One of my favorite things about writing Cocktail Wonk is the opportunity to sit down with key people in the rum industry and go deep with geeky questions of interest to rum enthusiasts. Without any space constraints, I can let them really elucidate their unique perspectives. While these interviews are long, you really get a sense of what the interviewee is all about, at least with regards to rum.
To date, I’ve published interviews with the following people, and more are in the pipeline!
- Richard Seale – Foursquare
- Luca Gargano – Velier (here, here, and here)
- Benjamin Jones – Spiribam (here and here)
- Karen Hoskin – Montanya
- Komal Samaroo – Demerara Distillers Ltd.
In February of 2019 during Miami Rum Congress, I sat down with Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand and Plantation Rum. Towards the end of the interview we were joined by Guillaume Lamy, Ferrand’s vice president of the Americas. We talked about rum history, innovation, geographical indications, the future of West Indies Rum Distillery and Long Pond, and many other topics.
Portions of our interview with broader consumer interest will appear in my Bevvy Ruminations column. What appear here are deeper topics of interest to the hardcore rum community.
Matt Pietrek: Let’s talk about rum history. Is there substantial value in looking backwards and reviving historical techniques? Or should we focus more on blank slate innovation of our own?
Alexandre Gabriel: Making a beautiful spirit is an act of creation. My mother is a sculptor and has taught me that you should study the past painters and past sculptors to create and define your own style. You never start from a blank slate. A writer reads other writers. You don’t just decide that you’re a writer and write your own things. You don’t just fire up a still and make a great rum just like that.
To create great rum you need to study what was done before and learn from others so as to draw your own conclusions on what speaks to you most. The beauty of rum is its very rich heritage as well as the diversity of its many cultures.
The problem is that when you start saying there’s only one true culture and all the rest is wrong. This is the antithesis of rum. That’s why people come to different conclusions, and that’s what’s exciting. I like that there’s a debate. I like that there are rums that are so different from one another. In fact, it is one of the key elements of the essence of rum.
Yes, you learn from the past the different techniques that have been used. Then you create your own style drawn from the different techniques as well as from modern findings. Hopefully, the traditions of tomorrow will be from somebody taking inspiration from what we do today so that chain is unbroken.
Matt Pietrek: How do you connect what we know of rum’s past, with the way rum is made today? In many ways, they are fairly different.
Alexandre Gabriel: I always say there’re really four pillars in how we look at rum.
The first is “respect the cane,” meaning that it’s made from cane. Either juice, syrup, or molasses. In my bottle, I want to feel this. That’s our style at Plantation.
We won’t vouch for a rum that’s distilled at too high of a proof, because the cane has been erased. I also strongly disagree with any additives such as glycerine. It doesn’t respect the cane. For instance, we also disagree with caramel that is made with beet sugar or corn syrup, because that does not respect the cane.
The second point is transparency. We’ve been always transparent, and we encourage everyone to do so.
The third point, what you just touched on, is understanding the cultures, history and the diversity of rum making. Research and study the classics and then draw from that. But the beauty of rum is not just one truth, but many truths. When somebody says I’m the only one who’s right, and you should do this and only this, it defeats the whole culture of rum.
The fourth point is to leave the opportunity to create. If you just stay stuck in time, then this is not rum. Rum has always evolved. Think about the muck pit, think about the retort distilling system etc. They were the great innovation of past centuries that have shaped rum as we know it. For financial benefit, some people try to promote there only one way, refusing all else and parts of the heritage of rum. As you can imagine, we would always fight against that at Plantation.
Matt Pietrek: You’ve said that Plantation has been open about using dosage for quite some time now. Yet some say that’s not enough and doesn’t count unless it’s on the label. Is that a valid criticism?
Alexandre Gabriel: I agree! You know, we have always been an advocate of transparency. I think it should all be on the label, and we have decided to do so as we reprint our labels. You’ve seen it an all our single casks, our vintages, on the Xaymaca label, etc.
The labels that we’ve been reprinting every year — the single cask — it is on the label. It’s also on the website for all of our rum. We took the lead about this transparency issue by talking about all what we do for the past decade and are now printing it.
We’re a small company, so we print labels for two years out for some editions. As we reprint labels, we’re going to do this. We encourage transparency and encourage the other distillers to do so as well about their use of caramel, for example.
I believe this is not something to worry about for rum, because our regulations all go in the right direction on this. At Maison Ferrand and West Indies Rum Distillery, we have been supporting the fact that regulations will make it mandatory for ingredients on spirits labels. Consumers deserve to know.
Matt Pietrek: With your purchase of West Indies Rum Distillery and associated share of National Rums of Jamaica, you have a seat at the table for two very important geographical indication (GI) discussions. What is the goal of a GI, and are they ultimately worth the effort when it comes to rum?
Alexandre Gabriel: Well, I’m a French guy and, as you know, it’s part of my culture; that things are defined for wine and spirit making. When done well, I think that by defining the rules it allows everyone to work on an even playing field. That’s what their purpose is. I’m also in favor of GIs for a second reason: they should promote transparency and honesty as the main goal.
An example: The age on the bottle must be the real age, the minimum age. That’s important, and I know it sounds stupid to have to say, but I think that the consumer has to be given information that is reliable.
The fact that rum must be made from sugar cane products such as cane juice or molasses or syrup. That also belongs in a GI. The fact that rum needs to be distilled at a lower point so to taste what it is made from.
The country of origin for a rum is where it is fermented and distilled. I think is important for it to be defined in a GI. These key points used as examples here are plain truths and central elements.
The goal of a GI is not to create a competitive advantage for one producer toward the others; that’s not a GI, that’s business. A GI should not do that. The GI is to create an even playing field.
And a GI, recalling what I said earlier, must leave room so to practice the many techniques of rum. At West Indies Rum Distillery and Plantation, we are fascinated by the ancient techniques of rum. We research them literally night and day. Andrew [Hassell] who runs the distillery spends part of his weekends at it. We discover ancient forgotten techniques that make great rum and a GI must allow to use these techniques again.
For instance, we have discovered that in the old days, rum was sometimes fermented and distilled with a bit of sea water. We have tried it and it is delicious. We have many other examples like these that we want to preserve. That’s very important, as the minute a rule doesn’t leave room for a master blender or master distiller to work on these techniques, then part of the beauty is out of the bottle. This is why the team at West Indies Rum, some of them who have been making rum for more than 40 years as well as all of us are standing up for.
Matt Pietrek: Can you update us with regarding the status of the Barbados and Jamaica GIs?
Alexandre Gabriel: It’s an ongoing discussion in both countries. Our team in Barbados and in Jamaica are very vested in the outcome as we all are. Currently there are points of discussions between the different producers, it’s too early to say what the conclusions are.
But I can assure you that whether it is West Indies in Barbados or NRJ in Jamaica, we are going to work hard so the GIs is inclusive of all producers and respect the principles we talked about: Promoting transparency, honesty and respecting both traditions and heritage. But also, diversity and leaving room for creativity. That’s what we’re going to be working on along with the other producers.
I think it’s going to be a while before we finalize these two processes and that’s to be expected. I’ve been part of other GI discussions and it’s normal that there’s disagreements, but it must be done with a cool head and with sufficient time.
Matt Pietrek: Going back to the Jamaican GI, some people have said in essence “Jamaica has a GI and it’s baked. Why do you want to change it?” But it sounds from your public comments that you think there’s still more to be done; that the current GI is not necessarily a final GI to live with for many years.
Alexandre Gabriel: This is more a question for the [Jamaican] Spirits Pool who now manages the GI as well as all the other producers, but I will give you my modest take on it.
The GI was registered with the Jamaican government just a few years ago. [Editor’s note: In 2016]. Now there’s a desire to register it with the European community (EU). We all know that once it’s registered, it’s set in stone. We had an advisor who came in and explained to all the producers, technicians, and managers of different distilleries that you must really consider that what you put in a GI is something you’re willing to live with for the next 30 years.
So, I think it’s a great time before we go into that process, to review it and make sure it’s something we can all live with for the many years to come. I know for a fact, from the GIs I’ve been involved in [i.e. the Cognac AOC], that it’s quite true.
