The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée Debate
There are two types of rum in this world. No, it’s not the rum in my glass and the rum in my stomach. Rum is made from sugar. Specifically, you can make rum from molasses, the traditional way or from sugar cane juice, the alternative. Rum made from molasses is called Rhum Industrial and from cane Rhum Agricole. Considering that rum really got it’s start in the very English Barbados and Antigua I’m not sure why the French get to name the styles, except for their gastronomy roots. Regardless, such is reality let us move on.
Rum was a created from industrial waste. It’s true. Sugar plantations in Barbados and other Caribbean islands could only boil their sugar cane down so much in the creation of sugar crystals. What remained, the waste, was molasses. Enterprising plantation owners learned that they could make a spirit with this waste, it was called Kill Devil. This in turn became more refined and ultimately was called, rum.
Rum, being made from molasses, was the norm until the Europe discovered and began to rely on the sugar beet. The demand for Caribbean sugar plummeted especially in the French West Indies. In order to adapt, a few distillers realized that they could make a sugar cane based wine and in turn continue the process to make rum. Rhum Agricole was born.
Fresh pressed sugar cane juice which is turned into rum today is called Rhum Agricole. This style of rum is most prevalent in the French West Indies. However, you can find examples of this style in many islands. My collection of rums include Callwood 10 year old from Tortola, 170 proof organic white from River Antoine in Grenada, and a new offering Agua Libre from St. George Spirits in California.
All was fine until the French moved to brand Rhum Agricole as a Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée or AOC for short. This, rightfully so, is a designation that protects the quality and origination of craft produce. Specifically, the designation protects wines and products that can only be produced in specific micro-climates, soils and regions. The result are fruit that are only possible and only produce specialized flavor. This is also known as terrior. A, you guessed it, French term.
The Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation has only been applied to the rum of Martinique. To be clear. Rhum Agricole is a style of rum made from sugar cane juice. Rhum Agricole AOC Martinique is a sub-category of this rum. It is not the other way around.
Here is my rub with this AOC thing and I’m in good company. Unlike grapes one cannot taste major or even subtle difference in sugar cane. Cane grown in Martinique will not create a rum that tastes different than if the same Martinique distiller were to use cane from Tortola. I will get some push back here from the AOC supporters, but I’ll stand my ground. People whom I really respect, Richard Seale for one, also do not support the concept that terrior is a concept applicable to sugar cane.
The problem that has arisen, and one that I hope to fight is that a rum is not an Agricole unless it is from Martinique. Hogwash! An even larger problem is that, in my opinion, many Rhum Agricole AOC Martinque rums (not all) are good average rums that are being sold at higher prices than they should be just because they earn the AOC designation. When people who do not understand all of this information buy Martinique rum and pay extra because of the AOC on the bottle, often they are paying too much.
Furthering my quality argument, many rum experts will tell you that the quality and flavor profile of many AOC rums are all over the place from release to release. I’m not throwing every AOC rum under the bus here. Certainly there are exceptions. Rhum Clement and Depaz are solid choices. Barbancourt from Haiti (a former French possession) makes my favorite examples producing high quality consistent rum with a very manually intensive process.
Rhum Agricole is a wonderful rum style and one that every rum lover should include in their cabinet. The flavor profile is easily distinguishable from Rhum Industrial as such it can be used for entirely new drink combinations. I love Rhum Agricole’s and have many bottles myself. My caution is for you to understand the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée designation and not get caught up in the marketing but in the quality and craft of the spirit itself.