rums in the world are agricoles, which was necessary, and this is extraordinary. It is important to explain our raw material, sugar cane, our methods in making and aging these rhums which reflect a natural spirit with no sweetening or flavouring, and are just as good wether aged or not. It is a long way to go, but it had to be started, for rhum to be served !"

Marco Freyer - Barrel Aged Mind - Germany

"I can only say that there is little information in German which is based on independence and not influenced by salesmen who are trying to sell their brands of rhum. When I do want to know something then I have to look for French sources mostly. But I am more curious then the average rum lover .

Rhum Agricole is certainly interesting and has a lot of gems to offer. I had the chance to taste some in the last gathering in South Bavaria. Most of us were surprised by this private agricole tasting which one of the group did perform for us. It was very interesting and an eye opener.For me personally I wish there would be more rhums with a higher percentage of alcohol and flavour such as the J Bally 1998 brut de fût. But some spirits are very capable of delivering a sizeable Punch and flavour with a low ABV.

Can't speak for all Germans though. Just for me and the impressions I have gathered so far."

Richard Seale - Distillerie Foursquare - Barbados

"We, as Barbadians (and even non French), unfortunately don't get to experience the agricole very often and I throughly enjoyed spending time with Benoit and Jerry and the opportunity to infinitely increase my knowledge and exposure to agricole. The tour is a fantastic idea and Ben and Jerry are superb ambassadors."

Carlos Esquivel - Fine rums of Panama - Panama

"Agricole rum to me represents the classic first school of rum making, thanks to modern technology it can be produced on a more massive scale and with a steady consistency. Although not a huge fan of them, there are some expressions that are worth of great appreciation. As per Panama people perception, unfortunately there is a lot of education needed and Agricole Rhum producers had not done their share of it down here."

Milan Hava - Rum House - Prague

"Agricole rums are popular in Czech Republic, but 98% people prefer sweetened rums - spanish style. We love agricole rums and advertise it in our bar"

Peter Holland - The Floating Rum Shack - England

"Agricole is a very different spirit in terms of flavour profile to that which we are culturally used to. For the average Brit, if they know anything about rum, then they might know it's made from molasses. They may have heard of Cachaça, if only because of the caipirinha cocktail. But they probably don't know it's a cane juice distillate. Agricole Rhum is even more esoteric because there's no serve that might bring the spirit category to bars etc. 

From a personal point of view, my love for Agricole Rhum grows year on year and when I do tastings that that feature this category, as long as I take time to explain the difference in the base by sampling fresh cane juice where possible, or a long life equivalent if it's not, then my conversion rate is very good. Once people understand it, they can appreciate it. That doesn't mean they switch to drinking nothing else, but at least they have an informed opinion. 

Of course some people just don't take to it. The flavour profile is just too vibrant. And that's fine. Everyone is entitled to an opinion and personal preference. 

I'd love to see more Agricole in the UK, but it's going to take a lot of hard work and education to make it happen. The Rhum Agricole Tour is a fantastic place to start the education."

Jill Cockson - Swordfish's Tom - Kansas City

"I formerly developed the brand platform for The Other Room, Nebraska's only James Beard nominated bar program. I am currently replicating the concept in Kansas City, under the name Swordfish Tom's. Rum is an up-and-coming spirit in our region. My experience is that people here tend to associate rum (as a broad category) with excessively sweet, beach-style cocktails. The comeback of classics (made correctly) is helping to set the record straight. I am excited to introduce my guests to the versatility of rum.  I have successfully featured Rhum Agricole cocktails, and the common feedback is that it has a grassy nose, similar to tequila. If I have a guest who tells me they are a tequila fan, this is an opportunity to introduce them to the Rhum family. I also enjoy offering 'flights', where a guest can try a Rhum Agricole alongside other rum expressions, in order to help them appreciate the range of styles. Typically, once people try Rhum Agricole, they enjoy it. It doesn't quite sell itself yet in our market, but we are getting there. I predict that the Rhum Agricole and Cachaca categoies will continue to grow together, as more bar programs begin to focus on hospitality-driven, quality-consumption models.

