In the 19th century, the French West Indies was going through tough times. In terms of rum, they faced stiff competition from the British islands. In terms of sugar, exports dwindled as the European market was largely supplied from locally produced sugar made from sugar beets. Without a demand for sugar, there was not much point for the plantations that managed to survive to go through the process of crushing the sugarcane to get to the juice, turning this into sugar crystals and molasses before fermenting the molasses mixed with water and distilling it into rum. If sugar had no viable market, then why not just cut out the middleman (molasses), ferment the sugarcane juice and distill that? Voila, rhum agricole it was!
However, coming into existence is not the same as being a hit, and it would take some stars aligning before rhum agricole came to play a bigger role. A volcano erupting on the island of Martinique in 1902 saw big human casualties, but also the destruction of some of the larger distilleries producing rum from molasses. More rural distilleries that produced rum from sugarcane juice survived, and filled the gap in the market.
During World War I, French production of spirits was halted, but by no means people’s demand for a drink. The Caribbean producers stepped up and increased production, seeing rhum agricole win an important place in the minds, hearts and mouths of suffering European consumers.
Rhum agricole adds a different layer to the rum world. It’s fresh and fast. It’s not unusual for sugarcane about to be harvested to be rum just 48 hours later (rum out of the still that is, maturation obviously follows before it’s a finished product). Today, the production of rhum agricole on Martinique is highly regulated by law. But its history to me is representative of rum in general. It’s about adaptation, creativity and flexibility. Circumstances changed, so rum changed. Something new came along, still rum, but different.
I have been enjoying myself lately by delving into the excellent website/blog cocktailwonk.com. He writes well-informed history and fun anecdotes from the world of spirits, with a lot of great stuff on rum. It’s a great source of information on rhum agricole as well as on other areas of essential rum knowledge/unhinged geekery!