With the start of the 2014 World Cup last week, Brazil has the attention of the entire globe. So it's an ideal moment for The 9-Bottle Bar to be covering a couple of the closest relatives to what we think of as mainstream, conventional rum — that is, the spirit distilled from fermented molasses.
The first is rhum agricole, hailing predominantly from Martinique; the second is cachaça, the national spirit of Brazil.
The island of Martinique is one of the seven Caribbean territories under French rule. Martinique has long been associated with the sugar trade, and production of rhum agricole dates at least as far back as the late 1800s.
Although rhum agricole doesn't have to come from Martinique, the island is surely the most celebrated source; the French government has even created an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (A.O.C.) for Martinique rhum agricoles — as it does with a host of other domestic agricultural products such as cheese and wine. Bottles of rhum agricole bearing this appellation not only meet specific production standards but also present distinctive qualities tied to the place of origin.
The main difference between rum made from molasses (what in French is known as rhum industriel) and rhum agricole is that the latter is distilled from vin de canne, or sugarcane wine, the fermented juice from pressed sugarcane.
By law, the juice of the sugarcane has to be undergoing fermentation within 24 hours of being pressed in order to make A.O.C. Martinique rhum agricole. By using fresh-pressed sugarcane juice as the basis for rhum agricole, the cane is a strong influence on the flavor of the final product, often imparting vegetal, funky notes as well as a luscious, full-bodied texture. As unmistakable as it is hard to articulate, this undertone of oily funk has historically gone by the name hogo, a derivative of a French phrase meaning "high taste."
In Martinique, one of the most popular ways to consume rhum agricole is also one of the simplest. Ti' Punch — a short form of petit (or small) punch — is a longstanding island quaff consisting of rhum agricole, cane syrup, and lime. When making Ti' Punch, you can easily adjust the proportions of the three ingredients minutely until the drink tastes exactly to your liking.
Rhum agricole and cachaça share several similarities, including a base ingredient (sugarcane juice) and a penchant for exhibiting some brash hogo. But in one respect cachaça is more like bourbon than rhum agricole, in that the former two must be produced in Brazil and the U.S., respectively.
There are other key differences. Distillers of cachaça are known to cook down the pressed sugarcane juice into a concentrated syrup prior to fermentation. Cachaça is typically distilled to around 40 percent alcohol by volume — a rather low figure compared to the average of about 70 percent for rhum agricole.
Most Americans know cachaça from drinking it in a caipirinha, a summery cocktail which one could say exists in the middle ground between a Ti' Punch and a Mojito. It consists of muddled lime, sugar, cachaça, ice, and sometimes a dash of soda water. Chances are, during the World Cup, your local cocktail spot is whipping up the caipirinha as a special, honoring the host country and its much-beloved, everyman's cocktail.