I cannot speak for the entire U.S., but I can give you insight about why categories like Rhum Agricole are still unfamiliar to many in the Midwest. For the most part, our industry is held to a three-tier system, meaning that on-premise accounts need to go through a third-party distributor. Distributors in smaller markets often do not want to invest in products that are 'not in demand', but this creates a circular argument. How can you say that a product is not in demand, if no one in the market has had the opportunity to try the product? It can be difficult, but rewarding, to convince a liquor house to bring in products outside of the normal offerings. I typically work to develop a great relationship with my distributors, so that they are more likely to bring in the products I want to sell."

Javier Herrera - Congreso Del Ron - Madrid

"I personally enjoy Rhum Agricole very much, it represents about 90% of what i drink today. In Spain, rum culture is yet to be developed. It focuses mostly on Latin American rums and "festive" cocktails with cola etc. Sipping rums enter the scene little by little, pushed by bartenders and aficionados from major cities. This trend shows at Congreso Del Ron : for its first edition in 2012, 85% of featured rums were light rums destined to cocktails, whereas for the last edition to date, this figure reversed with 85% of sipping rums.

Regarding agricole, there is a lot of work to be done. Clément has been here for a while but is starting to decrease. On the other hand, Trois Rivières is getting more widespread, especially with their Cuvée de l'Océan which bartenders appreciate a lot.

You can see that when you take time to explain rhum agricole, people are really more enclined to appreciate it. The Agricole Tour is herein a very good thing. Now Benoît and Jerry just need to learn Spanish !

 This year the Agricole Tour held a special place at Congreso and we awarded Marc Sassier, from Rhums Saint James, Maestro Ronero of the year. I think that agricole rum is going to be a revolution within the two years to come and will be very important in the rum world. Today, rum from Martinique entered a phase of great modernity and Guadeloupe is building a lot more aged rum stocks than past year.

I also think that in the future people will make agricole rhum pretty much everywhere outside French Islands. Although this denomination is restricted and regulated in Europe, it is not the case elsewhere. One cannot necessarily replicate the work of these institutions from Martinique, Guadeloupe or Guyane, but pure sugar cane juice rums will be more and more produced throughout the world "

Kate Perry - Rumba - Seattle

"My perspective on rhum agricole is a little unique in the US. At Rumba, we have what might be the largest collection of rhum agricole (in a bar, outside private collections) in the world. We love rhum agricole and spend a lot of time and energy turning our guests onto it and educating anyone who will listen.

This is not the case with most of the US. I think that even before you can bring rhum agricole into the discussion, it must first be addressed that there is little RUM education or appreciation for most US consumers. While rum as a category seems to be growing and getting attention, there is still a widespread idea that rum = sugary, spiced, or bottom shelf spirit. I would venture that most of the US still associates "rum" with brands like Malibu, Captain Morgan, and Bacardi. I talk to guests every day who have no idea that the world of rum is so expansive-- or that you can drink it neat. In order to address the concept that the US has about rhum agricole, we first need to consider the lack of education on all rum.

That being said, I think rhum has a big potential in US cities that have cocktail and spirit drinking cultures. Right now Mezcal is very popular among bartenders and spirit nerds. If I have a guest at the bar who answers "mezcal" or "scotch" when I ask them what they usually drink when they aren't in a rum bar, I know right away that this person might enjoy rhum agricole. They obviously enjoy big, robust flavors-- and if they enjoy drinking Mezcal, they already have the concept of drinking unaged spirits neat.

In the US we don't have the culture of drinking our spirits neat. White Dog, or unaged whiskey, tries but isn't enjoyable to the majority population. A lot of people might also think that "older is better," so drinking something without age would not be an option.

For our more adventurous or nerdy guests, I think that rhum agricole is viewed as a "step up" from molasses based rum. It's something mysterious and exclusive and outside of what most people consider to be "normal" rum. It is amazing to me to watch a guest who has no previous experience with this style of rhum experience it for the first time. It is so different than what they might have perceived rum to be. It really opens another world for people.

I sell rhum vieux to mostly Scotch drinkers or aged agave drinkers. I love it pouring a well aged agricole to the stereotypical middle aged businessmen that sit down at the bar and ask for a nice single malt. The look of surprise and excitement is fantastic-- when they discover something in the rum world that is spicy and earthy and dry, but full of flavor and complexity. It isn't peaty or smoky like Scotch, but it has nuances that scratch a similar itch that a Scotch drinker will enjoy.

It is the RARE guest that walks into Rumba for the first time and orders a rhum agricole, unaged or aged. It's usually a bartender or rum nerd who heard we have a lot of the stuff. For us, it is mostly a hand sell-- something that we recommend to people who seem to like the aggressively bold flavors and might dig a rhum. It's a natural progression-- typically guests at first enjoy something like Diplomatico or El Dorado, something rich and lush. Then they explore a little more and maybe dig Panama or Haitian style. They dig a little more and discover Jamaica. They fall in love with funk and want their rum to be funkier and funkier until they're drinking Hampden straight and they want something else something new something big and ahhh: welcome to rhum agricole.

So no. People don't know brands or islands. We explore this with our guests. Together we explore the differences between Martinique and Guadeloupe styles. We toss in a little Reunion or even a Laos or Thai. We turn them on to Ti' Punch and they bring their friends in to try it. We love rhum and love sharing it.

My perspective is a little strange in the US because it is my/our passion! This is definitely not the normal."

Mario Navarro - Rum Ambassador - Valencia (Spain)

"Unfortunately, many people don't know about agricole rhum. They don't even know these excellent rums exist. In Colombia, people drink mostly Colombian rums, eventually rums from Guatemala or other successful brands from Latin America. They don't know rums from Martinique or Guadeloupe at all. Same thing happens in Venezuela or Central America. These are rum producing countries and people rather drink local products in general. There is an educational work to do and i am sure that people in Latin America are enclined to appreciate agricole rhum, but today we start from scratch. 

Discussing with Jerry at Congreso de Madrid, he would tell me that even on islands like Jamaica for example, which are closer to Martinique and Guadeloupe, people only know about Jamaican rum, or maybe Bacardi and Captain Morgan. They don't know about other quality rums at all apart from the ones from their island. This is a reality, so you can easily imagine how it is in remoter countries. 

You also have to say that agricole rums benefit from a favorable tax system when exported to France or Europe. When they have to export to other markets like the one of Latin America, they are out of the market, prices are too high, they are not competitive. Agricole rums are very successful in Europe, and in Japan too because the Japanese are willing to spend on a product that has an interesting story.

In Latin America, reality is totally different, wealthy people are a very restricted part of the population. Agricole rhum is a real luxury product there, it is hard to sell compared to local products. Furthermore, their aromatic profile is very different from the one of Latin American rums or even other islands of the Caribbean. For all these reasons, agricole rhum producers didn't really focus on Latin America."

Ed Rudisell - Shift Drink Podcast / Black Market Restaurant - Indianapolis

"At our Indianapolis restaurant, Black Market, we sell quite a lot of Rhum Agricole. It is an obsession with the staff. Several members of the bar staff, and myself have been to Martinique and Guadeloupe for distillery tours. We find that most people simply aren't aware of the differences in rum styles. Since Agricole is our favorite style of rhum production, we spend time explaining to people just how special it is. Once people understand the how the terroir comes through from the sugarcane juice, they become very curious.

We encourage our guests to try a Ti' Punch first to get acquainted with the earthy and grassy notes (depending on the rhum). The ritual of building one's own drink is something that creates excitement not only for our guest at the bar, but also for the people sitting nearby. I can only recall one person over the last 5 years that wasn't very enamored with a Rhum Agricole Blanc - but loved the aged expressions. For us, the primary concern is understanding what each rhum brings to the table so that we can identify the right rhum for the right person. I find that taking a few minutes to explain that only about 4% of the worlds' rhum is made using these methods helps to demonstrate just how unique AOC Martinique is. 

