Madeira is known as the Pearl of the Atlantic (it is located 850 km southwest of Portugal), and the island is renowned for its beautiful landscapes and wine. But in recent years, the production of Madeira Rum, which was once the biggest industry in Madeira, has been revived and is expected to be one of the country’s greatest exports in the coming years.
Rum da Madeira, as it is known on the island, is an Agricole rum with an extensive history and is cherished by rum enthusiasts for its complex yet refreshing flavour profile. The warm climate of Madeira, together with its fertile volcanic soils, means this European landmass yields exceptional-quality sugarcane. What further sets Madeira Rum apart from other rums are the meticulous methods of production undertaken by the distillers on the island. Timeless distillation methods combined with exceptional craftsmanship result in rums with extraordinary flavours. Madeira Rums have been recognised by the drinks community, with many rums from the island having won top awards and accolades across international spirit competitions over the years.
How Madeira became a rum pioneer
Madeira Island was officially discovered in 1419 by three explorers – João Gonçalves Zarco, Tristão Vaz Teixeira, and Bartelomeu Perestrelo – by the order of Prince Henry the Navigator. The name ‘Madeira’ is derived from wood, due to the island’s historic abundance of dense forest. The first settlers of Madeira cleared the dense laurel forest to grow grain, but soon after decided to plant sugarcane instead, with these crops originating from Sicily.
Madeira’s geographic location, warm climate, abundance of water, and volcanic fertile soil meant sugarcane flourished and contributed to the island’s prosperity. By 1466, sugar had become the main industry. The demand for sugar in the 15th century was so high that across Europe, the crop was known as “white gold”. Madeira was thriving, producing an amount equivalent to half of the sugar consumption in Europe. Sugar from Madeira was considered to be of the highest quality, and despite competition from other sugar producers like Sicily, Egypt, and Morocco, Madeira started to export its sugar across the world.
During this period of prosperity, Madeira began its production of rum, with some of the production methods and technologies still used today. Madeira Rum enjoyed both a domestic and foreign market and was transported overseas by sailors and traders.
But the sugar and rum industry of Madeira started to experience a decline in the 16th century as a result of the decision to plant sugarcane in Brazil, a Portuguese colony at the time. Sugarcane grew effortlessly in Brazil, and Madeira, with its sloped land and therefore more labour-intensive production, was unable to compete against the new, cheaper sugar from Brazil.
In the 17th century, a sugarcane disease surged across the island, which was the hammer blow to Madeira’s sugar and rum industry. Sugarcane fields were replaced with vineyards and other fruits. By the late 20th century, sugarcane production had declined by over 95% from its peak in the 15th century.
The 21st century saw a revival of the sugar and rum industries on the island, thanks to government support and a drive by the local population to renew their traditional skills and heritage. Today, sugarcane accounts for a total area of 172 hectares on the island, with all the production carried out by small family-owned farms. The cane continues to be grown on sloped land, with gradients greater than 25%. For that reason, small-scale farmers continue to harvest sugarcane by hand without the use of large-scale machinery. Madeirans take great pride knowing that sugarcane continues to be harvested in this traditional way, and it’s believed this corresponds to an exceptional product as the care and quality of the sugarcane is considered paramount.
What makes Madeira Agricole Rum so unique?
All rum comes from sugarcane. But not all sugarcane is created equally. Madeira sugarcane is considered one of the best in the world with very distinct characteristics, thanks to Madeira’s unique microclimate, volcanic soil, altitude, and oceanic influences, which contribute to the cane’s distinct nuanced flavour profile, rich in aromatic compounds and complexity. There are three types of sugarcane grown on the island: POJ 2725 (also known as purple cane), NCO 310 (also known as green cane), and yuba (also known as canica), which are endemic to the island.
Not only does Madeira rum come from this exceptionally high-quality cane, but it is also taken through a careful production process that influences the final flavour.
The first stage in the process of making rum is harvesting. To preserve the sugarcane’s quality and considering the island’s sloped terrain, all harvesting is done by hand, which means care and attention to detail are paramount.
The next step is crushing the sugarcane. This is done in more than one mill to ensure all the juice is extracted. In most cases, the crushing is done the day after the cane has been harvested in order to maintain the sugar level and extract the maximum quantity of juice. The crushed sugarcane juice then goes into a reservoir, where the next step takes place.
After the crushing of the cane, where the juice is extracted, the fermentation process begins. The process is exclusively alcoholic fermentation with the help of yeast and usually takes between 24 and 72 hours.
The penultimate stage in rum making is distillation, and in Madeira, the most traditional type of distillation is achieved via copper still, which results in small-batch rums with unique flavour profiles. Madeira Rum can also be distilled in a column still, which allows for a more consistent rum and higher volumes.
It should be noted that Madeira only produces agricole rums, that is, rums made by distilling fresh sugarcane juice. This is in contrast to over 90% of the rums produced globally, which are molasses-based. Molasses is a by-product from the refinement of sugar, so in essence, it is a cheaper way of producing rum. With agricole rum, no sugarcane juice is diverted to making sugar. Therefore, with agricole rum, the consumer gets the full essence of the sugarcane in the final product.
The last and most important element in producing Madeira Rum is the ageing phase. All Madeira rums are aged in French oak barrels, which contribute to their deep and rich flavour profiles. The most premium rums of Madeira will typically be aged in oak casks that previously held Madeira wine. These casks impart a sweet, brandy-like flavour to rums, incomparable to other rums on the market.
Once we consider the whole production process of Madeira Rum, from the harvesting of the cane to the ageing of the distilled product, we can understand why Madeira Rum is highly renowned for its smoothness, richness, and complexity. Notes of dried fruits, caramel, and vanilla sing in harmony to the tune of bolder oak tones, making for a truly exceptional product.
Harold Vieira is co-founder of Harold & Hansa, experts in Madeira rum.