Fresh Cane Spirits Connect Every Cocktail to Its Roots
From Haiti’s clairin to Martinique’s rhum agricole and beyond, these are distinctly agricultural pours.
For the better part of a decade, people in the drinks industry predicted—at times with breathless enthusiasm—that fresh cane spirits were poised to become the next big thing. Made with traditional production processes and fresh-pressed cane juice from local crops, this broad category includes rum, cachaça, clairin, aguardiente, and more. While they currently make up less than 10% of all cane liquors produced and consumed globally, there’s reason to believe that, at long last, these spirits are breaking out of industry circles and into widespread drinks culture.
It’s been a long journey. As recently as 2010, American bartenders in serious cocktail destinations were only just starting to add rum-based drinks to their lists. That change was inspired in no small part by the appearance of Smith & Cross Rum, which was based on a London Dock–style rum. These blended or single-origin spirits hailed from Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad, and Barbados, and were sourced and distributed by the British Royal Navy circa 1780s. They became global collectors’ items, like single malt Scotch.
As Smith & Cross gained esteem and distribution across the United States over the course of the last decade, every drink destination worth its salt had Smith & Cross on its back bar or in a cocktail. One notable example is Joaquin Simo’s Kingston Negroni, which swaps the gin in a traditional Negroni for Smith & Cross. Many bartenders now consider it a modern classic.
The success of Smith & Cross created a swell of enthusiasm for fresh cane spirits. A departure from industrially produced rums, cane spirits’ raw ingredients and distillation processes render liquids with bright, punchy noses and layers of grassy, vegetal flavors plus funky, overripe fruit. These are distinctly agricultural spirits, indelibly tied to their places of origin.
“Cane juice rums are the darling of the category,” says Kevin Beary of Chicago tiki institution Three Dots and a Dash. “While they share commonality in terms of the base material used for production, there is this incredible variation in flavor profile.”
What are fresh cane spirits?
You can make all sorts of liquors from sugarcane and related materials. Cachaça, the first style of cane spirit to be produced at scale, has been around since the mid-16th century. It’s produced in a range of styles due to the diversity of the wood used to age it. As it can be bottled at 37% ABV, it is not technically considered a rum, but has nevertheless been accepted among rum lovers as a part of the category’s lineage and history.
Aguardiente, which is made throughout Latin America, and Haiti’s clairin are sometimes considered akin to the “moonshine” of rum, drawing comparisons to the relationship between mezcal and tequila. Until recently, these spirits were all made by small producers operating small stills, some powered by natural fuel such as wood or sugarcane husk fed by hand into a furnace that heats the still. They were seldom bottled or packaged and, as a result, were primarily consumed locally.
Meanwhile, rhum agricole is the only style of rum regulated by A.O.C. standards. Those rules determine which sugarcane strains can be used, the length of fermentation, and distillation methods, all in an effort to display the terroir of the production and the island overall. One of Martinique’s best-known rhum agricole brands, Rhum Clement, was founded by Homere Clement, who had previously made Armagnac. He applied a similar approach to crafting his cane spirit, using alembic stills and French Limousin oak casks for aging. The resulting rhum agricoles are potent, with vibrant aromas and flavors. When aged, they have mellow, nuanced flavor profiles reminiscent of quality Cognac.
With close ties to their regions of origin, thoughtfully made fresh cane spirits are dramatically different from the mass-produced rums featuring bulk molasses sourced from a faraway location. Industrial creations are predominantly made via column stills, which can produce lighter-bodied liquor more quickly than pot stills, and fermented rapidly (often 24 hours or less). They can also include modifiers to tweak their flavors and colors.
Fresh cane spirits, however, are made with wild-grown sugarcane, as opposed to the cultivated strains used in industrially produced spirits. As a result, they can have grassy or vegetal aromas or delicately floral notes. The palate might be laden with fresh fruits like pineapple, banana and guava, followed by an earthy finish redolent of the soil types—loamy, dry, ashen, or volcanic—where the sugarcane was cultivated.
