More and more distilleries are starting to produce rums, made from molasses, imported of course, but which are fermented, distilled, aged and bottled in France (or in Corsica).
This is a real underlying trend, which should continue and grow in the years to come. And if others are trying to make rum from sugar (panela, muscovado…) or even from imported frozen cane juice, the first experiments in planting sugar cane on French soil are bearing fruit.
Kevin Toussaint and Guillaume Ferroni have released their first 100% French rum, while the Corsicans of U Massicciu are following the same path. In total, more than 20 French artisanal distilleries are now distilling rum in various forms.
2022 will undoubtedly remain a key date in the history of rum with a capital H. It was indeed this year that the first 100% metropolitan rums were born. By 100% metropolitan, or 100% hexagonal, we mean that the raw material, the sugar cane, was grown locally, then its juice was fermented, distilled, rested and bottled in France.
The feat was achieved by Kevin Toussaint in partnership with Guillaume Ferroni (Maison Ferroni). 114 bottles of this pure cane juice rum were produced. The result? A spirit marked by herbaceous and iodized aromas, quite far from what can be done in the DOM, but good all the same.
The herbaceous side is easily explained by the climate where the native cane grew: the south of France, and more precisely in Hyères, in the Var (83). Nothing surprising when you think about it. Sugar cane originated in the Indian Ocean via China, then India, Persia and the Arab world.
The Arabs conquered part of southern Europe from the 8th century onwards, and planted sugar cane where they settled permanently (Sicily and Spain). From there, sugar cane made its way to the South of France.
The old Hyères variety has been grown in the area since the Middle Ages, at least since the 15th century,” explains Guillaume Ferroni. Royal decrees gave a monopoly on sugar cane cultivation in Hyères. But with the appearance of sugar beet under Napoleon I, sugar cane cultivation in the south of France declined. It only survived among collectors, in greenhouses, at the INRA… or in the garden of Kévin Toussaint’s grandfather.
Sugarcanes in the Var…
This young horticulturist from the Var then set about replanting and cultivating it with the aim of making rum, and to do this he joined forces with Guillaume Ferroni, who was already producing rum in France, but from imported molasses. The first harvest will take place in December 2021 on an area of 300 m2.
The canes grow and produce sugar from spring until December when they are harvested, just before the frosts, then they rest and the cycle starts again,” explains Kévin Toussaint.
They will stay for about 7 or 8 years before we renew them, it’s a perennial crop a bit like a fig tree.” The brix level is 12.5°Bx on average, which is low, but not that low when you consider that the minimum laid down in the AOC Martinique regulations is 14.
As there is little cane, and little brix, the team decided to use almost all of the grass, even the waterlogged tips, which once again gives the finished product, the rum, a vegetal aspect. The iodine flavours come from the Mediterranean Sea, which is only 3 km from the plot. Once the canes were cut, they were sent to Spirit & Sens in Valaurie, in the Drôme Provençale, where a sorghum-based spirit is produced (we’ll come back to this), to be crushed.
Then the juice is brought back to Ferroni at the Château des Creissauds in Aubagne, for fermentation and a double distillation in a still. So much for the history of the first hexagonal rum called Flament, which, if all goes well, should go from 114 to more than 1,000 bottles in production for the second batch, the planted area now being 10 times larger.
… and in Corsica
And this is probably only the beginning of the history of hexagonal pure sugarcane juice rums. Well, not only ‘hexagonal’, because the second experiment in growing sugar cane to make rum is currently being conducted… in Corsica by the team at the U Massicciu distillery.
There, a couple of enthusiasts, Laetitia and Anthony (family name), are growing 0.5 hectares (a local variety, which has no name). It’s an experiment we’re doing, and we’ll only release a rum if it’s worth the taste,” explains Anthony. It’s growing very well, but we’re not sure we’ll reach the right maturity. Kévin harvests his cane in December, but I’m going to try to let it grow for a year, until the next heat.” So we’ll have to wait a little longer before we can taste the very first rum made from pure Corsican cane juice.
An Uncertain Future
These are just two initiatives that have been brought to our attention, and there are no doubt others, and they will probably also give ideas to rum enthusiasts. But is the production of pure sugarcane juice rums destined to develop in France or in Corsica? It is difficult to say. Although the native sugar cane seems to be acclimatised to the conditions in the south of France, it produces little sugar and, according to Guillaume Ferroni, it takes twice as much juice as in the West Indies to make the same volume of rum.
In addition, there is a lack of space for planting cane in areas subject to real estate pressure. It is difficult to find the manpower to harvest it, as well as the efficient tools to crush it and extract the juice.
The question of climate is not clear-cut. If the forecasts of scientists (Météo France and CNRS) are correct, by 2100 the average rise in temperature could reach +3.8°C. This would be enough to satisfy the sugar canes, which need heat, but would raise the question of the lack of water.
For the moment, producing rum from pure hexagonal cane juice is not profitable,” concedes Guillaume Ferroni. But if we manage to increase the area planted and to have a good mill, we could manage to sell bottles in the premium, organic and local white or old rum segment for prices that are not too high.”
The first bottles of Flament were sold at 90 euros… From his village of Ghisonaccia in Haute-Corse, Anthony is less optimistic. “We will be able to produce micro-cuvées, but to make a living from them and to make volumes, I will bet more on molasses rums, which represent more than 95% of the rums sold in the world and which can be produced everywhere with non-local raw material.”
