Exploring the Agricole Rhum Category with Two Specialists from Spiribam

Using a portfolio of fine rums to understand the future of a dynamic, often misunderstood category

Nobody’s surprised to hear of a bad rum experience. A spirit that tastes sweet and generally mixes well, rum (in all its various styles) finds its way into innumerable cocktails. Unregulated in the US (unlike, say, a bourbon or rye), and often lacking transparency, it’s a challenging category to navigate. In fact, many “premium” rums have about 40+ grams of sugar per bottle, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t quality to be found. Brands are working on the development of sipping rums with rigorous production methods and meticulous aging. And Spiribam—a distributor of rum from Martinique and Saint Lucia—not only practices both, but also honors a category called Rhum Agricole, where rum is derived from pure sugarcane juice.

To learn about the category—and discuss developments in rum altogether, we spoke with Spiribam’s managing director Ben Jones and national brand manager Kiowa Bryan. Both provided substantial insight on how to enjoy rum and stay away from the pitfalls of its past reputation.

Rum can be made anywhere in the world—and the regulations around it are not the same as other liquors. What, then, defines a fine rum?

Kiowa Bryan: Rum takes a little more research because it hasn’t been established like scotch and tequila but islands that have geographical designations are always a safe bet. Same as AOCs for French wine and spirits or DOCs for Italian wine. Martinique rum has an AOC for Rhum Agricole so you can be sure that these rums are produced with strict guidelines—Saint Lucia only has the one distillery so that’s a bit of a special circumstance—we get to make the rules for our rum but I assure you they adhere to the utmost production standards. Other islands who have established such rules are Jamaica and Barbados. The US doesn’t take these rules into consideration, yet, so the consumer has a tougher job. A saying that gets tossed around a lot because of the non-transparency by many brands in the category is “Drink what you like, know what you drink.”

Ben Jones: A fine rum is distilled from a derivative sugarcane to capture a unique natural flavor intended by the distiller. If it’s not released as an un-aged rum, it is set to mellow and age in a proper size oak barrel for an appropriate amount of time determined by the maker. It can be blended with other rums or released on its own.

What would you say to anyone who has had a bad spiced rum experience?

KB: That wasn’t spiced rum. That was likely a neutral grain spirit with corn syrup and artificial flavors. I can sympathize, I consumed a lot of it in my younger days.

Can you talk to me about the Rhum Agricole category? What sets it apart?

BJ: Rhum Agricole is from pure sugarcane juice, which is a small sliver of the pie in comparison to the whole universe of rum. It is distinctive in flavor profile starting with sugarcane juice rather than molasses, which leads to foundational decisions of fermentation style and distillation methods. One of the large responsibilities of the producer is to capture the natural character and organic profile of the terroir and the sugarcane. The freshness of the sugarcane is undebatable, which automatically calls into question the significance of the island, the climate, the environment, the terroir of the spirit.

KB: This really makes for a completely different flavor profile that is fresh and grassy and delightful.

Can you share with me a bit about the difference between rums distilled in Martinique and those from Saint Lucia? Why should a consumer try both?

BJ: I draw the analogy to having single malt scotch and bourbon. Both are whiskey and both are regarded as stunningly individualist spirits. Each offers different sipping experiences, each has their place and shine in particular cocktails, and both can be mixed together to make a wonderful cocktail. And we have not started to single out the unaged Agricole from the aged as well as the varieties of rums from Saint Lucia, whether pot distilled, column distilled or blended. And then there are spiced rums. And so on.

KB: Martinique rum is made in a small single-column still, and is truly a stupendous example of capturing the essence of its origin and the terroir of Martinique. While there is a great deal of expertise and skill that go into producing these products, the sugarcane is really the star especially in the blanc rhum. In Saint Lucia, we are distilling from molasses so the focus is really on the extreme skill that goes into blending all of these different distillates that were carefully produced on a variety of stills, and aged to perfection in a variety of barrels. The products really couldn’t be more different and if you’re looking into putting together a small and respectable rum collection, a rum from each of these islands is a really good place to start and provides a vastly different experience.

The depth of your portfolio runs from entry level to rums that cost over $100—and one at $200. What goes into a rum like this? Are these bottles collectors should go after, or people looking to sip now?

BJ: I think they should be sipped now. I still think rum delivers the greatest value no matter the price. A $100 bottle of rum could take out a $500 bottle of scotch or cognac in a blind tasting. But some of these rums can also be perceived as very rare, particularly vintage bottlings and rare casks. For the savvy collector, they might see some of the bottles appreciate 1000% in 10-15 years.

KB: Many of our expensive products are so pricey because of the evaporation rate in the Caribbean. With 8-9% evaporation a year, we’re losing a lot of rum after 10 or 15 years. This makes for amazing flavors but it’s called liquid gold for a reason. Average evaporation rates in Scotland for instance are about 2% and many scotches of comparable ages are equally priced or more expensive.

Do you have a favorite spirit in the portfolio?

BJ: A favorite is not fair, but I love unaged Agricole and I really enjoy VSOP up to 10 years aged Agricole. That doesn’t narrow it down, but these are for different occasions. And then at the same time I love the artistic blends from Saint Lucia such as the 1931 and some of the Chairman’s blends of pot distilled rum. No—I guess I don’t have a favorite.

KB: I’m really partial to our unaged, grassy, funky, hi-proof Rhum Blancs from Martinique. Particularly Rhum Clement Canne Bleue which is from a single varietal: blue cane. Second on my list might be the Chairman’s 1931. I love the bold flavors achieved from the pot still and the grassy undertones from the whisper of sugarcane distillate that’s included in the blend.

What cocktails actually express the value of rum?

BJ: The Ti’ Punch without a doubt shows the value of our unaged rums. An Old Fashioned shows off the aged rums, whether we are talking about Admiral Rodney or Chairman’s, or any of the Martinique aged rhums.

KB: We have rums for all price ranges so it depends what you are into. My personal favorite—besides the traditional Martinique Ti’Punch—is a Martini (or a Martini(que) if you will…) with Rhum Agricole Blanc. Personally I make mine with a 50/50 split of rhum to dry vermouth and a lemon twist. It pairs nicely with oysters, seafood, charcuterie, fish, etc. Martinis aren’t just for gin and vodka it turns out—in fact, this platform to enjoy the raw yet delicate, grassy notes of Agricole blanc is the perfect vessel. After dinner an Old Fashioned with any of our aged expressions is always a crowd pleaser—and there is something in every price point. From Chairman’s Reserve Original to Clement 10 year.

We believe rum is still considered an emerging category and think one of the reasons behind that may be because people have memories of a few specific low-quality brands and hangover cocktails made from them. Do you find yourself educating people on what fine rum is and what it can be used for?

BJ: Every day we are delivering new messages to tradespeople and consumers alike. Especially when there is actually tasting involved. I have great satisfaction each time I hear: “I can’t believe this is rum!” But even if we are not tasting, the misconceptions about rum and how poorly the category has been misrepresented or misunderstood is simply a large tangled ball of yarn that I get satisfaction from every time a knot is loosened and we bring more clarity to the category.

KB: I find that people are often scared of things that they aren’t familiar with so to navigate that, I like to have a conversation about what they are familiar with and prefer—then point them in a direction that might suit them—i.e. tequila drinkers usually enjoy our blanc Rhum Agricole whereas Scotch drinkers gravitate toward a 10 yr + aged Rhum Agricole or Saint Lucia pot distilled rum. Unfortunately the vast majority of mainstream rums—and many that we got hangovers from drinking many moons ago—have a ton of added sugar so that’s also a good thing to point out in explaining the difference.

Images courtesy of Spiribam