There are no rhums in the world that exhibit such a pronounced expression of terroir. We preach the gospel of Rhum Agricole everyday, and will continue to do so. If people understand and purchase these beautiful rhums, then perhaps more importers and producers will open their eyes and bring more of theirs rhums to the US market."

Robert Burr - Rob's Rum Guide / Miami Rum Festival - Miami

"The legacy of rhum production in Martinique is unique in the world of spirits. To truly understand rhums agricoles, one must experience them on island, in the context of the setting in which they evolved.

The same can be said of wines, no doubt. They reflect their regions with fidelity when enjoyed locally.

To sip a ti'punch as the sun goes down over the lagoon, to share the moment with friends, to breathe in the charm of the French Eastern Caribbean while indulging their traditions, is to begin understanding rum agricole. A visit to the distilleries, a lesson in the techniques and methods, an appreciation of the skill of these master of rhum offers a basis of comprehension as to why these spirits are prized. You may then begin to understand why, in the vast world of rum, Martinique will forever be considered a Mecca, a place of pilgrimage to the rum enthusiast.

Sadly, few American have, or will, visit Martinique, so the true appreciation of these spirits will remain an elusive insight. Secondly, the subsidy for these spirits in Europe is a barrier to their importation for a fair price in the United States, so the perception of rhums agricoles as expensive and exotic remains a barrier to greater popularity in our market. A major investment in marketing the rhums in the USA might not offer a satisfactory return on investment without somehow bridging this gap of understanding."

Emmanuelle Parent - La Favorite - Martinique

"Rhum from Martinique is more and more known and renowned in France and internationally. It represents the top of the line of rum, a niche product, less than 2% of global production of this spirit. Producers revised their offer and refined their work in order to propose products that tend always more towards excellence.

La Favorite is a small craft production (barely 3% of Martinique), a family business, whose production costs can't rival with those of our more important colleagues. So we have to opt for a top of the line positioning and stand out by our production and our offer. Cutting canes by hand, grinding it with our historical steam machine, bottling and sealing our bottles entirely by hand. We propose a real difference on this level and our strength is there. 

Agricole rhum has won its spurs, and enthusiasts around the world are in quest of this "excellence à la Française". One does not consume rum or spirits like before. We look for history, for the work of men and women, for an authentic product, a culture. Palates are being educated to tasting, to respecting the product and its terroir.

Even here in Martinique, the way of consuming has changed ; sales have dropped in volume, but increase every year in value. Export is very interstinf for us, it is our future. Every year since 5 years, we conquer new markets (Spain and Belgium this year, and soon Russia). France, our country, still is our first market. In that way, we need to become known in the countries we are aiming at, we need a presence at shows (especially those dedicated to rum which spring every year) in order to promote our work, our craft and our common passion.

Unfortunately, our selling power being only based in Martinique, it is essential for us to find ambassadors, partners who will know how to valorize the authenticity of our brand and tell it to a wider audience. That is why the Agricole Tour project, lead by Benoît Bail and Jerry Gitany, seduced us right away.

First of all, they are persons of trust we have been exchanging with for several years now. Together, we launched the Cuvée spéciale 1995, which was selected by La Confrérie du Rhum in 2015. This beautiful baby bonded us, and the common passion that nurtures each other made up our mind to get into this adventure which started in 2016 and is still going on in 2017, with a way more extensive program than last year. The Rum Embassy is an excellent opportunity for us. They will know how to convey our know-how with emotion.

There is a long way to go, but agricole rhum really soared these last 8 years, and i am sure it is just a begining."

