A Geek's Guide to Rum

Overproof, white, dark, golden, pale, spiced, cachaca, aguardiente, agricole, industrial, vintage, navy, black. We’re talking rum people, or is it rhum? BarChick went rum tripping and we’re here to break it down so next time you hit carnival you can roll like a badman.

Most rum you see out there is industrial rum, aka any rum made from sugarcane by-products (usually molasses). Then there is the stuff that gets us excited, Rhum Agricole (use the h, it’s a French thing). This is rarer, seasonal and is made by pressing the fresh sugarcane, to make a nice fresh juice to make the rhum from, it’s kind of like the difference between freshly squeezed OJ and concentrate. Got it?

Good. Now check out this geeky breakdown of exactly what goes down when making rum and the differences between agricole and industrial. It will blow your mind.


Being the diligent student she is, BarChick went all out on this piece and hit Martinique to stay chez Rhum Clement, one of the finest Rhum Agricoles… where better to get our education?


There are some serious rules if you want to be classed as a real Rhum Agricole, these are enforced by the AOC (Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée), those guys are fierce, and for good reason. It’s important to protect the reputation of the rhum, guarantee the origin and the quality of the products and eliminate unfair competition from un-genuine products. Here here.


First things first, you need a good farmer, it’s all about choosing the right sugar cane varieties, planting them, growing them and harvesting them. At Habitation Clement they have a 20 hectare plantation, so they buy most of their cane from independent farmers.


But you gotta be quick, you need to crush it into liquid ASAP, because otherwise the hot climate will cause it to lose flavour and sugar, and the fermentation process will start too soon. The maximum time for the cane to wait before it is crushed is 24 hours, but it can be as little as 30 minutes. It’s fast and furious in these parts.


This is the important part! The sugar cane juice is placed in big vats and yeast is used to kick start the fermentation process, aka when the sugar is turned into alcohol. Phewf.

One bag (roughly 25kg) of yeast is added to the mother vat (the first vat), which then starts the fermentation for the other vats of the day. The yeast consumes the sugar and produces ethanol and carbon dioxide. NB. temperature control is vital, as most yeasts die at 35°C.
The juice is left in the vats for about 24 hours and the resulting mixture is now called the vésou (or the wine), it is about 4% alcohol (minimum).


Now it’s time to get the party started, and distil this baby! The alcohol % of the vésou gets increased through distillation, the liquid is evaporated via distillation through four column stills.
The column stills are heated from the bottom and the temperature separates the alcohol into vapour as alcohol boils to a lower temperature than water. Everyone knows that.
As the vapour passes through each column the alcohol gets more refined and the flavour becomes more concentrated.

After distillation of the vésou, a clear white rhum is produced at 72% alcohol (it mustn’t exceed this level so that the non-alcoholic elements bring flavour to the rhum). As the rhum is being run off the final column, the initial liquid known as the head is not used, only the heart (the best quality) is used. As it should be.


White rum can be aged or unaged. Once it finishes the distillation process the alcoholic content needs to be reduced by adding water. After ageing, every 1% of water added, means 1% less alcohol.
At Rhum Clément, their Première Canne is a floral white rum with notes of honey, orange and fresh sugar cane and is 40% ABV (traditionally it was 50%). It also has green grassy and olive notes, and is visceral and herbaceous. It’s quite something.


With rum it’s not so rude to ask its age, in fact we say the older the better. First you choose how long to age it for, and then you choose the types of barrel accordingly to give it the desired flavour.
Rhum Clément is aged in re-charred bourbon barrels or new French oak barrels depending on the intended vintage. But similar to people losing hair, barrels lose rum. Every year 8% of rum is lost through evaporation because of the climate, this is called the ‘Angel’s Share’ or the ‘Duppy’s Share’ (over ten years they lose 50%, their oldest rhum is a 21 year old vintage).

Over the years colour and flavour transforms the rum from the barrels, which is how it gets all oaky and dark and delicious. After the ageing in the barrels is complete, each barrel is tasted by the master distiller before they are added to a mixing vat. At Clément they rest the rhum for 6 months (the marrying of the rhum, sweet). Once the rhum is stable, water is added to achieve the desired % ABV, which is then pumped to the bottling plant (basically a small room!) and it hits our shelves in very pretty looking bottles. Job nicely done.


In a TI PUNCH baby! It’s super easy to make with only three ingredients: Rhum (obviously!), sugar syrup and lime!