It’s hard to find the concepts of “fresh” and “seasonal” in the realm of booze itself. Most liquor is defined more by engineering and aging than by any nuances in the raw ingredients. But alcohol has a fly-in-amber capacity to capture a flavor and preserve it. Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent, or more increasingly popular, than in rums made from fresh sugarcane.
“Good spirits are reminiscent of that from which they’re made,” says Thad Vogler, a partner at Bar Agricole, a SoMa bar and restaurant scheduled to open Aug. 15 that shares its very name with this type of rum.
Vogler says he values rums – and other spirits – that maintain a flavorful link to their raw ingredients. “More and more you’re seeing people paying attention to the provenance of a spirit’s raw material. That’s the last ingredient in the cocktail renaissance.”
Rum generally is rising in popularity, and as more brands of cane-based rum have become available in recent years, its distinctive flavor has set cocktail shakers in motion. Though overshadowed by rums made from molasses, cane rum has sparked enough Bay Area interest that Alameda’s St. George Spirits is making its own cane rums in partnership with local bars. One of these, Agua Libre, was specially made for Bar Agricole and will premiere with the bar’s opening.
These are welcome developments to cane rum’s longtime evangelists.
“This is a community of drinkers that appreciates bold and interesting flavors; it’s a natural next step to be discovering” cane rum, says Martin Cate, owner of Smuggler’s Cove.
Cate says the grassy, herbaceous flavors found in these rums give them a natural appeal for drinkers accustomed to the peppery spark of tequila or the subtle grainy flavor of scotch. “As a result, it’s easier to get people who are already into scotch and tequila to venture into rum,” he says.
More than 90 percent of rum is made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar processing. Cane-based rums, however, are distilled from the fermented juice of fresh-cut sugarcane (or, in some cases, a syrup prepared from this juice). French territories and former colonies including Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti produce some of the most prized cane rums, or rhum agricole. (There’s some debate among rum experts about whether Haitian rum is a true agricole.) But other regions, including Trinidad, Guatemala and, now, California, produce notable cane rums. Brazilian cachaça is likewise made from sugarcane juice or syrup, but different production methods make it a close though distinct relative.
Young cane rums have a crisp vegetal snap, with a peppery aroma similar to blanco tequila and a flavor that can be sharp, dry and grassy. With barrel aging, familiar notes of caramel and vanilla creep in, but aged cane rums maintain a botanical depth and ornate earthiness that keep them lively even after years in the barrel.
The most stringent rules regarding rhum agricole are in Martinique, which as a French territory maintains an Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC) designation similar to those applying to Champagne and Cognac.
Most distillers crush fresh-cut sugarcane immediately after the season’s harvest, then distill the rum at a low potency – often around 70 proof – which maintains more of the sugarcane’s alluring character (molasses rums are typically distilled at more than 90 proof). Some rum is sold after a brief rest, while the remainder is barrel-aged, often in casks made of French oak, which impart more gentle characteristics than the robust flavors from the more typical used bourbon casks.
Though there are excellent molasses-based rums, Vogler notes that cane rums have an aroma and flavor that owe more to the sugarcane itself than to the oak barrel in which it was aged. By maintaining this fragile link to raw ingredients, these rums flirt with the notion of terroir, a sometimes awkward concept in the realm of spirits.
“In a molasses-based rum, you have detritus from the industrial process in the material, whereas with a cane rum you have a true agricultural distillate – it comes from something living,” Vogler says.
And these rums have blossomed on the back bar in recent years. Around five years ago, the U.S. premiere of Martinique rums from Neisson and La Favorite prompted interest among bartenders. Enthusiasm has grown thanks to other agricoles such as Rhum Clement and Rhum J.M. Other intriguing cane rums include Depaz from Martinique, Barbancourt from Haiti, Batiste from St. Barts, and Duquesne, a Martinique rum that’s expected to be available this summer.
Contrast to molasses
And bartenders have been inspired by these rums’ contrapuntal flavor to the molasses-based standards. Bar Agricole will carry several Martinique rums, and the rum-oriented Smugglers Cove has more than 25 cane-based rums (including Eurydice, its own cane rum custom-made by St. George), utilized in drinks such as Three Dots and a Dash. In Los Angeles, Caña Rum Bar has around 20 cane rums, and at Painkiller, a recently opened tiki bar in New York, co-owner Giuseppe Gonzalez says he serves more rum agricole than any other bar in the city.
Gonzalez says cane rums have a leathery, medicinal edge that makes them particularly desirable in a complex-flavored drink.
“All the things that are character flaws in other spirits, in rum agricole it’s an attribute,” he says. “When you’re making a punch and you need something that adds character and another element you just can’t nail down, it’s perfect.”
That might explain the appeal that prompted the creation of the California version, which Bar Agricole will feature. In 2007, St. George Spirits began distilling Agua Libre rum from fresh sugarcane grown in Brawley (Imperial County), aging it for 2 1/2 years in French oak barrels. About half of the initial 760 bottles are allocated to Bar Agricole. The remainder will be sold around the Bay Area.
For distiller Lance Winters, a cane-based rum fits perfectly with St. George’s fresh-ingredient philosophy.
“I love to put a product in front of someone and say it’s a tropical drink made of pure California sunshine,” he says. “If you’ve ever spent a day lying in the grass, you know the smell.”
Makes 1 drink
Thad Vogler at Bar Agricole remastered a Havana classic, swapping an earthy rhum agricole from Martinique for the lighter Cuban-style rum.
- 1 1/2 ounces Neisson Blanc agricole rhum
- 1/2 ounce Dolin Blanc vermouth (see Note)
- 1 teaspoon Small Hands or other grenadine syrup
- 1 teaspoon curacao liqueur
- 2 dashes orange bitters
- — Lemon twist, for garnish
Instructions: Combine all ingredients, except the garnish, in a mixing glass. Fill with ice. Stir well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with the lemon twist.
Note: Dolin Blanc is not the same as dry vermouth. Substitute another blanc or bianco vermouth as needed
Paul Clarke is a contributing editor at Imbibe magazine and publisher of the blog the Cocktail Chronicles. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page KK – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle