Cape Verde and Sugar Cane Juice Rum Categories

[If you are a distiller, make sure you know about the birectifier]

I finally finished Arroyo’s Studies on Rum and thought it was really inspiring. I aim to give an in depth optimistic and pessimistic review of his work soon, but I’m a bit busy and might build up to it as I do more background research.

One thing that caught my eye towards the end of the book was Arroyo’s explanation of sugar cane juice rum categories that we just don’t seem to recognize anymore. This was the difference between defacated & clarified rums versus raw and pure types. Arroyo was an advocate for clarifying sugar cane juice, observing that it’s rums matured faster, while I am an advocate for the raw state or at least celebrating both. Martinique would be a prime example of a defacated and clarified style while Cape Verde would be an example of the raw style. If these were Chardonnays, Martinique would be something a banker would prize out of California and a Cape Verdean grogue would be something garagiste & cult out of Burgundy.

Let me see if I can find Arroyo’s own language, It starts on page 171 in the chapter on Rum Aroma:

[…], a raw sugar cane juice will produce a raw rum quite different in aromatic tone to that of defecated and clarified juice. The rum produced by the raw sugar cane juice will be much richer in the makeup of its Non-Alcohol-Number than that obtained from the defecated and clarified juice. Hence raw cane juice will tend to produce a “heavy” type of rum, while defecated and clarified cane juice will tend to produce a very light type of rum.

Our experiments dealing with sugar cane juice rums have demonstrated that:

(1) The rums produced from raw cane juice are more aromatic, but the aroma lacks the finesse of those produced from defecated and clarified sugar cane juice. These rums also will take a longer period of ageing to reach maturity. When the organoleptic tests from aroma are applied to a sample of this type of rum, it gives the impression that a blend of various rums rather than a single one is being tested; in a word, the rum aroma lacks stability and uniformity, being also rather pungent.

(2) The rums obtained from pasteurized sugar cane juices, but not clarified, occupy an intermediate position with respect to the quality of the aromatic gama. Their aroma is more uniform, stable, suave and delicate. It possesses a more harmonious blend of the different components. Complexity of aroma may be present, but it is stable; and presents a single aromatic effect.

(3) The rums produced from the defecated and clarified sugar cane juice have the same general characteristics as those produced in the same case of pasteurized cane juice; but they possess, besides, greater amplitude and penetration of aroma. Certain tinge of the peculiar odor of matured rums may also be observed in the bouquet of these particular products.

The natural aromatic constituents present in the raw materials used will become another important factor in the bouquet of the resulting rum. In this particular we have that different varieties of sugar cane yield juices with different classes and amounts of aroma. Also in a given cane variety, the aromatic tone will differ according to state of maturity, time elapsed between cutting and grinding the cane, whether burned or fresh cane is cut and ground, etc. etc.

Wow. What beautiful language and he never says that word balanced that I abhor. You can sense Arroyo really grapples with language to meet you on the same plane of experience. He gives us uniformity, which is the language of space, stability which is temporal, suavity which is more abstract, cultural, and definitely reflecting his Spanish stance (#phenomenology). There is harmony, amplitude, and tone which are most commonly the language of sound and music. Arroyo uses tinge which refers to a grappling with scale (remember my obsessions with the scaler adjective problem?). Arroyo’s language is really refreshing and a lot of my first collecting projects were to look for evidence of unique language used by producers to convey sensory experiences.

I identify with this Arroyo guy because he is also tuned into metaphor in a way others aren’t yet. In a few paragraphs he also shows us we know near nothing about rum. All the rum talk of the recent renaissance is bunk (but hopefully that is liberating and leaves you optimistic).

Arroyo’s words also defy my Chardonnay analogy and sort of challenge notions of manipulation relative to terroir, but I am standing my ground as an advocate for Cape Verde as producer of the greatest fresh sugar cane juice rums of the world. I originally saw that pungency as a sense of place, though now I know it is mostly a matter of technique (though it is likely the last place to use the technique!). I even speculated that it may have gotten there by not fermenting the beers to dryness and thus getting an exaggerated ratio of aroma to alcohol (a la mosto verde Pisco), but now I know I was wrong. Whatever it was, it’s low frequency of occurrence among the rums of the world really captured my attention.

