Battle Of The XO's
Updated: Sep 22, 2019
I have less experience drinking agricole rums than I do molasses rum. That doesn’t mean I don’t like them, I just have a slight preference. Agricole rums aren’t available for sale in my province (Ontario, Canada) thanks to dubious legislation, mostly in regards to ethyl carbamate levels. This means I can only buy agricole rum when I’m on a trip. I buy almost all my rum outside of Canada, however there are pretty strict limits on how much you can bring into the country, hence why I have to be selective. In that selection process, agricole loses out to molasses rums in most cases. Still, I currently have about 15 different expressions. Some of them absolutely fantastic.
A lot of people say that drinking agricole is an acquired taste. I read a quote recently from a well known agricole drinker and promoter who strongly disagreed with this because it seems like a slightly negative approach. I understand, but don’t fully agree with this quote. Acquired taste means you are drinking something you don’t like at first because you haven’t had enough exposure to it. Agricole is a very small part of the entire rum world. The exposure is low. Look at me, I can’t even go to my liquor store and buy a bottle…..although Ben Jones is working hard to change this….bless him. :)
Another problem is that a large part of the molasses segment is occupied by sugar laden products that barely taste like rum anymore. Many people expect rum to be this sweet and arguably don’t know what rum should taste like. You won’t find that in agricole. Actually, what I find the best part of agricole is that it has that strong terroir, the connection with the cane and the land. No additive trickery (I know this is not 100% true, except for AOC). This does make it harder for people to start enjoying agricole because it’s different compared to the general perception of rum.
I feel this needs to change, as it is a fascinating product and a very honest and transparent one….for the most part.
For people new to agricole rum, it’s made from pressed sugar cane juice instead of molasses. Typically distilled on a column still with an abv between 65% and 75% off the still. Some agricoles are protected by AOC. For an explanation on AOC and agricole basics, click here for a great website on everything agricole.
The three rums I’m comparing are Rhum JM XO at 45%, HSE XO at 43% and Neisson XO at 48.5%. Because they are all XO’s they have to be aged for a minimum of 6 years.
Rhum JM XO
Distillerie J.M is located in Le Macouba at the base of Mount Pelee. J.M uses its own cane, which is grown in one year cycles. It’s harvested each spring and then pressed within one hour from when it’s cut. Fermentation takes 34 to 48 hours. After distillation in a creole copper column still, the rum is rested in stainless steel tanks for a minimum of 3 months. Finally, it’s put in re-charred ex bourbon barrels and aged for a minimum of 6 years.
By the way, J.M stands for Jean-Marie Martin. He became owner of the estate in 1845.
It’s clearly been aged in an ex bourbon cask. Very oaky with a good amount of vanilla. Funnily enough, it reminds me of molasses rum, oh la la blasphemy. I’m smelling all sorts of sweet red berries, the sweetness makes me think of red wine gums and raspberry. There is some pencil lead, light caramel and chocolate. Earthiness/grass is present, but very minimal.
Wow this is spicy and quite grassy. Lots of herbal notes, nutmeg, oak spices and strong black pepper. Fair amount of alcohol burn on the finish with some slightly bitter caramel. It’s quite an intense experience.
Neisson is a family owned distillery which works with several different farmers for their cane supply. Probably more well known for their white rum, they also have some aged versions. The XO I’m trying here was bought in Paris at Christian de Montaguère. My girlfriend was in Paris and I asked her to go to that particular store. “Mr Agricole”, Jerry Gitany, was there. My girlfriend video called me so that Jerry and I could chat rum. Live video chat between Toronto and Paris, I love technology. In the end he recommended the Neisson XO. I’m glad he did.
The XO is a blend of rums aged for 9, 11 and 12 years in a combination of French oak and American ex bourbon barrels.
This one starts out smokey. I’m picking up a type of tobacco scent that reminds me of going to a tobacco and magazine shop when I was a kid. My mom would always buy cigarettes and a tv guide there every week. Good memories. There is oak, vanilla, caramel, crayon and chocolate. It’s very nutty.
It’s pretty dusty with plenty of oak, citrus, nuts, chocolate and mild tobacco. It’s slightly grassy. The finish is longer than the other two. I like this one a lot. It’s a gentle and complex affair.
Habitation Saint-Etienne hasn’t distilled rum since 1988. Production moved to Distillerie du Simon, which also produces Rhum Clément. This XO has been aged for a minimum of 6 years. Not sure what type of barrel, some websites mention ex cognac. I always do research on the rums after I’m done with the nosing and tasting and I did pick up a winey note on the nose, so it could be.
Spearmint chewing gum is the first thing I pick up, what? It’s on the lighter side, oaky but not as much as the other two. There are nice vanilla notes, tropical fruit, pepper and something winey.
It’s quite grassy, sweet and oaky. I pick up some very light crayon, pepper and a bit of cacao. Very little alcohol burn. It’s the easiest sipper of the three but also the least expressive.
The HSE XO is a nice easy going agricole. It's not super complex but it is a very enjoyable sipper that's not overly grassy. To me this makes it a good introduction for people who aren’t familiar with rhum agricole. A "gateway" rhum to agricole, like Appleton 12 is for Jamaican rum. Speaking of gateway rums, I wrote something about them here.
The JM XO is very expressive, oaky, herbal and spicy. It's quite an intense experience, in a good way. I think it would do very well in a daiquiri. I need to try this now.
The most enjoyable one for me is the Neisson XO. It's so complex and easy going, even at the higher 48.5% abv. The longer ageing clearly works for me.
Rhum JM XO - 76
Neisson XO - 80
HSE XO - 73
Click here for info on the scoring method.