An Introduction to Rhum Agricole

An Introduction to Rhum Agricole

Rum has a long and storied history. The origins of rum and other sugarcane spirits can be traced to the Americas, but rum can be made anywhere that sugarcane is grown, and half of the countries in the world grow sugarcane today, according to Tristan Stephenson, the author of The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution. Rum and its offshoots are made from either sugarcane juice or, most commonly, molasses, a by-product of the process in which sugar is extracted from cane juice.

The spiderweb of rums produced in different places and in distinct ways makes rum a compelling and complex spirit to explore and enjoy, offering a wide array of flavor profiles and cocktail possibilities. It is made in light and golden versions as well as aged dark or black styles, and there is a growing segment of flavored rums on the market, including spiced rums, tropical-flavored rums, and, perhaps most well-known of them all, Malibu, a coconut-flavored rum.

The category of rum includes several smaller subcategories that use sugarcane in different ways, namely rhum agricole, clairin, and cachaça. These are based on sugarcane, not molasses, and rooted in specific places, with rhum agricole tied most closely to Martinique, an overseas department of France; clairin to Haiti; and cachaça to Brazil. For beverage professionals, rhum agricole is a particularly interesting spirit to explore, as it has its own appellation and is noted for its ability to reflect terroir.

Rum’s Complicated History

There are hundreds of heirloom varieties of sugarcane, but Creole cane is the one most often found in commercial cultivation. Creole cane originated in New Guinea, where sugarcane has been grown for 10,000 years, and it eventually reached the Philippines, Indonesia, and Asia, among other places. It was an important part of agriculture and trade in Persia as well.

Sugarcane was widely grown in India, too, where cultivation dates to the era of Alexander the Great, in the fourth century BCE. India is also credited with giving the world the word sugar.

In the 11th century, Christian crusaders brought sugarcane back to Europe from the Holy Land. But while Europeans’ appetite for sweetness was growing, most of Europe was found to be unsuitable for growing sugarcane. Thus, sugar became an important driver of colonial plunder, with Portuguese ships traveling to the island of Madeira and along the west coast of Africa to establish sugar plantations. Christopher Columbus continued this mission for Spain, landing in the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic and returning with sugarcane shoots.

Subsequent explorers soon determined that sugarcane grew well in the Caribbean, with the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, English, and French setting up sugarcane plantations and sugar-refining operations in the West Indies and Brazil.

It is believed that Pietr Blower, a Dutchman living in Barbados, brought distillery equipment to the island from Brazil, in 1636, and introduced the concept of using the waste from the sugar-refining process—the thick, dark syrup now known as molasses—to distill spirits. Soon, sugarcane spirits began to spread across other plantations and regions. Stephenson writes, “The first recorded use of the word ‘rum’ to describe a sugarcane spirit comes from 1650 . . . from the island of Barbados.”

But it was the rise of the triangular trade system between the 16th and 19th centuries that propelled the growth of rum production. This system linked the Caribbean and American colonies with their European colonial powers across the Atlantic Ocean and with the west coast of Africa. Ships were loaded with sugar, rum, and other goods in the colonies; sent to Europe and unloaded; and then sent to Africa to enslave people and transport them to the colonies to work the plantations. Eventually, North America eliminated Europe from the triangle, conducting a two-way operation to bring enslaved people to the New World, often obtaining them by trading rums with the kings of Africa.

Rum’s rise continued throughout the 18th century. The first rum distillery in what would become the United States was built on Staten Island in 1650 and sourced molasses from the Caribbean. By 1780, rum accounted for 25% of all spirits consumed in the British Isles, 85% of it from Jamaica and 15% from Barbados.

Slavery was not abolished in the British Empire until 1833. Around this time, France began to develop sugar beets as an alternative sugar source, and, by 1890, beets provided half of the world’s sugar, increasing sugar’s availability and lowering its cost. As a result, many plantations and distilleries across the Caribbean closed, while others began to specialize in rum, refining their distillation processes by adopting the continuous still, which allowed them to make higher-quality, lighter-styled versions of the spirit.