But those aromas, that lack of uniformity, and over the top pungency take on rich cultural symbolism. It is all very similar conceptually to Mezcal. It is hearty like a home cooked meal and so often that beats carefully composed restaurant food. There are no regrets or missed opportunities in the heads & tales cuts, but those aromas are wild. We could also find a word that would be in the same category of suavity, but it would mean something quite different. I bet the Cape Verdean dialect of Portuguese has a word readily available, you probably use your hands as you say it.

Cape Verdean life is no picnic and hard work is done by hand infusing itself into the spirit. The cane is crushed by hand power with a trapiche. The music of Cape Verde, the mornas, popularized by Cesária Evora, originally moved to the slow beat of the trapiche. This poor country where everybody lends a hand pushing the trapiche has no continuous super centrifuge of Arroyo. The fires of the still are tended to by hand, fueled by cane bagasse and the temperature is maintained by intuition coupled with watching the flow out of the wooden condenser.

Romance is wonderful, but some of these spirits can slum it a little too much and wind up with taint from copper corrosion due to not nearly enough condensing power or the lack of stainless steel that much of the distilling world has gravitated towards for condensers to reduce ethyl carbamate as well as copper salts. University research papers that cover grogue, and draw comparisons to Cachaca, pretty much only dwell on condensing issues related to quality.

Not all of Cape Verdean production is so rustic and I suspect some of the rums that I love the best, such as Vale d’Paul and Joao Monteiro, are produced in facilities that are relatively more modern. As I checked for spelling, I found some vintage egullet talk on the grogue subject worth browsing.

Not everyone quickly regards the Cape Verdean rums like I do, but how does that change as you’ve come to appreciate Mezcal or learned how it is fermented in the truly raw state unlike the centrifuged, clarified and defecated spirits of Martinique?

Cape Verde still has a lore that much of the rum world has come to lack (on its surface). There never was a sugar cane industry in Cape Verde. Sugar Cane was a failed experiment and became a backyard crop which has to be grown with extreme sensitivity because of the desertification that afflicts much of Cape Verdean agriculture. Rum production goes back centuries but it was completely illegal for much of that time and thus could be seen as the greatest moonshining tradition of the world (second only to the Medronhos of the Al Garve).

The last time I sat down to talk grogue with a producer’s son, I was told of an amazing heritage. The head distiller of Vale d’Paul is in his nineties and has distilled his entire life. He has even recognized plots within his own property that produce the best cane for rum making and he sets them aside for himself. At the end of this recent post, there was a telling of terroir recognition among Sri Lankan Arracks, and it no doubt also exists in cane juice rums though we as imbibers have not matured enough to create a demand for it. I’m dying to taste those single plots of Vale d’Paul.

Should we launch a kick starter to buy Cape Verde some Swiss Alfa Laval continuous centrifuges or should we embrace them as they are and hear their story of undisrupted rum production?

Is Cape Verde the living link to rum production of the 19th and early 20th century?

New non-molasses producers are entering the fray, but do they truly know how to sculpt rum?

We have a long way to go and a lot to see, I have a feeling drinking rum will keep getting better and better.

[Where do we go next? Astute reader, David Wondrich, was quick to point out that many Brazilian cachaças are produced unfiltered & defecated yet do not have defining characteristics found in Cape Verdean rums. So how do we explain that? It has long perplexed me that cachaças don’t share more characteristics in common with Martinique rhums and I’m just beginning to find explanations for that as well.

If we backtrack to Arroyo for a minute:

Also in a given cane variety, the aromatic tone will differ according to state of maturity, time elapsed between cutting and grinding the cane, whether burned or fresh cane is cut and ground, etc. etc.

Some of these ideas are relevant and of course we know they matter in theory, but what we don’t know is the very specifics of how things differ practice. We also latch on to ideas like cane variety or the type of still used and too often ignore specifics of fermentation yet I suspect that is where the most salient aspects of differentiation come into play.]

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