American Rum Report #2 — March 11, 2019
What’s it actually like to bring an American rhum agricole to market?
That was the question on my mind after seeing yet another article about the rise of rhum agricole pop up this month, this time from The Manual: “Getting to Know Rhum Agricole, Rum’s Grassy Sibling.”
The article doesn’t offer much you probably don’t already know, but its final section does highlight something I feel like I'm seeing more and more—American craft distillers trying their hand at distilling a fresh cane juice rum.
Of course, just a couple of days after reading that article, I saw the following picture pop up in an Instagram story from Roulaison Distilling Company, the Louisiana distillery known for its funky pot still rums:
A quick search of the TTB COLA registry confirmed that yup—we've got another American agricole coming soon!
I couldn’t help but wonder, what’s drawing an increasing number of distillers to a style of rum that seems...
harder to produce than non cane juice-based rums, and
relatively unfamiliar to the vast majority of American consumers?
I wanted to get the perspective of someone who’s right in the middle of bringing an American agricole rum to market, so I reached out to Roulaison distiller and co-founder Andrew Lohfeld.
You’ll find the newsletter’s usual quick links to relevant American rum stories further down, but first I wanted to share the most interesting parts of my conversation with Roulaison and the process of creating a new American rhum agricole.
So, the first thing I learned? If you want to produce a rum with fresh cane juice, you betterreallywant to do it. Because it’s even harder than I initially thought it would be.
Most rum nerds already know the conventional wisdom that cane juice needs to start fermenting within a few hours of being crushed, otherwise bad flavors will start to develop. So time and proximity are the obvious difficulties associated with agricole.
But what I didn’t know was how challenging it can be to find someone who’s willing to supply you with the right quantity of fresh cane juice. Especially if you’re a small operation like Roulaison, which does 90-gallon fermentations and produces around seven gallons of rum per day. The mill that supplies the molasses used in their other rums couldn’t give them anything less than an entire tanker truck’s worth of fresh cane juice.
“We either needed to take a lot of juice in at one time or just find some pretty darn creative ways to actually find it,” Lohfeld said. “I was just trying to look for every avenue possible to get some in this year. I was scrolling through Craigslist.”
As much as I loved the thought of Roulaison meeting a stranger off the internet in a random Walmart parking lot to acquire an elusive quantity of fresh cane juice, the actual source turned out to be decidedly less shady—their nextdoor neighbors, a company that sells bottled cane juice as a sports drink alternative.
“They happened to be doing this big juicing with a cane grower in northern Louisiana that had the right kind of sized mill we needed. Because they were much smaller, the capacity was much smaller,” he explained.
So they rented a truck, threw some 55-gallon drums in the back, and drove two hours round-trip to pick up 83 gallons of fresh-pressed juice and get it back to the distillery immediately for fermenting. From those 83 gallons of juice, they produced 13 gallons of rum that Lohfeld thinks is quite different from the rums of the French Caribbean islands that gave rhum agricole its name.
Unlike the widely distributed Martinique AOC-labelled rhum agricoles from brands like Rhum Clément, J.M., Neisson, Rhum St. James, La Favorite, and others, Roulaison’s agricole is fermented with wild yeast found naturally present on the variety of cane they crushed, and pot-distilled.
“It’s totally different than a lot of the other agricoles out there. It still has some of the same little bit of green olive undertone, but more melon, which I see a lot in wild yeast...In terms of what's out there, I'd say it's probably closer to Clairin than Martinique agricole.”
It sounds wonderful, but I was still curious—what’s driving him to go to all this trouble to produce a batch that will amount to no more than 130 half-sized bottles? In Lohfeld’s eyes, that’s half the point.
“There’s an allure of something limited release that's so special, you can only do it during a certain time of year or when you're close to that cane...So it's a little bit of that differentiation factor and I just think it's this cool, quirky style of rum.”
Agricole allows distillers to tell a powerful story. You’re offering consumers something that’s not just of the land, but actually tastes of the land in a way no other style of rum can. Molasses-based rums, for example, are generally not thought to capture the unique qualities of the soil the sugar cane originally came from in the way cane juice-based rums can.
“It’s kind of one of the closest things that you can get to terroir in spirits...every little thing is going to make it a little bit different,” Lohfeld said. “I feel like with spirits, people think about it as a little bit more sterile and removed from that whole agricultural aspect, and [agricole] is bringing a lot of that back into it.”