Martinique became one of the world’s largest producers of rum, but the eruption in 1902 of Mount Pelée destroyed many of the island’s distilleries. The Prohibition and post-Prohibition eras in America helped establish Cuba as the new rum superpower, as Americans could easily sneak to Cuba to drink, and the light style of rum made famous by Bacardí became the standard.

Today, the top sugarcane-growing countries are nearly all in Asia, though the number-one producer is Brazil. 

The Rum Market

Tanduay, in the Philippines, is the largest rum producer in the world. Bacardí is a close second. The Caribbean has the highest concentration of producers in the United States and Europe—legacies, in many instances, of colonial times.

The market for rum was worth an estimated $17.4 billion in 2023 and is expected to be worth $24.5 billion by 2033, according to Future Market Insights. The whiskey market, in comparison, is worth $91 billion, and the nonalcoholic drinks market is estimated at $22 billion.

Asia is the biggest rum-drinking market in the world. China is poised for further growth in consumption, especially of rums made in India and Japan. Europe accounts for 30% of worldwide rum sales and is also expected to continue developing.

Top 10 Rum Brands by Sales (2022 figures)

  • Tanduay: 27.4 million cases
  • Bacardí: 23.6 million cases
  • Captain Morgan: 12.9 million cases
  • McDowell’s No.1 Celebration: 8.8 million cases
  • Havana Club: 4.6 million cases
  • Ron Barceló: 2.7 million cases
  • Old Port Rum: 1.5 million cases
  • Contessa Rum: 1.3 million cases
  • Bozkov: 1.3 million cases
  • Appleton Estate: 1.1 million cases

What You Need to Know about Rhum Agricole

Rhum agricole is a small subset of the rum category, but the distinction between rhum agricole and rum is significant. Most rum is made from molasses, while rhum agricole is made from fresh cane juice and on a more seasonal basis.

As the author Dave Broom notes in Rum: The Manual, “People raised on molasses-based rums find it hard to comprehend cane-juice rums. The aromas are different, the structure is finer, the rums (or rhums) are dry.” He adds that it’s equally hard for those accustomed to cane-juice rums to find their way into molasses-based spirits, noting that drinkers miss the vegetal, saline, and floral qualities of cane-juice rums. Aged rhums agricoles also have fine tannins and are less sweet.

In many ways, rhum agricole is closer to single malt Scotch than molasses-based rum. Rhums agricoles reflect the sugarcane from which they’re made, terroir, and vintage conditions. In And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis writes, “Unaged sugarcane rum has a sharply distinctive flavor—you can really taste and smell the sugarcane base. That’s largely because sugarcane liquor comes out of the still at a lower proof than molasses-based rum, allowing more of the distinctive qualities to come through.” He also clarifies that fermented molasses is distilled at a higher proof to strip out unpleasant aromas that can carry over at lower temperatures.

Other sugarcane-based spirits include cachaça, a Brazilian spirit that must be made from sugarcane juice and distilled to between 38% and 48% ABV; and clairin, a style of rum native to Haiti, which is made from cane that is cut by hand, fermented with wild yeast, and distilled in a variety of stills. Some liken clairin to mezcal. Made in small amounts and by using traditional techniques, it is considered a ritual spirit and medicine in its homeland.

French Roots

Agricole means “agricultural” in French, and rhum is the French spelling of rum. Rhum agricole is most associated with the French West Indies islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, in the Caribbean, where many rums are also made. These islands are overseas departments of France where French is spoken and the euro is used for currency. Only rhum agricole made in Martinique and adhering to specific production standards, however, is covered by the French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for the category and can be called Martinique Rhum Agricole AOC.

Homère Clément is credited with pioneering rhum agricole, founding the Habitation Clément distillery in Martinique in 1887, a time when Europe’s demand for Caribbean sugar was in decline because of the introduction of the sugar beet.

