Rhum Agricole

In this article, we look at what Rhum Agricole is, what distinguishes it, and what conditions must be met in order to obtain the A.O.C. seal of approval.

This is the third part of our series of posts dealing with rum, rhum agricole and cachaça:

Part 1: Chronology of Rum, Rhum Agricoles and Cachaça
Part 2: Cachaça
Part 3: Rhum Agricole
Part 4: Theatrum Botanicum – Sugar cane.
Part 5: Sugar cane processing in Antigua in 1823
Teil 6: Rum

The historical background of Rhum Agricole has already been highlighted in the first part of this series of posts. What remains to be clarified is what Rhum Agricole is and what distinguishes it.


Compared to rum made from molasses, rhum agricole, which like cachaça is made from sugar cane juice, is the “older” spirit. Originally, alcohol was made from sugar cane juice, only later was molasses also used for this purpose. Nevertheless, “Rhum Agricole” is a relatively young product, as it only became established on the market in the context of increased sugar beet production. Especially for rhum agricole from Martinique, there are legally regulated specifications that describe exactly how it has to be produced in order to be allowed to receive the A.O.C. seal of quality.

First of all, it should be noted that the taste of a rhum agricole is influenced by the terroir on which the sugar cane grew: for example, the predominantly volcanic soils of Martinique, the coral limestone soils of Marie Galante or the island of Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe. [1]

Rhum Agricole is made from fresh sugar cane juice and is therefore a seasonal product, because unlike rum made from molasses, it cannot be distilled all year round, but only at harvest time of the sugar cane. [1] The use of sugar cane juice instead of molasses leads to clear differences in taste. Unaged molasses rum usually tastes neutral with slight sugar notes, whereas when sugar cane juice is used, the fruity notes dominate. [9]

After the sugar cane is harvested, it is crushed three to four times by rollers to squeeze out the juice. The remainder is used to fire steam boilers. The juice obtained contains between 18 and 24% sugar. This sugar content is adjusted to a constant value by adding water. Yeast is then added to start the fermentation. This is completed after 24 to 72 hours. The mash, called vesou, then contains between 4.5 and 9 vol% alcohol and is distilled. [1]Distilling is done according to different methods, for example with column or pot still, and depending on whether the A.O.C. regulations are complied with or not. [1]

For example, Rhum Agricole contains many congeners when the A.O.C. regulations are applied, because the distillate must have between 65 and 70 vol% alcohol. This is the reason for the pronounced depth of aroma of the Rhum Agricole; but of course the duration of fermentation, the concentration of the mash and the construction of the distillation apparatus also have an influence. [1]

To illustrate the latter, the columns of the Simon distillery in Martinique can be mentioned as an example. Three different types of columns are in operation there, called “Creole”, “Savalle” and “Barbet”. The Creole produces spicy distillates rich in aldehyde. The Savalle produces spirits with fresh, more aromatic and floral flavours. In the Barbet, plant aromas are in the foreground.[1]

As already mentioned, other stills are used in addition to columns. Examples include the hybrid rectification columns at St. Nicholas Abbey, a two-week temperature-controlled fermentation followed by pot still distillation at Luca Gargano on Marie Galante (for PMG Rhum), or the still as used in cognac production at Barbancourt on Haiti or St. Aubin on Mauritius. [1]

The A.O.C. requirements

As early as 1975, attempts were made to obtain A.O.C. status (A.O.C. stands for “Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée”), but it was not until 1993 that the exact specifications were defined. On 5 November 1996, a decree defined how a Rhum Agricole from Martinique must have been produced in order to be classified as an A.O.C. product. [2] [3] Not all rhums from Martinique carry the A.O.C. seal, but all rhum agricoles are made from sugar cane juice. [5]

The A.O.C. specifications are as follows:

  • Rhum may only be produced from sugar cane from precisely defined regions. Currently, the sugar cane may only come from the following 23 municipalities in Martinique: The Fort-de-France area with the communes of Le Carbet, Fort-de-France, Le Lamentin, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Pierre; the La Trinité area with the communes of Basse-Pointe, Gros-Morne, Le Lorrain, Macouba, Le Marigot, Le Robert, Sainte-Marie and La Trinité; the area around Le Marin with the municipalities of Le Diamant, Ducos, Le François, Le Marin, Rivière-Pilote, Rivière-Salée, Saint-Esprit, Sainte-Luce, Les Trois-Ilets and Le Vauclin. [4] [5]
  • Only 12 different varieties of sugar cane are allowed. [10]
  • No more than 120 tonnes of sugar cane may be grown per hectare. In non-A.O.C. areas, this may well be up to 150 tonnes. The average quantity in Martinique is around 72 tonnes. This quantity restriction is intended to avoid unsustainable agriculture with massive use of fertilisers. Irrigation is also only allowed to a limited extent, namely for a maximum of 4 months per year. This ensures a high quality standard and prevents Martinique’s environment from being damaged too much. Also prohibited is any use of substances that accelerate the ripening of sugar cane. [4]
  • The harvest time for the sugar cane is predetermined. It is only allowed from 1 January to 31 August. [4] [5]
  • Rhum Agricole may only be produced from sugar cane juice, which is obtained from fresh sugar cane by grinding and pressing. To ensure that the quality of the juice does not suffer and that the typical aromas of a Rhum Agricole are preserved, it must not be heated in the process. The addition of molasses or sugar syrup is not permitted. The sugar content of the juice must be at least 14° Brix (this corresponds to 14 g sucrose in 100 g sucrose/water solution), the pH value must be at least 4.7. These specifications limit possible difficulties during fermentation. [4] [5]
  • The fermentation time may be a maximum of 72 hours and a maximum temperature of 38.5 °C may not be exceeded. [2] [5]
  • After completion of fermentation, before distillation, the alcoholic strength must be at least 3,5 % vol.. [5]
  • Distillation must be carried out continuously with columns. The design of the columns is precisely prescribed. [4] [5] [7] The specification for distillation was chosen to match the existing columns in Martinique; this ensures that future columns will also meet these specifications and that continuity is maintained. [7]
  • The alcohol content of the distillate must be between 65 and 75 vol%. [4] [5] [7]
  • The Rhum Agricole is available in the following varieties:
    • Rhum “blanc” is a colourless rhum that must be stored for exactly 3 months if this is done in oak barrels. [4] This time limit does not apply to stainless steel tanks. [11]
    • Rhum “élevé sous bois” is a barrel-aged rhum and must have been aged in oak barrels within the production area for at least 12 continuous, uninterrupted months. There must be at least 250 grams of alcohols other than ethanol or methanol in 100 litres of pure alcohol. This minimum concentration guarantees that the barrel-aged rhum has the bouquet typical of Rhum Agricole. [4] A rhum aged for at least 12 months can also be called “paille” or “ambré”, but normally an “ambré” from Martinique is aged for 18 or 24 months. [6] [9]
    • Rhum “vieux” must have been matured in oak barrels within the production area for at least 3 consecutive, uninterrupted years. The barrels must not hold more than 650 litres. In 100 litres of pure alcohol, there must be at least 325 grams of alcohols that are not ethanol or methanol. This minimum concentration guarantees that the barrel-aged rhum has the typical bouquet of an extra-long-aged rhum agricole. [4] [5] [6] [9] As with other French spirits, rhum is classified as follows: V.S. = aged at least 3 years; V.S.O.P. = aged at least 4 years; X.O. = aged at least 6 years. Rhum can also be stored even longer. Often one speaks of a “hors d’age” if the storage was at least 10 years. [9]
    • Matured Rhum Agricole gets its colour from the barrel, not from additives. [8]
  • Rhum Agricole may not be sold with less than 40% alcohol by volume. [4] [5]
  1. Helmut Adam, Jens Hasenbein, Bastian Heuser: Cocktailian 2, Rum und Ca­cha­ça. 1. Auflage. ISBN 978-3-941641-41-9. Wiesbaden, Tre Torri Verlag, 2011. Page 18-44.
  2. http://legifrance.gouv.fr/affichTexte.do?cidTexte=JORFTEXT000000196325&dateTexte=&categorieLien=id: Décret du 5 novembre 1996 relatif à l’appellation d’origine contrôlée “Martinique”.
  3. http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/aoc_decree: AOC Rhum Martinique decree.
  4. http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/aoc_described: AOC Rhum Martinique description.
  5. http://www.gentleman-blog.de/2011/04/15/rhum-agricole-cocktail/: Der Rum mit H – Rhum Agricole.
  6. http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/fab_bottling: Rhum aging and bottling.
  7. http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/fab_continue: Continuous distillation.
  8. http://www.rhum-agricole.net/site/en/gen_agri_indus: Rhum agricole, Industrial rum, Traditional rum… Differences?
  9. http://www.eyeforspirits.com/2011/01/27/rhum-agricole-der-rum-der-franzosischen-uberseedepartments/: Rhum agricole – Der Rum der französischen Überseedépartments.
  10. http://imbibemagazine.com/martinique-rums/: Martinique Rums.
  11. http://www.neisson.fr/Nouvelle-traduction-10-L-esprit-de-Neisson.html: “L’esprit” by Neisson.

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Hi, I'm Armin and in my spare time I want to promote bar culture as a blogger, freelance journalist and Bildungstrinker (you want to know what the latter is? Then check out "About us"). My focus is on researching the history of mixed drinks. If I have ever left out a source you know of, and you think it should be considered, I look forward to hearing about it from you to learn something new. English is not my first language, but I hope that the translated texts are easy to understand. If there is any incomprehensibility, please let me know so that I can improve it.

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