This is what Lohfeld thinks is drawing so many other distillers to the style. In addition to Louisiana’sThree Roll Estate, which already produces an agricole, he knows of at least three other distilleries in the state currently working on their own agricoles. Sure, it’s competition, but he also sees it as a potential opportunity to make the acquisition of fresh-crushed cane juice a bit easier for everyone.
“We have the Louisiana Distillers Guild, and one of the things we may propose is going in together on a reasonably small mill. [We could] just kind of pass it from distillery to distillery, like a timeshare, but with a mill or a small cane press,” he said.
Whether cane juice acquisition gets any easier or not, Lohfeld is already planning for additional agricole batches during future cane harvests. After all, Roulaison is the French-Creole term for the sugar cane harvest.
“We've been trying to do an agricole since we opened really (November, 2016)...I'd love to do a bunch more. I’d love to set aside like two weeks and just do agricole.”
Those future batches of agricole will likely only get more interesting. Roulaison recently planted 200 pounds of a variety of sugar cane that dates back to the 1940s called Red Ribbon cane in the distillery’s own garden. Lohfeld loves the idea of being able to use it once it’s mature, which could take two more years. In the meantime, through the Louisiana Distillers Guild, he’s also met with the state’s lieutenant governor and other agriculture officials about cultivating more of Louisiana’s heritage varieties of sugar cane in collaboration with Louisiana State University’s agriculture center.
Whatever happens, I’ll be excited to watch. And hopefully taste at some point, too.
If you're in the New Orleans area, watch for the release of Roulaison Rhum Agricole near the end of this month. If you're not in New Orleans, go check out their website anyway—they're doing interesting stuff!
Now, let's get to this week's stories.
Initially, the rums will be available through French retailer V&B, which Montanya co-founder Karen Hoskin says has a pretty unique approach to spirits sales. From the just-drinks article:
“They take a really unique, Millennial-style approach. Instead of paying for something you've never tasted, they've set up tasting bars focused on exposing consumers to new things. It's a totally different and exciting experience than what we often find in the US.”
U.K. distribution will come later this year. Interestingly, Montanya’s rums are being shipped in bulk to Spain, where they are then bottled for distribution.
I’m curious to follow the reception of these rums in both France and the U.K., and will report back with anything interesting.
Speaking of international distribution, Montanya’s not the only distillery sending more American rum overseas—Georgia’s Richland Rum is now available in South Africa.
Covert Distributions is the company bringing it into the country, but apparently not so covertly since it’s all over the news. Thank you, I’ll see myself out.
Anyway, the single estate Georgia rum, which is produced from the distillery’s own estate-grown sugar cane after the juice is boiled into cane syrup, launched at a speakeasy-inspired bar that you need a password to enter. Now that’s covert! (OK, really, I’m done now).
The article, titled, “The U.S. Craft Spirits Industry Continues Its Stellar Growth,” cites the American Craft Spirits Association’s findings that craft distilleries’ sales increased 29.9% in 2018, along with a 23.7% increase in retail cases sold.
It also mentions an improving reputation for quality as more reason for optimism, with a nice quote from the American Distilling Institute’s recent annual craft spirits judging event:
“‘Now we’re really starting to see that maturity come through,’ says Andrew Faulkner, ADI’s director of publishing. ‘Even distillers’ younger products are improving in quality due to control and understanding.’”
Since we're on the subject of American cane juice rums, a Missouri distiller offered some interesting info on how he's sourcing Louisiana cane juice in the Ministry of Rum Facebook group.
The most interesting part of the discussion happened thanks to the curious mind of Matt Pietrek, who runs the outstanding Cocktail Wonk blog:
I'm curious to see how effective methods like this are for extending distillers' access to fresh cane juice. Can 2-3 days pass between crushing the cane and fermenting the juice without negatively impacting the flavor?
Since I haven't tried this rum, I don't know. My expectation is that it would be roughly analogous to eating seafood in a landlocked state vs. seafood at the beach. Sure, it can still be excellent, but it might not be quite the same as eating it right out of the ocean.
Again though, that's just a guess. I'd be happy to be completely wrong! Perhaps there are no discernible differences.
Here's the other interesting part: even though this is a cane juice rum, I didn't see the words "cane juice" or "agricole" anywhere on the distillery's website, labelling, or marketing material about the rum.
And this isn't the first American distillery I've seen use fresh cane juice as their rum base while eschewing all agricole descriptors (Elgin Distillery in Arizona being the other). While the term carries a certain cachet with rum enthusiasts, I wonder if they see it as something that only makes a craft rum more confusing to wider audiences whose palates are surprised by anything beyond Captain Morgan.
I'm sensing this might be a question for a future newsletter to answer.