Christelle Harris - Hampden Estate - Jamaica

"I love Agricole. It's wonderfully fragrant, and although different to what we're accustomed to in Jamaica, has some similarities, in particular to Hampden rums. When nosing Hampden's Rum Fire for example, people often exclaim 'this reminds me of an agricole'....
I always enjoy that. People in Jamaica do not understand rum's diversity. Generally, they don't know that agricole exists. I'm only lucky to know of it because of my intimate involvement in the international rum playground."

Nicholas Feris - Rum Collective / International Rum Council - Seattle

"I became intimately aware of Agricole Rhum (and AOC) when I was part of tour with the Martinique Tourism Board back in 2012. I visited each of the distilleries and was introduced to the French Caribbean culture. Today, I am the R(h)um portfolio ambassador for American Northwest which includes Rhums Clément, J.M and Damoiseau.

More and more industry and consumers are taking notice. It's mostly on-premise, but interest in Agricole rhum is growing, albeit slowly. Many large chains carry a couple Agricole Rhums, but the smaller more niche specialized liquor stores carry the majority of Agricole Rhum brands. Apart from Clément, JM and Damoiseau, there isn't as much wind in the sails behind other brands like Rhum St James, La Favorite, or Neisson in the USA. I don't think it has anything to do with the size of the brand. It has more to do with the team on the ground that is behind the brand. Representation has to do with the people who give their brand meaning in the USA. It has to do with the size and quality of the team, assuming it's a good product and people can get behind it.

I can tell you it takes a lot of effort to educate and sell rum. Selling Agricole rhum and getting people to understand value at how much it costs per bottle in the US is even more challenging. The general public will not know the term "agricole" in regards to rhum or otherwise. Most People understand rum as cheap. Because brands in Porto Rico and US Virgin Islands are heavily subsidized, produce multi column still rum for pennies and market it as only good enough to mix with anything to prevent you from tasting what it tastes like.

Honestly, quality rum out of Jamaica, Martinique, Barbados and Guadeloupe is where the future of rum is going. My two cents on Caribbean made Rums. But marketing and team work plays a big part. Agricole Rhum has a untapped market, but it requires more time and hand selling. The US is the largest consumer population on the planet...waiting to be educated, unfortunately."

Matt Pietreck - Cocktail Wonk - Seattle

"Rum's diversity is a great strength, but also its biggest challenge. It's all to easy for consumers to judge rum's worthiness by the least common denominator - mass produced, relatively flavorless rums devoid of character. 

Whiskey makers around the world don't strive to make the same spirit. Rather, they promote and protect the regional expressions like Bourbon, Scotch whiskey, and Irish whiskey. Within the cane spirits world, rhum agricole producers from the French territories have taken the lead in defining what makes their rhum special, and educating consumers. The Rhum Agriocole tour reinforces their leading edge position."

Forrest Cokely - The Rum Lab - California

"The idea and image that Rhum Agricole always places in my mind is fields and flowers its coastlines being crashed upon by waves; it is people in sandals, working hard and relaxing well; it is depth, honesty, beauty and complexity. Being a member of the rum Illuminati has afforded me many opportunities to enjoy Rhum Agricole, and I do thoroughly enjoy Rhum Agricole.

One of the most exciting things I've noticed is the upward trend in the appreciation and exposure of Rhum Agricole in the United States over the last decade+. I remember when it was first coming to the awareness of the general behind public and I also remember how difficult it was to explain the differences and nuances that exist between sugar cane rum and molasses based rum. I think the general public is perfectly poised to embrace Rhum Agricole, it is happening and it only needs a greater exposure a deeper understanding and the perfect opportunity.

As an enthusiastic lover of rum/rhum I have shared Rhum Agricole with many, many people, but unfortunately that is only scratching the surface. We have an opportunity to better explain/understand Rhum Agricole in America but most of all we have an opportunity to shine the light on something beautiful because that is what makes life worthwhile. Victoire à rhum agricole!"

Antoine Nixon - Spiribam - Californie

"The response of the American consumer towards rhum agricole is typically a positive one. Luxury and redefined rhum/rum brands are breaking away from a certain stigma people have endured with past experiences involving rum.. You know, that nasty college hangover from some terribly cheap brand, or some poor rum drink constructed at a wacky college bar or nightclub.. basically the experiences that usually ruined their next day! More to the point of agricole, it is a shock to most that it actually tastes good and that they organically enjoy the spirit or simply the fact that it is very similar to something they already enjoy. Our rhums blanc are often compared to tequila, mescal, and even gin; while our aged rhums are being compared to cognac, Armagnac, whiskey, and scotch. These are typical responses I get from people who are usually drinking the rhum neat or on the rocks for the first time.

So, I would say the key is building trust with our consumers over the ideas that (A) the rhums taste delicious and familiar, and (B) that it isn’t the same rum you are drinking as when you were an adolescent. This is a well-constructed and time consuming process that is refined to the point of perfection. Getting people to truly understand that what you see on the label in terms of age statement actually has meaning to it and that it is not just a marketing ploy to sway someone into a purchase. The American market needs an agricole tour to educate people, and help the consumer understand where these rhums / rums are coming from, what it means to the people on the home islands, how deep and rich the history of rum is in America, and how much history the America’s share with rum.

On the other side of that coin, rhum/rum producers need to become a bit more transparent and let consumers in. Less fluffy marketing terms and advertisements, and instead educating the people on what these different styles of rum mean, what it means to come from Jamaica, Venezuela, Panama, or Barbados, what the consumer should be looking for when they taste a Spanish or English rum, etc.

Rhum Agricole itself has to carve its own niche within the market which is similar to what we have seen mezcal do in the agave market. I genuinely foresee rhum agricole following that path and possibly filling a void as mezcal grows more popular and the supply for natural resources become more difficult to source. The similarities in taste and heritage among the two spirits is undeniable."

Lance Surujbally - The Lone Caner

"Sooner or later, every rum lover comes to agricoles the way every film fan eventually arrives at Ozu. Although better known and always appreciated by the French due to their originating on the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, these quietly amazing rums have only started to become more widely available, and more praised, in the last ten years or so.

Partly this situation arose because of the domination of molasses based rums over the centuries. Those rums were and are made more easily and more cheaply, have a quality of their own, and have commanded the attention of the rumiverse up until now. Agricoles are made different, taste different and are priced different...but are also among the best rums currently being made, and can take their place at the forefront of any top-end lineup, not just because of their intriguing and tasty flavours, but because they have escaped the opprobrium of misleading labels, convenient number statements and adulteration which is the stain on far too many traditional rums. They have always been pure, unmessed-with, traditionally-made rums and are appreciated for precisely that reason.

Others have written in greater depth about these unique rums - the Cocktail Wonk’s deep dive is a case in point - so I won’t go into the details here beyond some basic facts. Agricole rums - or rhums, as they are termed - are made from freshly pressed cane juice which goes to the still within 48 hours of harvesting the cane. They are made in column stills and have a light, herbal, almost grassy flavour that often comes as a shock to those more used to, and comfortable with, the relatively darker, fruitier profiles of the Jamaicans, Bajans, Guyanese and other English-speaking islands; and they are clearer and crisper than the light and floral Spanish rons like those from Cuba or Latin America. Rhums.

Agricoles are commonly associated with the French islands in the Caribbean, but what the name describes is more a method of production than a geographical point of origin, and by that standard, no discussion of the type can be complete without noting the Brazilian cachacas, which are a subset of the genre, distinguished by their being aged in local woods like Balsamo, Jequitiba or Umburana, which give them a distinct (and occasionally off-putting) taste profile that many non-Brazilians have difficulty coming to grips with. One should also note that makers from around the world are increasingly making rums from freshly pressed cane juice - Laodi from Vietnam is a case in point, and there is also Ron Aldea from the Canary islands, among others.

