Tuesday, 4 September 2018
Two rums, distilled from sugar cane juice rather than molasses, have intrigued bartenders and popped up on cocktail menus.
Rum Enthusiasts Have a New Obsession: Fresh-Cut Sugar Cane https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/dining/drinks/craft-rum-liquor.html?smid=tw-nytfood&smtyp=cur Image A Ti Punch, a classic Martinique cocktail made with rhum agricole, sugar cane syrup and lime.CreditCreditJason Henry for The New York Times By Jason Wilson Aug. 31, 2018 18 Among aficionados of craft spirits, the obsessive quest for the “authentic,” “pure” and “rustic” intensifies with each passing year. Not too long ago, rhum agricole from Martinique or Guadeloupe — a rum distilled from the juice of fresh-cut sugar cane, following strict rules enforced by an “appellation d’origine contrôlée” in France — might have satisfied those nebulous ideals. Most rum in the Caribbean is made from molasses, the byproduct of refining sugar cane. By definition, molasses-based rums are more processed than those made from fresh sugar cane. So it makes sense that a rhum agricole, with its grassy, smoky, funky notes, would seem more “pure.” Many enthusiasts consider these to be the world’s finest expressions of rum. But over the past several months, an unaged rum from Haiti called clairin, also made from fresh-pressed sugar cane juice, began popping up on cocktail menus. Clairin certainly ticks all the romantic boxes. Authentic? Clairin is distilled in remote Haitian villages, often by homemade stills in the same way it has since the 19th century. Pure? Clairin is made from native, sometimes wild, sugar cane varieties that have been lost elsewhere in the Caribbean. Rustic? The raw ingredient is usually transported on horseback and often crushed by the power of oxen. “This is the rum of the past. This is the taste of two centuries ago,” Daniele Biondi, who works for the importer La Maison & Velier, said on a recent afternoon at the bar Amor y Amargo in the East Village. La Maison & Velier is a French-Italian partnership headed by the Italian rum importer Luca Gargano, who encountered clairin on a visit to Haiti in 2012. Image From left, Rhum Clément VSOP, La Favorite Coeur de Canne Blanc, Rhum J.M V.O., Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc, HSE Extra Vieux 2005 Sauternes Cask Finish, Clairin Casimir.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times Mr. Biondi poured three expressions of clairin, each bottle named for the distiller (Clairin Casimir or Clairin Vaval), listing the village, the variety of sugar cane (such as Hawaii or Madame Meuze) and noting that it’s spontaneously fermented with wild yeast. “Pure sugar cane juice rum is always a bit more sophisticated,” Mr. Biondi said. “Molasses is just not a complex raw material.” These were fiery, spicy, edgy rums, all clocking in at more than 96 proof. “They’re funky and unique and cross a lot of different categories,” said Sother Teague, Amor y Amargo’s beverage director, from behind the bar. “Funky like Jamaican rum, grassy like rhum agricole, earthy like mezcal.” Mr. Biondi enjoyed the mention of mezcal. “We always make the comparison with mezcal,” he said. “Comparing clairin with rhum agricole is like comparing mezcal with tequila.” For several years, craft mezcal — made from wild agave, cooked under the earth and distilled once in small batches — has been the darling mark of authenticity for the cocktail crowd. Producers of other spirits have sought to duplicate its credibility and success. Call it the mezcal-ification of spirits. But how much does this really help American consumers understand an unfamiliar liquor? “There’s a real desperation for lots of these spirits to say they’re the ‘mezcal’ of whatever because of economic success,” said Bobby Heugel, the owner of several high-profile bars in Houston, including Anvil Bar & Refuge and the Pastry War, that have extensive mezcal and rum lists. One group, unsurprisingly, has not appreciated La Maison & Velier’s sales pitch as the