Over the last year or so, our interest in and liking for rhum agricole has grown massively. On our discovery we’ve met many in the field who’ve shared their knowledge and their rum with us. One Thursday we were invited for a comprehensive tasting of the rhums from two distilleries in Martinique: Clément and JM, with Yves Calabre of Amathus Drinks (who has close ties with Martinique, and who is a long time fan of Clément and JM), at the Firedog in Tottenham Court Road. Philip Gillier, the brand ambassador for JM and Clément, who introduced us to Yves, was unable to join us on that night, unfortunately.
Rhum agricole is a French style, which uses freshly-pressed sugar cane juice for fermentation instead of the molasses or sugar cane ‘honey’ used in English and Spanish style rums. Clément have a useful Rhum Agricole 101 here, which explains the differences in production and gives a bit of history on Homère Clément. He’s basically the godfather of rhum agricole, who turned the sugar crisis into the catalyst for using the island’s sugar cane to make rhum, based on the techniques used in armagnac and cognac back in metropolitan France, with the main difference being the use of a copper column rather than a copper pot still. These techniques and the famed French notion of terroir are what characterise rhum agricole today, and the opportunity to taste different expressions across the Clément and JM brands made that even more apparent for us.
We started our rhum flight with ‘young’ aged rhums, moving up through the range, ending on the rawer, higher proof whites and two special products difficult to find the UK (more on those later).
In the order we tried:
1 – The Clément Select Barrel – aged for a minimum of three years in casks selected by the master distiller for characteristics and strength of flavour. Tasting notes are dominated by vanilla and a smooth finish.
2 and 3 – Clément VSOP and JM VSOP. These two exemplify both the techniques lifted from cognac and armagnac and terroir in rhum agricole. Both are aged for four years, the first in virgin Limousin and re-charred bourbon casks, the second in re-charred bourbon and a year in virgin American oak. On the nose, the Clément had notes similar to whisky, plus dried fruit, caramel and a hint of the char, compared to JM’s soft vanilla and sugar. They completely switched on the tasting side, though, with Clément sweeter and more mellow than expected and the JM dry with hint of burnt sugar and a long, spicy finish.
4 and 5 – Clément XO and JM XO. Both aged for six years, Clément in a combination of virgin and re-charred oak barrels, JM in ex-bourbon. For me (Rebecca), six years of ageing for agricole seems to yield too much of a woody taste and is something I find across all brands. At the start of the tasting, Yves asked us whether we preferred bourbon or whisky, to which we both replied laughingly ‘neither’. If a whisky drinker was looking for rum recommendations, an XO agricole would be the first to turn to as it seem this is where the two spirits run parallel. Official tasting notes for the Clément highlight hints of citrus and a subtle touch of white peppercorn, whilst the JM more fruity with mango and passion fruit alongside white pepper, cinnamon ad nutmeg.
It was at this point we also learnt about another cognac/armagnac/wine technique used in rhum agricole, ouillage – or ullage in English – whereby the rhum lost to the angel’s share is topped up with rhum from another barrel of the same age.
6 – Clément Single Cask canne bleue. This is one of our favourites. It’s single cask, monovarietal, non-filtered and bottled at cask strength, making it in limited supply each year. Its rarity also means it’s a 50cl bottle, so one to drink sparingly, despite its quality. The floral qualities of the blue cane come through on the nose like the eight years of ageing push it over the ‘peak’ woodiness of an XO. It’s a dry finish, with sweetness and spiciness that we could literally have drunk all evening.
7 – Clément Single Cask vanilla intense. Ten years of ageing in ex-bourbon casks selected for their vanillin properties are behind this single cask bottling. Obviously vanilla is the dominant note on the nose and mouth, with a soft, mellow and sweet finish. For me, the vanilla developed most in the aftertaste.
8 – Clément ambré. Aged for 12 months in large, 20,000 litre oak vats that give its light amber colour. The 12-month ageing period means the rhum retains the vegetal notes of a white agricole, with a hint of extra spiciness for taste. I can see it making a good ti punch or classic mai tai.
9 – JM ambré. Similar in process to the Clément, but completely different in taste, with a strong toffee/caramel aftertaste.
10 and 11 – Clément blanc (40%) and JM blanc (50%). Putting aside the different abv, there were clear differences here, with white agricoles the clearest expression of terroir. The Clément floral and sweet, the JM much more grassy and vegetal. The JM distillery is a single estate, meaning the growing of cane, fermentation and distillation all take place on the habitation, picking up the influences of the volcanic soil on the north of the island and the water used to bring down the abv for bottling. It’s easy to overlook white agricoles, but we find them easy to drink neat, and even easier in a ti punch 😉
12 to 14 – Clément Canne Bleue non-vintage, Clément Canne Bleue 2015 vintage and Clément Canne Bleue 2016 vintage. Another prime example of the differences not just in terroir, but the influences of the weather on the flavours in sugar cane by year. The 2015 has a dry, saline aroma, but is sweet and floral in the mouth, whilst the 2016 has a stronger, sweeter aroma, but a dry and slightly saline taste. The single vintages are also presented in a newly-designed bottle each year to highlight their uniqueness, but I guess it also adds to the expectation of this popular expression – what will the next vintage taste like and what will the bottle look like? Yves preferred the 2016, Chris and I both preferred the 2015, even though Chris preferred the smell of the 2016 Canne Blue.
15 – Clément 10-year old. Composed of a blend of barrels kept aside for further ageing, the rhum is rich in almond, marzipan and cherry notes. Again, this length of ageing takes the rhum back towards the sweeter side, with no dominant wood notes. Perfect for sipping.
16 – JM Multimillésime 2003-2004-2005. The name says it all – a blend of vintages from 2003, 2004 and 2005 that sums up the best of JM aged rhum. Lots of vanilla and candied nuts in the mouth. This is a very rare bottle, which would be very hard to find. We are glad that Yves was generous enough to allow us to try it.
We definitely had a fun night (16 rums in one go does that to you) and learnt a lot. We certainly appreciated the chance to compare brands and expressions across brands, which we haven’t been able to do before. We purchased the Clément Canne Bleue 2016 and the Clément Single Cask canne bleue when we were in Martinique and were pleased that they were the ones that stood out again for us, away from the tropical, holiday, work-free backdrop. The beauty with this range, though, is that there’s something for everyone in agricole.
Until next time, keep rumming!