Like traditional rums made from molasses, agricoles are aged, in various kinds of barrels - white oak, ex-bourbon, Limousin oak, cognac casks, the Brazilians as noted and so on - but unlike most of the molasses brigade, they have a very high quality even when made as “white”. Such colourless rhums are, however, not usually filtered - as is the case with various bland mixing agents like the Bacardi Superior or the Prichard’s Crystal - and mostly unaged and issued directly off the still. Haiti is the poster boy for such rhums, which are called clairins there and they are pungent, fierce and joyously off the reservation. Lovers of softer fare shy away from such rhums, but connoisseurs have been snapping them up in increasing volumes for years now, ever since Velier came out with the three clairins from Sajous, Vaval and Casimir back in 2014.

My own experience with agricoles began in 2010 when one of the first rums I bought was the Clement Tres Vieux from Martinique, just about the top of their line; I wasn’t entirely sold on it, yet it had an aroma and taste that was surprisingly evocative, even if I did not feel it dethroned the other rums I liked more to that point in my education. Over time I managed to try two Barbancourts from Haiti, a couple of Karukeras from Guadeloupe, and a Rum Nation and Renegade independent production. My opinion began to change. I appreciated their flavours more, enjoyed the lightness and complexity of the assembly, saw that they pointed to a different style of rhum to what I had been used to, one that was off the main road, yes, but with treasures heretofore unimagined.

I became a true agricolista in 2012, when an amazing 37 year old rhum from Guadeloupe was presented to me for a sampling in Berlin’s famed Rum Depot. The Courcelles 1972 was a rhum simply off the scale, and it led to other discoveries in the years that followed - the clairins from Haiti, the Liberation series from Capovilla (the 2012 Integrale might be among the very best five year old rums ever made, by anyone, anywhere). Getting more impressed - or should that be obsessed? -- with each new rhum I tried, I began actively seeking rhums from those distilleries from Martinique and Guadeloupe which have become more widely known and appreciated in the last years - J.M., HSE, Trois Rivieres, St. James, Depaz, Dillon, Bellevue, Damoiseau, J. Bally, Longueteau, Neisson are a few, and I’m just getting started.

In short, from a sort of passing interest, agricoles have now taken their place -- and not just in my estimation -- among the best rums in the world. There is variety and failure here, sure, just as they are in traditional (or industrial) rums, and perhaps it is not surprising that my journey mirrored that of the fans worldwide as well. Nothing shows this more clearly than the popularity of the agricoles in the various European and other rum festivals, where they are commanding increasing attention and appreciation by the public. It is no accident that the agricole world tour organized by Jerry Gitany and Benoit Baile - a sort of combination of masterclasses and grand exposition of many agricoles which toured the festival circuit in 2016 and 2017 - drew large crowds and many positive comments from the online community.

Agricoles are not a fashionable current trend, nor are they only now emerging from the shadows of obscurity: they have always been there, quietly and exactingly made. What has changed is that over the last decade the explosion of social media and committed bloggers have brought them to a new, wider audience. For the foreseeable future traditional molasses-based rums will continue to command the heights (and the wallets of the global purchasing public) - based on price and availability and all-round quality that’s unavoidable. But just as any list of the classics of the film world would never be complete without Besson, Ozu, or Bergman (to name just three), no serious connoisseur or simple lover of rum would ever consider their journey to be complete without, at some point, sampling, appreciating and understanding the variety which agricoles add to the sum total of the universe of rum."

Sascha Junkert - Rum lover / Cocktails Old Fashioned - Germany

"Rum in Germany equaled for a long time Bacardi, Havana Club and maybe even "Der gute Pott" for baking (Echter Übersee-Rum). Over the last few years a small but very active community emerged. I think the journey of most rum drinkers can be summarized with my own. Around ten years ago I started to mix cocktails for friends, studied old recipes and their origins and slowly build up a good stocked bar at home. Then came the interest for Barcelo Imperial, Zacapa 23, Appleton V/X and El Dorado 12, which led to more pure Jamaica and Demerara bottles with higher or Cask strength.