Clément transformed a sugar plantation and, instead of refining sugar destined for Europe, he distilled the first-press juice from the sugarcane, yielding rhum agricole. His technique has essentially endured. Producers of rhum agricole harvest and cut sugarcane and immediately transport it to be juiced, ideally within an hour. Fermentation takes 24 hours, and the juice is then distilled in a column still, similar to those used to make Armagnac, then proofed with water. Rhum Clément remains one of the most important producers of rhum agricole today.

Aged rhums are often given designations that classify the age, quality, and style of the spirit, such as VS or VO (Very Special or Very Old, the youngest class), VSOP (Very Superior Old Pale), and XO (Extra Old). These designations will be familiar to those with an understanding of Cognac.

Rhum agricole represents a minuscule fraction of rum sales. Global sales revenue from rhum agricole is predicted at $1.6 million in 2023 (compared with the overall rum category’s $17.4 billion), with an estimated valuation of $2.4 million (compared with rum’s $24.5 billion) by the end of 2033, according to Persistence Market Research. Rhum agricole struggles when competing against rum, as it is more difficult to produce at scale, and because rum’s sweetness levels have a stronger appeal. Labor costs, for example, are higher in Martinique than in places such as Brazil, Cuba, and Jamaica, as Martinique is part of the French system.

AOC Classification

Martinique Rhum Agricole AOC was established in 1996 and defines geographical limits for cane cultivation, standardizes production, and, ultimately, protects the reputation of rhum agricole from Martinique in recognition of its ability to reflect terroir.

To be labeled Martinique Rhum Agricole AOC, the spirit must come from sugarcane grown within 23 specific municipalities in Martinique that are allowed to cultivate sugarcane to make rhum agricole. Yields are legally limited to avoid unsustainable agricultural practices, and fertilizer and water use are heavily regulated as well. Harvest must occur between January and August. No syrup or molasses may be added, only fresh sugarcane juice used, and minimum sugar content and pH are specified. The continuous distillation of fermented wort through distillation columns is required, and rectification, or a second distillation, is not allowed.

Within AOC rules, there are three designations:

  • Rhum Martinique Agricole blanc: Colorless, or white, rum aged a minimum of three months, though not longer than three months if in oak.
  • Rhum Martinique Agricole élevé sous bois: Cask-aged rhum aged in oak barrels for at least 12 months.
  • Rhum Martinique Agricole vieux: Extra-aged rhum aged in oak casks for at least three years.

Technically, these are French regulations enforceable only in France. As Matt Pietrek, who writes about rum at Rum Wonk, notes, “In theory, any rum maker outside of France can use the word agricole on their label, regardless of how the rum was made.” All members of the European Union, however, have agreed to honor and recognize one another’s geographical indications, and thus they do honor France’s AOC rules by buying only rhum agricole from Martinique that meets AOC requirements.

Guadeloupe’s Geographical Indication

The French archipelago of Guadeloupe has thousands of sugarcane growers, with a small percentage of sugarcane used in rum production. Unlike Martinique, there is no AOC system in Guadeloupe, but there is a Rhum de Guadeloupe Geographical Indication (GI), which has been in place since 2015.

The GI is much broader, allowing both sugarcane and molasses to be included in the production of local rhums, for example, as well as the use of different types of stills.

Rhum Agricole Producers to Know

Bielle: Based on the Guadeloupean island of Marie-Galante, the Bielle estate started out growing coffee in 1769 and has been growing sugarcane since 1826. It makes a variety of rhums agricoles. 

Clément: Based in Martinique, Clément is a pioneer of rhum agricole and makes a variety of rhums, including the first designated single-variety rhum blanc. 

J.M: J.M, in Martinique, was founded in 1845 by Jean-Marie Martin, who transformed a sugar factory into a distillery at the base of the Mount Pelée volcano.

J. Bally: This brand is made at the Saint James distillery, in Martinique. The original Bally estate dated to 1690 and was largely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Pelée in 1902.

Karukera: The oldest distiller on Guadeloupe, Karukera uses only blue cane, a variety of sugarcane native to Barbados and known for its aromatic qualities and rich sugar content. The island of Guadeloupe was originally called Karukera.

