In this new section, we explore the different styles of rum that exist on the planet. Suffice to say that the task promises to be a titanic one, since there are so many of them. There are English, French and Spanish rums, rums made from pure cane juice, rums made from molasses or cane honey, over proof rums, dark rums, navy rums, solera rums, single estate rums, brut de fût rums… in short, don’t throw away the cup, or rather, the tasting glass is full!
For this major premiere, we’ve decided to put the spotlight on a category that’s very popular with lovers of fine eaux-de-vie: single-varietal rums. But as is often the case with rum (and that’s what we like about it too), things are more complicated than they seem. As we’re about to discover, talking about single-varietal rums will automatically lead us into the realm of plot-based rums, followed by vintage and mature rums, bio…. and, more generally, the trend towards premium white rums.
What is a single-varietal rum? As its name suggests, this is a rum produced from a single variety of sugar cane. For example, blue cane, red cane, golden cane, O’Tahiti, reed cane… These cuvées are both rarer and more common than you might think.
Rare, because they almost exclusively concern agricultural rums and rums made from pure cane juice, which represent perhaps 3 to 4% of world production. But frequent, because most agricultural rum distilleries, and increasingly pure cane juice distilleries, are now producing them.
MOLASSES RUMS HAVE HAD THEIR DAY
Single-varietal rums are very rare, if not non-existent (or at least producers don’t advertise this fact), in the world of traditional sugar rum, because most of the time, producers buy molasses (not necessarily local, or even from the country), i.e. a processed product from the sugar industry, from sugar factories or brokers. Under these conditions, it’s difficult to have a sufficiently detailed traceability system to require a cane of the same type or from the same plot.
Unless, of course, the distillery is a single estate, meaning that all the sugar cane used to produce the sugar and molasses comes from its own estate (such as Appleton in Jamaica or Gray’s in Mauritius). But even then, the estates in question are often huge, with multiple plots and multiple varieties of cane grown. This is why, in molasses rum, the rule is to blend several varieties and plots, with the ultimate aim of offering a taste that is reproducible and identifiable by end customers. In this world, cuvées are differentiated more by the length and type of ageing and cask… than by the raw material, i.e. the type of cane.
THE BIRTH OF SINGLE-VARIETAL RUMS
In the world of pure cane juice or agricultural rums, the rule is also to blend different varieties of sugarcane, particularly to produce the bulk of distilleries’ output: white rums for use in cocktails. But there are rules, and there are exceptions, and there are more and more of them. In the past, there were probably single-varietal rums, but this was not highlighted. Then Martinique adopted its AOC (1996), which led distilleries and estates to better demarcate plots and rationalise cultivation.
And it was at the dawn of the 2000s that Clément had the idea of bringing out the first single-varietal rum to be marketed as such. This is, of course, its famous Canne Bleue, which has been re-bottled (the design changes each time) with each new vintage. The appearance of the Canne Bleue cuvée was the starting point for a radical change in the approach to white rums, paving the way for their premiumisation. At almost the same time, another revolution was taking place in the HSE cellars, and it was to result in the famous Cuvée 2000, which, without being single-varietal or parcel-based, can be considered the first premium matured white rum.
“At the time, we decided to set aside the best distillate of the year, the one that best represented the vintage, and to mature it over a long period of time,” recalls Cyrille Lawson, who was already at the helm at HSE. Released in 2004, the Cuvée 2000 was a great success, but it wasn’t until the early 2010s that premium white rums really took off. At HSE, this took the form of the Cuvées Canne d’Or series (monovarietal, parcel-based, vintage and matured) with the 2016 vintage, released in 2018 and subsequent editions.
THE PARCELLAIRES ENTER THE DANCE
In fact, until 2016, single-varietal rums were not necessarily parcel rums, but rather blends of different parcels of land on which a single variety of sugarcane (notably Canne Bleue de Clément) was grown. It was only after the Guadeloupean firm Longueteau brought out its famous Parcellaires that single-varietal rums became mostly parcellaires.
The idea behind the Parcellaires is to be able to compare, over the course of a year, two rums made from two different plots of land, but produced under perfectly identical conditions (fermentation, distillation, maturation, alcohol content, etc.), to see how the terroir effect manifests itself,” explains François Longueteau. As the 11 plots are small, they are planted with just one type of sugar cane, which is why the cuvées are also plot-based (and vintage-based, of course).”
The notion of a parcel of land was thus naturally added to that of a single variety. To sum up, not all single-varietal rums are necessarily plot-based, and not all plot-based rums are necessarily single-varietal, because although only one type of cane is generally planted per plot, this is not always the case. Take, for example, Trois Rivières’ Cuvée de l’Océan (in the south of Martinique): the rum comes from the Anse Trabaud parcel, whose proximity to the ocean gives it its iodine and salt flavours. It is therefore a parcel of land, but not a single variety, since several types of cane are planted there.
THE SUCCESS OF SINGLE-VARIETAL RUMS
However, given the results achieved by Clément, HSE and Longueteau, most agricultural rum distilleries began producing single-varietal rums from the very end of the 2010s onwards, most of them parcel-based, and in any case premium. What’s more, these rums, which were already single-varietal, plot-based, vintage and matured, added even more strings to their bows by sometimes becoming organic, brut de colonne or even aged!