Matt Pietrek: Ferrand has a scientific research team and makes extensive use of techniques like gas chromatography. What are some of the more interesting areas and surprising things you’ve learned?
Alexandre Gabriel: You know I love that stuff. But first, I want to establish something. You can go scientific on it, and such techniques are very important. However, don’t forget the best tool: your nose. Most of the time, gas chromatography is just to confirm what your nose and palate is telling you.
For instance, we know for centuries and from the very taste that, when shipped at sea in a barrel, a rum develops some delicious aromas. This is a fact that has been asserted for centuries. But we wanted to confirm this with an analysis which has shown exactly that. Beautiful esters and higher alcohols develop during the journey. As very often, science confirms what the old guys were doing when making rum for centuries and for good reasons. It is just that some of these techniques have been forgotten and we love researching them and putting them back in practice when we feel they work.
Sometimes I hear people talking and they forget that beauty is in the glass, not in the GC/MS analysis, or in some theory. Beauty must be in the glass. We’re working so hard to create pleasure, so this is something fundamental.
Now for the technical research, I’m very lucky to have an incredible team. We have Nicolas. who’s a PhD researching the different historical techniques of fermentation. Benjamin who is an oenologist and food engineer and soon we will be joined by Fanny who just finished her thesis. We also have a one-of-a-kind team at West Indies Rum Distillery with Terry, Dario, Don and their crew. I am trained as a master blender and master distiller, so when you put all these heads together, it’s incredible.
We love to discover ancient forgotten techniques and put them to the test. 99.9% of rum is now aged in ex-bourbon barrels. That was not the case in the past where there was much more diversity. We are going back to these beautiful techniques practiced when people took the time. We are aging rum in different type of woods, and it is simply delicious.
The things we are working on very actively is research on yeast. You know baker’s yeast for instance. We had somebody with a master’s degree in brewing and yeast work with us for a year. How yeast reacts to environment. For instance, in the old days, some people in Barbados and Jamaica used a bit of salt in fermentation (by using a bit sea water or brackish water). What’s the effect on the taste of rum when you change the environment? People knew this well 100 years ago or more, and we are just going back to it making very unique rums. This is fascinating.
That’s why we defend using different yeast genus and yeast strains and not just industrially grown yeast or baker’s yeast. People can do what they want, but we need to respect what was done before; yeast comes in many different forms.
Also, bacteria’s effect during and especially after fermentation. This is something we’ve done a lot of research on. Of course, being involved in Jamaica, with its incredibly rich history, is very humbling for me and my team. This is a fascinating knowhow that we just can’t let go. Our team in Jamaica is adamant about it and we support them 100%.
Other research we’re doing regards wood. A secondhand bourbon barrel cost US $110 or US $120, and 99.9% of rum is now aged in ex-bourbon barrels which is fine. But what about barrels made of different type of woods? Yes, they’re more expensive, but you have to be willing to spend more time, energy, and money if you want to create something that’s your own expression and also interesting.
I’m writing a book about this very subject, the history of using different types of wood to make barrels, and their effect on rum and other spirits. Luckily, we have a whole wealth of knowledge from retired barrel makers, and some of them are willing to share their special knowhow. Luckily, some small areas still continue using these different types of woods.
Matt Pietrek: Do you think someday we’ll see a new brand of rum entirely made at the West Indies Rum distillery and named as such?
Alexandre Gabriel: Well, of course. West Indies Rum is an ancient distillery, with incredible knowledge and archives about rum making. It’s actually one of the most documented distilleries that I know of.
The knowledge and passion of the team is humbling. We have Dario and Terry, who are really great about yeast and fermentation. Don Ben, who’s incredible about distillation and has been at it for twenty years. Digger, who’s been working at the distillery for more than 40 years has taught us how to run the unique Vulcan chamber still that we brought back to life. John who has been watching over the barrels for 40 years still calling them his babies. When working with Don, John, and Digger, I can’t help thinking that I am fortunate to be interacting with 100 years of rum making at this very distillery. Humbling. I could go on since everyone at West Indies Rum Distillery has this passion for Barbados rum. So, that said, we have stocks and are working on this.
Old documents and our records show that West Indies Rum has been the supplier of probably every brand in the history of Barbados rum, at one point or another. It has been over a hundred years. It’s time that this talent is put together in its own, on its own label. That’s a wonderful thing, you know.
Plantation celebrates certain aspects and culture about terroirs and double aging. Then there are more recent expressions of rum which are solely tropical aging that I find interesting as well. To me they don’t oppose each other, they complement each other. So that would be expressions from a West Indies Rum label. We’re just taking our time. We want to do it perfectly. It’s been almost three years already, but great things take time.
Matt Pietrek: Same question. What about Long Pond?
[Editor’s Note: Plantation Rum owns a 1/3 share of National Rums of Jamaica, which includes Long Pond.]
Alexandre Gabriel: Decisions for Long Pond are made not just by me and Andrew. Remember we are three owners and there’s a great team at NRJ. So yes, Long Pond will do some expressions. This is a great way to go.
Long Pond for almost 300 years supplied some of the best single expressions in the world. So now, to do an iteration that’s more modern with Long Pond rum bottled in Jamaica, it’s also a good thing. Again, I insist the beauty of rum is that rum is still ongoing, still alive.
Matt Pietrek: Is there consideration to bringing back the column that was at Long Pond? Or will the distillery continue with just pot stills?
Alexandre Gabriel: There’s no plan to reactivate the column. It’s an old, fully copper Blair column, with quite some damage. My good friend Martin Cate was worried that I was going to put him and the other OFTD brothers to work, fixing it up all together.
For the moment, and you would have to also talk to my other partners, but there’s no plan to revive the column at Long Pond. Long Pond has made a mark as a pot still distillery for close to 300 years. At Plantation, do have some stock from the small Long Pond column in our warehouse. Very good rum, by the way. It’s not light at all and we have made a delicious single Plantation single cask with the 2009 vintage. One of the very last the Blair has made. It is a very unique expression.
I love Blair columns; they are great apparatus. Interestingly, we also have a Blair column at West Indies Rum that is in better shape. During its distilling days, it has made British Navy rum. It’s from the 1940s and chances are it might be singing again…
Matt Pietrek: You somewhat answered this previously, but would you consider releasing a rum that wasn’t second aged in cognac cask, ala the Plantation signature style? Would you, under the auspices of a Plantation or Ferrand label release a non-double aged rum?
Alexandre Gabriel: At Plantation we have that signature and taste profile that we developed for twenty years; it’s twenty years of Plantation rum this year, by the way. This is really what we have been working very hard on.
As you know, Plantation tries to learn as much about the different terroirs and techniques as we can, giving you our interpretation of it, respectfully. Making the rum shine through very specific old techniques, one of which is double aging.
Also, that as aged rum travels in the barrel, there’s an interaction with the rum and the wood that’s incredible. These are some of the values of Plantations that we are preserving.
To compliment that, and as I said before, because we like to celebrate different cultures, our West Indies distillery will also do different expressions, aged locally.
That’s what I think is great and unique about rum. It’s not about one style against the other, it’s showing different sides of rum. I grew up on a farm in France with a team in my family that were vintners. One wine style doesn’t oppose the other. I think it’s that vision of terroir and technical cultures that I find is important. The signature for Plantation is defined and it’s the things that we believe in and are sticking to.
Matt Pietrek: What is something you think people don’t understand about you and Ferrand’s mission? Is there a misperception about you? For example, some people have said that you just add sugar to rum to fool people and pass off bad rum as better than it really is.
Alexandre Gabriel: Most people understand who we are. We’re proud that Plantation rums keep winning prestigious awards and accolades. There might be a misperception that we stick to one technique and this is all we are. I hope not! But, if you really understand what Plantation is about, how can you think this?
If you talk about dosage, we have done expressions with dosage and without dosage since the inception of Plantation in 1999. It’s about creation and making an incredible taste experience for somebody who chooses to trust the brand and we don’t take this lightly.
Somebody who would think that we’re one sided, and we only do one thing and are sectarians — that would be a total misinterpretation about who we are. Not just me, but Plantation and whole Ferrand as a team. It’s a team mission for us.
