Plantation Rums Brings Out the Rarities at Tales of the Cocktail 2015

The agony and ecstasy of Plantation Rums is a direct result of their many, many releases of rums purchased from distilleries around the world and finished in France. Once you’re hooked on their sublime expressions and start collecting their numerous bottlings, you realize it’s a herculean task; there’s always some obscure release you didn’t know about that needs a home on your bar shelf. Sure, Plantation has staples like the Barbados Grand Reserve five-year, the Original Dark, and the 3 Star Blend, but once you start collecting single vintages, say Panama 2000, or the even more exotic Black Label series, it’s like Pokémon card collecting. You can’t have just one.

Plantation often makes small releases for a single country, or custom bottlings of just a few barrels for a retailer, so it’s anybody’s guess how many different offerings are out there. If you’re not familiar with Plantation, you should read this post before continuing.

Paul McFadyen, Alexandre Gabriel, Robert A. Burr
Paul McFadyen, Alexandre Gabriel, Robert A. Burr

At Tales of the Cocktail 2015, Plantation presented an exclusive tasting session of ten expressions not released in the U.S., including a few that have never been released. The session was limited to twenty golden ticket holders. (Okay, not really golden tickets, but unless you camped out on your computer and snapped up tickets during the first day of pre-release ticket sales, you didn’t score one of these.) The rums arrived in hand-labeled bottles, and if you look closely at the photos, you can see some of them leaked a bit during shipping from France to New Orleans.

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The presenters were Alexandre Gabriel, master blender and president of Cognac Ferrand (Plantation’s parent company); Paul McFadyen, their brand ambassador from the UK; and Robert A. Burr, the man behind Miami Rum Renaissance and Rob’s Rum Guide. At the presenter’s table, each bottle was lined up for photographing and general oohing and aahing prior to the session starting. Lurking in the background were other members of the Plantation family, including Guillaume Lamy, vice president at Cognac Ferrand; and Rocky Yeh, another Plantation brand ambassador and fellow Seattlite. Blogger Helena from A Mountain of Crushed Ice sat next to me, and you can read her report of the session here.
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The session kicked off with Paul giving a quick overview of Plantation’s process of purchasing aged rum from the Caribbean, transporting it to the Cognac region in France, then finishing it off with time in cognac barrels and, in some cases, yet a third type of barrel, say, sauternes or pinot des charentes (both sweet aperitif wines). The process is called elevage and entails frequent sampling of individual barrels and appropriate adjustments, including changing the location of the barrel or replacing individual staves. Paul is a very dynamic speaker, constantly pacing about and using large gestures, so I enjoyed hearing the Plantation story yet again, despite having seen it many times before, including from both Alexandre and Guillaume.
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Alexandre was quick to jump in and add to Paul’s points, answering questions from the crowd. Robert added color commentary and notes throughout the session. Once we started tasting the ten rums, Alexandre took over, describing the story behind each rum. Alexandre is a passionate, elegant speaker, full of anecdotes and bits of history and trivia you’ve likely not come across.  He talked so enthusiastically and at length that as we neared the end of the session we still had a number of rums to work through–not that anybody minded. Quick! Drink rum faster!

The crowd, myself included, soaked it up and interjected with numerous questions. Even I learned a few new things, at one point asking Alexandre to clarify a point about the small amounts of sugar (dosage) used to accentuate the rum’s flavor. It was new to me that Alexandre uses a ten-year process to merge the sugar into the rum. There’s still vigorous debatein the rum community about the use of sugar, but Plantation is up-front about using it, and my question was specifically about the technique in which it’s incorporated.

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The ten rums we tasted were arranged from lighter to heavier. In order:
  • Cuba 1998
  • Trinidad 1989
  • Nicaragua 1998
  • Barbados 1991
  • Belize 9 Year
  • Navy Blend (Barbados, Trinidad, Belize)
  • Barbados 20 Year
  • Guadeloupe 1998
  • Jamaica 1998/Guyana 1988
  • St. Lucia 15 Year

The Navy Blend from Barbados, Trinidad, and Belize was interesting as I’d never heard of it before. Alexandre said it was an experiment, but that they very likely would never ship it. It superficially bears some similarity to the readily available Plantation 3 Stars (Barbados, Trinidad, and Jamaica), with the Jamaican swapped out for Belize rum. Unlike the 3 Stars, the experimental Navy blend had color to it as it wasn’t charcoal filtered. I’d certainly buy this if Plantation ever bottled it.

The Barbados 20 Year was a special treat – practically anything from Barbados is worth a look. It should be noted that this rum is a true 20 year old rum, unlike the readily available Plantation 20thAnniversary rum. Both are great sippers, but I found the 20 year to have less of the coconut element that I get from the 20th Anniversary. Alexandre stated there were only a few barrels of the 20 year left, making this an exceptional treat.

IMG_1520The remaining standouts: The Guadeloupe 1998, which, being from the French Island, led with a bit of the agricole funk that I really enjoy. There are not a lot of agricole-style Plantation rums on the market, and what’s available is highly sought after. The St. Lucia 15 year has that characteristic St. Lucia Distiller’s Taste, including a wisp of sulphur, but sent through the Plantation elevageprocess that adds its own distinctive stamp. And of course, the Cuba 1998, with the characteristic Cuban woodiness. Cuban rum is still relatively hard to get in the U.S., especially rum that’s gone to France for finishing first.

Cocktail Wonk, Paul McFadyen, Alexandre Gabriel
Cocktail Wonk, Paul McFadyen, Alexandre Gabriel

After the session, I was able to get some time with Alexandre and Guillaume and learn the scoop on the recently announced change to the well-loved Plantation Original Dark blend. In a nutshell, this is a solid, inexpensive mixing rum originating in Trinidad. Recently, Plantation announced that future bottlings would be a blend of Trinidad and Jamaican rums. While I enthusiastically endorse adding Jamaican rum, I was curious why they were changing a proven winner. Alexandre explained that the Original Dark is a “wide blend” of rums of different ages– some as young as five years, and others as old as twenty years. The Trinidad 20 year rum is a very heavy, pungent pot still rum that adds a lot of “oomph” to the final flavor.

A number of years ago, Alexandre realized that their stocks of this heavy, 20 year rum would soon run out. (This leads me to speculate that this rum was from the now-defunct Caroni distillery.) In any event, with stocks of the heavy Trinidad running low, the natural question is what to replace it with. Any rum lover will tell you that Jamaica is renowned for making heavy, flavorful pot still rums, thus replacing the Trinidad rum with a Jamaican absolutely seems like a smart move.

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This session was among the rummy highlights of my first time at Tales. Despite being limited to twenty attendees (in theory) there were plenty of “family and friends” of Plantation ringing the room by the end. I don’t believe there was a single person present who’s not a Plantation enthusiast, which in turned elevated the level of questions and audience participation, making this more a rummy celebration than a staid tasting session. Let’s hope they do this again next year with a different selection of rare single casks!

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