In recent years, premium rum sales have increased significantly, as have whiskey and Tequila. So as the US furthers its love of spirits, where does rhum agricole fit in, and what will it take for Americans to fall in love with rums from the Francophone Caribbean ?
We talked to some industry insiders at different points in the supply chain to find out. At the producer level, we spoke with Spiribam Brand Ambassador Antoine Nixon (AN). At the on-premise level, we spoke with rum expert and educator, Suzanne Long (SL). And finally at the retail level, we spoke with Peter Mustacich of Oakland, California’s Alchemy Bottle Shop (PM).
RP: How do you describe rhum agricole to people who are unfamiliar with it?
PM: The most common phrases we use to describe agricole to unfamiliar customers are: distilled sugar cane juice; less sweet than molasses based rum; grassier; funkier; more savory; NOT your normal white rum.
RP: How do most people react when they taste agricole for the first time?
AN: Usually shocked and/or surprised. People expect to drink moonshine or firewater, especially with the whites. People are blown away that an unaged white rhum can be consumed without a mixer, they don’t expect that it is delicious and palatable served neat or on the rocks. Several people have expressed to me that they didn’t know rum could be anything other than aged or dark.
RP: What do you think agricole has going for it in the US market?
AN: The explosion of Mezcal and other lesser known agave spirits like Bacanora and Sotol have opened up a lot of eyes to complex white or clear spirits. That complexity is the foundation upon which agricole is built. That is the passion of the people in the French Caribbean. Also, the Tiki renaissance is putting fun back into rum and building a familiarity within the general market consumer to trust.
RP: How do you think cane juice rums from areas outside the French overseas territories are impacting the category (St. George, High Wire, KoHana, etc.)?
PM: In general we think they’re confusing (it’s often not clear from the label what type of rum they are, how they’re made or what to expect). Also they seem to appeal less to true agricole fans and our bar industry customers, who stay loyal to traditional brands. Our staff is in agreement this trend has little traction at the moment.
RP: Is there anything holding agricole back
SL: In the United States in particular, distribution is one of the category’s biggest setbacks. Most of these producers aren’t large operations, and because of the USA’s bottle size laws (750ml bottles are allowed, but the European standard 700ml bottle size is not), many can’t overcome the financial hurdle of committing to another bottle size.
We only have a very few companies that are brought in and there is not a single distillery on Martinique or Guadeloupe that has their entire line represented in US distribution. I would love to see more of these quality rhums in the States.
RP: What can be done to advance rhum agricole broadly as a category here?
SL: In my opinion, availability is the number one factor here, as we can’t advance something that we can’t get our hands on. Coming in as a very strong second, however, is education. Consumers need to hear the good word about rhum agricole!
People like Jerry Gitany & Benoit Bail of The Rum Embassy are doing this work in Europe with the Agricole Tour, and we were very lucky they graced our shores in San Francisco for a brief few days this September.
Ambassadors for individual rhum agricole brands are of course also doing their best to spread the word to bartenders and bar owners, which is possibly the most important frontier of all. My company, Rum Academy, offers tasting classes and in-depth symposiums on many styles of rum, and rhum agricole is the closest to my heart personally of all rum styles. I love it all, but if I can only choose one, it’ll absolutely be agricole.