The Pre-eminence of Molasses Rums
And indeed, the vast majority of French (or Corsican) distilleries that produce rum directly in France do so from molasses. The first to take the plunge were probably Bows in Laure-Minervois, and Ferroni in 2014.
In total, according to our count, about fifteen distilleries make rum from molasses in France or in Corsica: Paris distillery (75), Isle de France distillery in Fresnes-sur-Marne (Seine-et-Marne) Baptiste distillery in Saint-Étienne-de-Chomeil (Cantal), Maison Ferroni in Aubagne and Marseille (Bouches-du-Rhône), U Massicciu in Ghisonaccia (Corsica), Vivant in Chalais (Charente), Lyon distillery (Rhône), Chevalier alambiqué in Lacrost (Saône-et-Loire), Bows in Laure-Minervois (Aude), the Cabestan distillery in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont (Gironde), Breizh’Cool in Acigné (Ille-et-Vilaine), Coqlicorne in Nogent-le-Bernard (Sarthe), Franc-Tireur in Franqueville-Saint-Pierre (Seine-Maritime), the Rhumerie du Vignoble in Saint-Fiacre-sur-Maine (Loire Atlantique), and the Les Enfants de Vauban distillery in Somain (le Nord)
Most indicate the origin of their molasses (Guatemala, Jamaica, Paraguay, Laos, etc.), which is usually organic and sometimes even fair trade. Others do not communicate on the origin of the raw material and use molasses that is intended for animal or human consumption.
Most opt for relatively long fermentations, such as 5 days at U Massiciu, or a minimum of 7 days at Breizh’Cool, which gives “very fruity white rums with a lot of character”, writes Cédric Saulais, co-manager of the latter.
Others work in a Jamaican style, letting their molasses ferment for more than 10 days, usually with the addition of vinasse. Fermentation can last 2 to 3 weeks at Baptiste François’ Auvergne distillery, 2 to 4 months at Ugo Fuchs’ Coqlicorne distillery… The prize goes to Richard Ducret, who let fermentation take place for 5 months from 25-11-2021 to 15-04-2022 and who even developed a dunder, like in Jamaica.
“We’re going for the aromatics by letting the bacteria and time do their work,” he explains. The result is a very aromatic high ester rum with hints of ripe banana and olive jar. A touch of high ester, which is found in many metropolitan molasses rums.
Most of the time, producers of hexagonal rums use repasse stills or hybrid stills, which means making 1.5 passes. Many, having released a first white rum, have then expanded their range by opting for arrangés and putting rums in casks to age. The Isle de France distillery will even market an aged rum (aged for at least 3 years) in 2023. As highly aromatic molasses rums are very well suited to ageing, this could be a sustainable development path for the sector. More and more distilleries can thus count on an increasingly extensive range.
For example, the Breizh’Cool distillery in Brittany currently markets two white and two amber rums. And these distilleries of hexagonal molasses rum are even beginning to produce a significant number of bottles: 4,000 per year for U Massicciu, 5,000 for the Paris distillery and Nicolas Julhès, 6,000 at Breizh’Cool, 8,000 at Vivant…
An Industry In The Making
Rum made from molasses in France could therefore eventually become a real industry. Indeed, molasses is present in large quantities on the territory and has a quality and secure supply, via the wholesaler France Mélasse.
Producers seem to have found a way to enhance it through long fermentation, and have an impressive range of different barrels (wine, beer, cognac, mead, etc.) to age it in. While relatively expensive, these rums remain accessible: between 35 and 65 euros.
And above all, they play the organic and local card to the hilt, which is particularly trendy at the moment. Moreover, rum is not the only asset of these distilleries, which also produce other spirits such as liqueurs, beer spirits, brandies, whiskies, gin, vodka… If most of the players still have limited distillation capacities, there is no doubt that, with the help of success, these will increase. If not, they can always call on someone bigger than them.
Thanks to my production capacity, I am able to position myself upstream of the sector, i.e. I take care of the fermentation and the first pass, and then I sell the brouillis, which is between 30 and 40% strength, to distilleries that only have a small still,” explains Baptiste François (Baptiste distillery).
This way they only have to make the second pass and take care of the subsequent stages, such as ageing. Although they are far from holding their own against rums from the West Indies or Reunion, and indeed have no ambition to do so, rums from France could therefore find a place in the hearts of enthusiasts in the years to come.
Other hexagonal rums
Molasses and the juice of hexagonal cane are not the only raw materials used to make rum in mainland France. Some distilleries have already used frozen cane juice from elsewhere, such as the Distillery d’Isle-de-France, or Le Métropolitain (Aix-en-Provence). Guillaume Ferroni has brought in cane from Spain.
Others, such as Moon Harbor in Bordeaux (Gironde), the Castor Distillery in Troisfontaines (Moselle), Alcools Vivant or the Paris distillery have produced rums from cane sugar in different forms (muscovado, panela, battery syrup…).
Sorghum: the alternative?
Strictly speaking, these are not rums since they must be made from sugar cane, but more and more distilleries are working with sorghum, a grass native to Africa, which has the advantage of producing sugar and not requiring too much water.
This is notably the case of the Distillery de la Terre Ronde in (Bouches-du-Rhône), or Spirit & Sens in Valaurie (Drôme).