mezcal of rum: those who produce and import Martinique rhum agricole. “I’ve had more questions about clairin lately than anything else. It’s more confusion, more noise,” said Ed Hamilton, whose company Caribbean Spirits imports Neisson, La Favorite and Duquesne rhum agricole. Ben Jones, the owner of Spiribam, which imports Rhum Clément and Rhum JM from Martinique, thinks this “clairin wildfire” is good publicity for all pure sugar cane rums. “But all of a sudden, we’re cast as Jose Cuervo or Patrón?” he said. “It’s like, chill out, bro. When someone says the best rum in the world has to come from a still made from car parts, or the sugar cane has to be delivered by an animal, that’s just counterproductive.” The whole notion of pure sugar cane rum is a relatively new concept for Americans. Both Mr. Jones and Mr. Hamilton introduced their rhum agricoles from Martinique to the United States in 2005. “I’d have people ask me if I’d spell-checked my label because I’d left an ‘h’ in the word rhum,” Mr. Jones said. Image Martin Cate, at his tiki bar, Smuggler’s Cove, in San Francisco, which has 46 rhum agricoles from Martinique and 26 from Guadaloupe.CreditJason Henry for The New York Times Martin Cate, the rum expert and author of “Smuggler’s Cove: Exotic Cocktails, Rum, and the Cult of Tiki,” now has 46 Martinique rhum agricoles and 26 Guadeloupe rhum agricoles on the menu at Smuggler’s Cove, his popular tiki bar in San Francisco. At his bars, Mr. Cate steers drinkers who like the grassy notes of tequila or the vegetal notes of Scotch toward rhum agricole. Mr. Cate says that both rhum agricole and clairin provide what he calls “an authentic experience of terroir.” “It’s hard not to be drawn to the authenticity of these projects,” he said. “There’s a real passion for products that are out of the grasp of large industrial companies.” But Mr. Cate acknowledges that modern craft bartenders have “asbestos palates, and they want to be shocked,” and are therefore inevitably drawn to spirits like clairin. Mr. Teague, for instance, is already trying to develop cocktails with clairin for Amor y Amargo and the neighboring bar, Cienfuegos. “The overwhelming majority of my job is talking to people and getting them to drink new things,” he said. “With clairin, there’s definitely something new to talk about.” Tasting Report Rhum agricole and clairin, distilled from the juice of fresh-cut sugar cane, can be a new experience for those used to sipping molasses-based rums. Complex grassy, funky and earthy flavors are balanced by the underlying sweetness. Here is a selection of both aged and unaged examples to seek out. (All bottles are 750 milliliters.) JASON WILSON Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc 50 percent alcohol per volume $35 Notes of brown butter, dill and sage, with a rich, viscous texture and sweetness in the mouth. Classic unaged rum that’s perfect in cocktails. (Caribbean Spirits, Bradenton, Fla.) Rhum J.M V.O. 43 percent $40 Three years of aging produces an amazing blend of freshness and complexity. Swirling flavors of smoked herb, smoked honey and even barbecue, with underlying minerality and finish of licorice and spice. Tastes like old-time Caribbean rum. (Spiribam, Wakefield, R.I.) Clairin Casimir 48.3 percent $40 A funky nose of varnish, turmeric, cumin, seaweed and burned rubber. Earthy, attractive umami notes, a bittersweetness on the finish. (La Maison & Velier, New York). Rhum Clément VSOP 40 percent $40 Four years in oak. Aromas of candle wax, fresh herbs and cut flowers. Rich, peppery, and spicy on the palate. A classic example of aged rhum agricole. (Spiribam) La Favorite Coeur de Canne Blanc 50 percent $30 Spicy, rustic and high octane, but smooth and drinkable, with balancing notes of marshmallow and custard. (Caribbean Spirits) HSE Extra Vieux 2005 Sauternes Cask Finish 41 percent $110 Spends 10 years in the barrel, unusual for rum, and is finished in a Sauternes cask. Notes of citrus, gingerbread and apricot, like a fine brandy. (Baron Francois, New York)