Neisson: The smallest producer in Martinique, Neisson uses the sugarcane grown on its Thieubert-Carbet estate, which surrounds the distillery.

Trois Rivières: Based in Sainte-Luce, at the southern tip of Martinique, and the island’s largest estate, this producer has been making rhum since 1905 using Creole column distillation.

Rum Cocktails

Rum is the base spirit in some of the world’s most beloved cocktails, from the Daiquiri and Mai Tai to the Hurricane, Mojito, and Piña Colada, as well as the always popular rum-and-Coke.

Rum became synonymous with tiki culture in the mid-1900s in the United States, as the country became enamored of all things Hawaiian, South Pacific, and Caribbean. Donn Beach (real name: Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) and Trader Vic (real name: Victor Bergeron), both based in California, brought many of these rum-based drinks into mainstream cocktail culture.

Rhums agricoles can, of course, be used in many cocktails where molasses-based rums are traditional. The earthy, herbal elements of a rhum agricole will add a different flavor component, making the spirit an interesting one to experiment with in a variety of drinks.

One cocktail that does traditionally call for rhum agricole is the Ti’ Punch, a refreshing beverage commonly served in Martinique and Guadeloupe. A shortening of the Creole words petit punch, it is made with rhum agricole blanc, muddled or squeezed lime, and cane syrup, ideally served over ice.

Three Dots and a Dash is made with aged Martinique rhum agricole, blended aged rum, lime juice, orange juice, velvet falernum, honey syrup, Angostura bitters, and allspice. The ingredients are blended with crushed ice and garnished with three maraschino cherries and one pineapple frond. Donn Beach is credited with creating the drink during World War II, naming it for the Morse code letter V, for victory. Martin Cate, the owner and creator of Smuggler’s Cove, in San Francisco, adapted the original to the recipe above.

Looking Ahead

Rum is one of the world’s greatest spirits, enjoyed widely across many cultures and continents. Rhum agricole, though made in small quantities by a small number of producers, offers a niche subcategory within the larger world of rum. It is particularly worth exploring by those interested in the concept of terroir and in a version of rum that is more herbal and earthy than sweet.

You Might Also Like


Broom, Dave. Rum: The Manual. Ottawa, ON: Octopus Books, 2016.

Carruthers, Nicola. “Top 10 best-selling rum brands.” The Spirits Business. July 4, 2023.

Curtis, Wayne. And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

Future Market Insights. “Global Rum Market Outlook.” Accessed April 4, 2024.

Grossman, Eric. Craft Spirits. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2016.

Harrison, Joel, and Neil Ridley. Distilled. London: Mitchell Beazley, 2014. “Three Dots & A Dash.” Last modified May 9, 2023.

Persistence Market Research. “Rhum Agricole Market Outlook (2023-2033).” Accessed April 4, 2024.

Pietrek, Matt. “What’s Allowed to Be Called Agricole Rum?” Rum Wonk (blog). January 29, 2023.

Rhum Agricole (website). “Protected Designation of Origin.” Accessed April 4, 2024.

Stephenson, Tristan. The Curious Bartender’s Rum Revolution. New York: Ryland Peters & Small, 2017.

  • Thank you for the informative article, Virginie.  This is the first I'd read that Agricole represents less than one percent of the global market. Wow. And growth does not appear to be keeping pace with the finely distilled/rare scotch and whiskey market. Perhaps limited distribution across North America is contributing to the low penetration? To wit, I've purchased most of my Agricoles in France and they've been "imported" by virtue of carefully-packed checked luggage.

  • Thank you for very interesting and useful look on rum. I was curious to see Božkov among the 10 best-selling rum brands, given that their flagship product is a rum-flavoured sugarbeet, potato or god only knows what distillate that cannot legally be called rum. Truly vile potation. They also produce "real" rum now. I would be really surprised if the 1,3 milion cases sales came from the latter category.

  • Great article and great to know the history behind Rum. I might add La Favorite to the Agricole producer list.

  • Well researched and written article. Thank you!