In Guadeloupe, the Black Cane de Bologne and its Old Black Cane variant, and the organic Grande Savane are just a few examples. In Marie-Galante, Bielle offers its Canne Grise and Père Labat its Canne Jaune. In Martinique, most of the distilleries and brands have their own single-varietal, often parcel-based: La Digue and Bel Air at La Favorite, the Papao cuvée at Depaz, the Canne Rouge cuvée at Dillon… And newcomers are following in the footsteps of these historic distilleries.
The Perle Rare range from A1710 is a case in point. Baie des Trésors, a recently-created distillery, produces only single-varietal, plot-based, vintage rums. Habitation Beauséjour (HBS) also offers a single-varietal blue cane. In Guadeloupe, Papa Rouyo is pushing the trend to the point of offering single-varietal, plot-based, vintage, matured… and single-producer rums. The Tim Synésius cuvée is a single-varietal (B80.0689 or reed), parcel-based (Portland parcel, Le Moule), vintage (2022), and therefore cultivated according to the methods of planter Tim Synésius (with inter-rows reminiscent of vines and two years of organic conversion). It’s not so much a question of tasting the type of cane, the terroir or the vintage… but rather the grower’s know-how!
RUMS MADE FROM PURE CANE JUICE ARE GETTING IN ON THE ACT
But agricultural rums are no longer the only ones that can claim to produce single-varietal, plot-based rums… in short, premium rums. In French Polynesia, for example, most rums are made from O’Tahiti cane, and the process of parcelisation is underway. In Thailand, Yann Triffe and his partners have brought out Kosapan, an organic, single-varietal white rum. In Belize, Copalli’s rums made from pure cane juice offer the Black Cane vintage…
But above all, on the island of Grenada, Mark Reynier is in the process of mapping out his terroir, the varieties of sugar cane grown there, and the distillation equipment available (pot stills and columns) for his Etudes and Precasks ranges. Initially released as white rums, they are now available as aged rums. And Mark Reynier has announced that cuvées blending the different terroirs and varieties of sugar cane are currently being developed (read more about this in the next issue of Rumporter).
SMOKE AND MIRRORS?
In short, as you will have gathered, single-varietal rums are multi-flavoured. However, not everyone is convinced by this trend. For Grégory Vernant, at Neisson in Martinique, the whole single-varietal thing is a bit of window-dressing. “For me, the most important thing is the plot, the terroir. The cane has to adapt to my terrain, not the other way round,” he explains. And I’m not sure that you can really detect the taste of a particular type of sugar cane in the same way as you can with wine.
Finally, to continue the comparison with wine, in Burgundy everyone makes Pinot Noir and you can find mythical grands crus as well as piquette, which proves that it’s not the grape variety that’s important, but the terroir and the know-how of the winemaker. It’s the same for rum”. That’s why his next cuvée, Clos Godinot (52.5%), whose plot lies at an altitude of 280 metres, the upper limit of what is authorised by the AOC, will make absolutely no mention of the fact that it is a monovarietal.
THE TASTE OF THE VARIETY
Is it really possible to detect the typical taste of a particular variety of sugar cane in a rum, when so many other factors (climate, terroir, fermentation process, yeasts, type of distillation, length of maturation, etc.) play a part in its final flavour profile? Undoubtedly, yes, to a certain extent. The plots of land in the French West Indies are small, and generally only one type of cane is planted.
So if we want to compare two single-varietal rums that are as identical as possible, it will generally be on two different vintages or on two different plots during the same campaign. Except that in the 3rd quarter, two rums from the same 2-hectare plot will be released, but made from the two (different) varieties of sugarcane grown there. And it’s La Favorite that will be conducting the experiment. We don’t know much more at the time of writing, but we’re sure it’s going to be very exciting!
A TOOL FOR PREMIUMISATION AND DIFFERENTIATION
But that’s not all. Because beyond single-varietal or parcel rums, it’s the rise of premium white rums, those magnificent eaux-de-vie from our DROMs and elsewhere, that interest us. And what a pleasure it is to see them evolve from ‘simple’ premium white rums to old rums, XO, brut de colonne, brut de fûts, organic… to push sophistication ever further. More broadly, for agricultural and pure cane juice rums, monovarietals represent a powerful tool for differentiation at the top of the range, where molasses or cane honey rums will find it hard to compete.
Nurseries for sugar cane
Sugar cane varieties are generally created by hybridization between different types, usually in specialist laboratories. The best known are in Barbados, Brazil and Réunion. In November 2021, we visited the eRcane lab on Reunion Island. A quick reminder. To create a new variety, the 1,000 male and female varieties in the collection are hybridised with each other (two by two). The seeds from the female flowers are then collected and sown. Every year, 100,000 new (but genetically different) clones are bred in a greenhouse at the eRcane centre in Saint-Denis.
The best of these are then sent to stations around the island for 14 years of testing. At the end of these 14 years, if a variety proves to perform better and be better adapted than those already in existence, it is approved and distributed to growers. The aim of this process is to create sugarcane varieties that are best adapted to different types of soil (clay, limestone, sand, etc.) and climate (dry, wet, windy, etc.). The aim is to produce as much brix, and therefore as much sugar, as possible. The aim of plant breeding research is not, therefore, to create specially aromatic sugar cane.
Colours or numbers
While you are generally familiar with the lay names of cane varieties (blue, red, crystalline, white, red, zykak, straw, reed, grey, etc.), almost all of them have a scientific name. For example, R 579 (R for Réunion) is none other than red cane, B69.566 is the scientific name for blue cane, and so on.