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What the H? It's Remarkable Rum.

By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sometimes it takes a little time to wrap one's mind around a spirit. Take, for instance, rhum agricole from Martinique.

"Since when do you spell rum with an 'h'?" a friend asked recently when I served him a tasting flight.

"It's French," I explained.

"Figures." He took his first sip. "Okay, I'm out of my comfort zone," he said. "Since when does rum taste like fresh-cut grass?"

I could empathize, and I felt for a moment like the dreaded Scotch snob pushing a big, smoky peat monster on a newbie. In fact, I joked here a year ago that aged rum was the new single-malt Scotch. But after another year of tasting, I think it's not such a joke. Annual sales of premium rum were up over 40 percent in 2007, and I've come to think of rum -- with its many variations from all over the Caribbean and Latin America -- as the most complicated and fascinating spirit in the liquor store.

Rhum agricole may be the most complex of them all.

All seven distilleries on Martinique are governed by an Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) bestowed by the French government in 1996. Most rums are made from molasses, but rhum agricole must be produced from 100 percent fresh, pure sugar cane juice. Some of the distilleries insist that their sugar cane be pressed within an hour of being cut in the fields. Rhum agricole is distilled at a lower proof than other rums to capture more of the natural qualities of the sugar cane. The result is that rhum agricole is one of the few spirits that can actually claim, ahem, "terroir."

"It's an acquired taste," says Wayne Curtis, rum expert and author of "And a Bottle of Rum" (Three Rivers Press, 2007). "I didn't like it at the outset. It was too grassy, too organic. But I've really started to appreciate it."

I agree. Learning to love rhum agricole is really no different from learning to appreciate complex wines such as Barolo or Amarone. So distinct is rhum agricole from other rums that the San Francisco World Spirits Competition recently instituted a separate category for the spirit.

"It's like the difference between Scotch and bourbon," says Ben Jones, vice president and general manager of Clement USA, which imports both Rhum Clement and Rhum J.M from Martinique. "It's just a different flavor profile." Jones, a fourth-generation member of the Clement family, says the lower distilling temperature makes for a huge contrast with molasses-based rums: "Once you cook the sugar, you've cooked off all the terroir and the finer qualities of what the sugar cane has to offer."

White rhum agricole, which rests for nine months, presents a bit of a mixing conundrum: Its vegetal qualities are not ideal in a lot of the rum standards, including mojitos and daiquiries. "It's not very versatile," Curtis says.

But the white is outstanding in Martinique's traditional Ti Punch (short for petit punch, or "little punch"): Drizzle a bar spoon full of cane syrup into an old-fashioned glass, cut a small disk from the side of a lime and squeeze in into the glass, add 1 1/2 ounces of rhum agricole and a chunk of ice, and serve. (And watch out for the little punch it packs.) I like Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc and Rhum Clement Premiere Canne in this drink.

However, it's the aged rhum agricoles that have really sold me on the spirit. As the rhum ages in oak casks, the grassy, funky qualities are tamed a little, creating a spirit that approaches a fine cognac.

For everyday drinking, smooth and mellow Rhum Clement VSOP is the gold standard, at under $35 a bottle. Depaz Blue Cane, La Favorite Ambre and Rhum J.M's VSOP are excellent choices in the same price range. The VSOPs work well in the Ti Punch, but they're also worth experimenting with in cocktails that call for cognac, such as sidecars. The Sargasso, created a couple of weeks ago for Rhum Clement's annual cocktail competition, is an example of a drink that most definitely would not arrive with a mini-umbrella: It's urbane and balanced rather than fruity.

I don't usually recommend expensive bottles, but for those who are looking for a real splurge, I make a notable exception for the Rhum J.M Vieux 1997 vintage. Even at around $100, it is still an unbelievable value. With its explosion of aromas and tastes -- nutty, herbal, chocolaty, slightly fruity -- it is one of the finest spirits I've tasted all year.

After finally wrapping his mind around rhum agricole -- extra "h" and all -- even my friend had to agree.

Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached atfood@washpost.com.

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