To be honest, at first I didn’t even know that Agricole existed. Later I knew the difference of molasses and fresh cane juice, but didn’t care for it and can confirm that it is an acquired taste. That changed in a small bar in Stuttgart (just called "BAR"), where the bartenders were big fans of Agricole and convinced me to try J. M and Clement rhum. Eventually, when I arrived at vintages like J. M 1997 and Clement 2000 brut de fut I was sold and both rhums remain among my all time favorites.

Today, Rhum Agricole remains a niche product in Germany and the number of “normal people” who know Agricole and the difference in production is still very low. For many rum drinkers I know, Agricole is so different to the rums they know, that they quickly lose interest and get back to their favorites. Those who like sweetened rum, tend to be surprised by the grassy and very dry taste. The more advanced drinkers, who like cask strength jamaica and demerara bottles on the other hand are bored with the lack of punch of most VSOP and XO bottles, which appeal more to cognac fans.

There are indeed lots of brut de fut bottlings directly from the distilleries or IBs like Chantal Comte. However, you cannot directly compare both worlds due to differences in distillation, which results in lower strength distillates than most rhum traditionnel. Furthermore due to the full tropical aging alcohol tends to evaporate faster than water, which also results in lower strength rhums. Many houses also use the cognac method of diluting rhums directly in the cask, very slowly over many years of aging. All this can cause even brut de fut bottlings of agricole to have less alcoholic punch, but the flavour shines through nonetheless. Bottles with 45% or 50% can therefor taste much more intense than initially expected.

To my experience, if you pick the right bottles, even the die hard Velier Demerara fans can be convinced that Agricole Vieux has lots of appealing features and new depths of flavours to be discovered. Just recently I selected a few Bally, Neisson, J.M, Karukera, Reimonenq and Chantal Comte which did the trick and convinced most of the tasting group to give sugarcane juice another try.

Fortunately due to lots of bottle sharings in the german rum club (Facebook group and message board) more people get in touch with Agricole. It might not become their number one region of rum, but at least Agricole is on the map of more and more people. This is also evident in the fast growth of German import companies and an increasing number of exhibitors at cocktail, spirit and rum festivals. Most prominently the agricole tour of course, which gathered huge crowds at the Berlin festival last year!

Agricole Blanc on the other hand has a bigger fanbase due to their fruity and intense sugarcane flavor, which is great for cocktails. Even exotic products like the Clairin get their fair share of attention.

One interesting side of the underdog status of Agricole: German online shops were a dream come true for Agricole drinkers until recently. Compared to France, we had long forgotten or already drunken bottles still readily available and most of the time with a reasonable price tag. Sadly, these times are almost gone. In exchange we get more and more exciting releases like the Bally 98 brut de fut, Neisson vintages, confrerie du rhum selections, Chantal Comte selections, rhumhouse Reimonenq vintages, HSE experiments, and, and, and… The world of agricole was never more exciting than now! Except maybe when all these tasty old vintages of Bally, J.M, Saint James and others were readily available… You always miss, what you do not have! 🙂"
I very much encourage you to read Cocktail Wonk's article on Rhum Agricole and AOC Martinique, an excellent work which illustrates Matt's (and his rum nerds compatriots') passion about agricole. This article more importantly explains in a very accessible way what agricole rhum is, also with an overview of active distilleries of Martinique and Guadeloupe.  

I would like to address a HUGE thank you to all the contributors of this article which kept stretching out thanks to the verve of the enthusiasts i was lucky to exchange with. 

I'm hoping to come across the Agricole Tour in the course of a show or on a bar counter, i wish "bonne route" to Benoît and Jerry and i would also like to mention rhums from Guyane (especially Toucan rhums which are featured this year), a region not yet mentioned so much but from which i would urge you to discover the rhums.

Agricole lived a superb reawakening these last few years, and only bright days are ahead. I was particularly surprised and smitten to see the passion it sparks in the US where a few enthusiasts embraced its spirit and the culture that goes with it.

Let's hope that the change in scope that just started will let it keep intact its identity, its exigency, its traditions and all the things for which it is about to be recognized.

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