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Friday, September 10, 2010

Agua Libre: Alameda's St. George Spirits Makes First U.S. Agricole Rum

Posted By on Fri, Sep 10, 2010 at 4:21 PM

click to enlarge St. George Spirits' Lance Winters, crushing sugarcane at the Alameda distillery. - LOU BUSTAMANTE
  • Lou Bustamante
  • St. George Spirits' Lance Winters, crushing sugarcane at the Alameda distillery.
Rum is a spirit that arrives in the glass with stories and images built in: tales of pirates, deserted islands, buried treasure, and tropical fields lush with sugarcane. Since rum has been the lifeblood of seafarers, it's fitting that a port city like ours would require not one, but two rum houses: Smuggler's Cove and Bar Agricole. S.F.'s ardor has encouraged local production as well. Charbay in Napa has produced lovely unaged and vanilla infused expressions for some time, and now Alameda's St. George Spirits is releasing what could be the first U.S. agricole-style rum, Agua Libre.

Agricole rum (or rhum agricole) is a spirit made from fermented cane juice primarily on the island of Martinique, although it's also made on Guadeloupe, St. Barts, and other French-connected islands. The sugarcane must be grown on the island, as well as all distilling, aging, and bottling. The CliffsNotes version of the story is that agricole rum is to other rums what mescal is to tequila ― most often artisanal, and with complex flavors.

click to enlarge Agua Libre Fresh Squeezed unaged rum. - ST. GEORGE SPIRITS
  • St. George Spirits
  • Agua Libre Fresh Squeezed unaged rum.
Just like agricole rum, Agua Libre starts production with fresh, hand-harvested sugarcane sourced from the Imperial Valley in Southern California, crushed with the help of a modest press from India. The juice extracted from the hand-fed machine is fermented for about two weeks before being distilled in St. George's copper pot stills.

The unaged white rum (the distillery calls it Fresh Squeezed) is bottled at 43 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). The flavor is dramatically big with a grassy freshness, yet earthy, with some funk. "Agua Libre tastes just like fresh sugarcane," says St. George Spirits distiller Lance Winters. "If you've ever tasted fresh-pressed cane juice, it's like that without the sweetness. There's nothing subtle about this rum." Bar Agricole features Agua Libre rum in a classic and delicious ti' punch: rum, lime juice, and cane syrup on the rocks.

The aged rum bottled at barrel strength, 56.8 percent ABV was aged for 2 ½ years in French oak barrels. Winters says the aging process "takes all of those flavors and brings them to the brown sugar realm. You get more buttery notes, cinnamon, and vanilla." No wonder it makes such a surprisingly flavorful Cuba Libre, the timeless combination of cola (Mexican Coke, of course) and lime.

Agua Libre might not be made in the tropical French West Indies, but it's remarkably similar, made by a quaint distillery on a sunny island in small batches from fresh sugarcane. Besides, Lance Winters once sailed the seas with the U.S. Navy. Get your rum ration before the limited release sells out!

Agua Libre Fresh Squeezed unaged rum retails for $36 a 750ml bottle, the aged dark rum for $60, at local spirits shops including K&L, Blackwells, Cask, John Walker, and the Jug Shop. Outside of San Francisco retailers JV in Napa, Ledgers in Berkeley, and Jackson's in Lafayette should have some in stock.

[Full disclosure: Lou Bustamante is a former employee of St. George Spirits.]

Lou Bustamante tweets at @thevillagedrunk. Follow us at @sfoodie.

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