“Fresh cane juice rum is one of the most unique styles in that it doesn’t have anything to hide behind,” says Anton Kinloch, owner of Fuschia Tiki Bar in New Paltz, New York. “Due to the delicate nature of the cane juice, and how quickly it oxidizes before fermentation and distillation, they can bring a beautiful contrast to the sweet and sour elements of a cocktail, be it by livening up a Daiquiri or adding depth to a Mai Tai.”
Where to find fresh cane spirits
As recently as 10 years ago, there were only a handful of cachaça and rhum agricoles available in the U.S. Aguardiente was virtually impossible to find outside of a few cities, and clairin was widely unknown. Since then, numerous brands have arrived, including Avua Cachaça, Paranubes Oaxaca Rum, and Charanda Urupan.
American rum producers have begun to enter into the fresh cane juice spirit game as well. Notable among them are California’s St. George Distillers and OxBow Estate Rum, and High Wire Distillers in South Carolina. In the U.S. there’s less agricultural land devoted to sugarcane and a shorter season than in the Caribbean and Latin America, which means there’s less material to put into these products, giving them a built-in rarity.
“I think the interest in fresh cane rum is aligned with the global interest in returning to and rediscovering the value of production done by real people with real raw material,” says Kate Perry of La Maison & Velier, a company that imports Haitian rums to the U.S. She likens it to the popularity of craft beer, single-origin coffee and chocolate, and grower Champagnes. “These types of products allow consumers to connect with community and geography in a very different way than mass-marketed commercial goods.”
Olivia Stewart, president of Oxbow Estate Rum, recently added an agricole-style rum to the operation’s lineup. She hopes to create an A.O.C.-style designation for Louisiana sugarcane and spirits. The goal is not just to release notable cane spirits, she says, but to support the Louisiana sugarcane industry overall.
People making fresh cane spirits work in windows of production related to the harvest season, which can have a 4 to 6-month span, depending on the locale of production. While these time constraints are considerably more restrictive than those of rum producers working with molasses, the upside is that the base material can be closely monitored, harvested, and processed at times of peak ripeness. The juice can be fermented immediately, which helps avoid flavor degradation, and, if all goes right, can emerge as a delicious and engaging pour. It also means there’s a more intimate relationship between the grower and the producer, aiding quality control and showcasing the distinct character of the region of origin.
If you choose your bottle carefully, fresh cane spirits offer the chance to experience a liquor in its raw and primal form, and to support small-batch and artisanal producers and the agricultural communities that surround them.
Fresh cane spirits to try
Avua Cachcaca Prata 42% ABV
This entry level bottle from Drifter Spirits, which also bottles aquavit and private-cask whiskeys, is designed first and foremost for mixing in cocktails like the Caiprinha. It has a dry, vegetal nose with restrained fruits on the palate, and a long, clean finish.
Clairin Communal, Rhums of Haiti 43%ABV
A blend of clairins from four villages in Haiti, Communal brings the flavor profiles of the varied terroir and landscape of Haiti, which has more than 300 small-scale village distillers. These producers juice and press hand-harvested, wild sugarcane. The result is a spirit that has lush fruit on the nose, a generously creamy mouthfeel, and a long, herbaceous finish. It’s easy to drink in a Daiquiri or the French Antilles’ go-to rum punch, the Planteur.
Rhum JM 110
Martinique’s fresh cane juice rum—the only bottles that can be accurately labeled “rhum agricole”—is produced according to a set of A.O.C. standards that were written into law in 1991. Situated near Martinique’s Mt. Pele, Rhum JM harvests three strains of sugarcane cultivated in soil enriched by volcanic ash in growing areas nestled amongst banana and pineapple fields. A dry, crisp, and elegant pour that boasts subtle floral aromas on the nose, it absolutely shines in a Ti’ Punch.
OxBow Rhum, Louisianne
The latest release from OxBow, which has produced sugarcane in Pointe Coupe, Lousiana since 1859, the Loiusianne aims not only to capture the essence of the raw flavor of the estate's sustainably cultivated cane, but also to spearhead a movement to create a set of standards for the local growers. Clocking in at 45% ABV, it has pungent, grassy aromas with hints of baking spices on the nose. On the palate it is funky, grassy, and vegetal. Its finish is long and effervescent, with abundant lime and spice. Another great option for a Ti’ Punch or a Daiquiri.