This is where marketing comes in. Sometimes a few people try to portray their competitor a certain way, doing marketing angling. We don’t see it as a real issue. My mother who is a classically trained sculptor always told me “As a creator, when someone gets at you passionately, it means that you have touched on something special and important”. She might be right.
And if people still see it that way, I really am open to talk, and I welcome them to spend time with my team and I. Really! We are always ready to share in a very transparent way. We explain the marks in our blends. We like to explain the way our rum is made. You have personally come to Bonbonnet and dug deep to see that what we are telling you is true. We all know that you love drilling to the bottom of things, which is great! So, I would hope people understand that that’s what it’s about.
[At this point, Guillaume Lamy, Maison Ferrand’s Vice President, Americas, joins the conversation.]
Guillaume Lamy: Something that’s also important: people simplify us. They simplify what we do because we have a complex product line. And it’s always easier to simplify complicated things when you don’t understand them.
So, it’s like when people watch TV. Sometimes, when they want to hear a message, they don’t really look. They watch the five minutes of video, and they think they know everything about the subject because they watched a YouTube video. Sometimes people are too much on YouTube and not enough into who’s spreading all this information.
Alexandre Gabriel: I think that’s important. I totally agree. I trust that the only thing that would be an issue is if people oversimplify who we are. And that’s easy to do, you know? But Plantation is a wide product range, so oversimplifying what we do would be a mistake. And if some people see us that way, then I would ask them to come visit us and learn what Plantation’s about. But maybe Guillaume says it better.
What else, Guillaume?
Guillaume Lamy: It’s also easier to demonize techniques that you cannot imitate. For example, dosage is a very good example of the technique that is not easy to imitate if you want to do it right. So why not demonize it; make it an evil technique that goes against rum? And spread a very simple message. But the more complicated message is that it’s a technique that’s complicated, but if done right, makes a great product. Also, very good dosage is a very expensive thing to do. It’s much cheaper to not do dosage. If it were all about profit, we would do something different.
Alexandre Gabriel: I will vouch for this, and you can attribute it to Guillaume because we are part of the Plantation team. We are a team of very passionate people. The team has been with us 10, 20, 30 years. It’s my 30th year. I’ve worked with some people for 28 years. The first people I worked with when I joined, most of them are still here. It’s because we share that sense of mission. So, what Guillaume says is totally on track.
To that point, another example is that we’re defending the different type of woods for the making of barrels. That not just oak is allowed and used, but other woods. Oak is a wood from cold or temperate climates. Oak is an easy wood to make barrels from, but in the old days, they were different type of woods to make barrels. There was more diversity. We are fascinated by this research on ancient techniques and, in the past 10 years have studied them and are experimenting with them again. It is delicious. Our ancestors often knew what they were doing.
The first reference about rum, 1650 in Barbados, was that it was stored in mastic wood vats. So, we are studying fifteen different type of woods that were used in the past and that are food grade. So maybe that’s a misunderstanding. Somebody’s going to say, “Oh it should just be oak,” and at Plantation, we say “why?”
If somebody just wants to use oak, I know it’s easier in term of cost and it works well. I would respect that totally and we do use oak. But it would be a misinterpretation of us to believe we’re not interested in exploring old techniques.
When you see that we are using an egg-shaped wooden vat to age our product you might say, “that’s crazy.” But it actually works great. Our attitude is to say “Hey, try it seriously, and then decide. It’s more expensive to do so. But, that the level of research for us, in the end, is to serve. the great taste of rum.
It’s the same with the different types of woods. This is costlier, so why would we do it? We do it because we trust it makes delicious expressions that Plantation fans love
And you know, we discovered some very old documents recently showing that ocean water was sometimes used in rum fermentation. I mentioned it to the great spirit historian Dave Wondrich who actually had also found so documents indicating that it was an old forgotten tradition. Now, someone who doesn’t know about it, or does it wrong, would say this is rubbish. Well they’ve done it for a few hundreds of years. So, of course, we’re studying it. Yes, it’s costlier, it takes more time, but researching these old methods is a lot of fun and when it creates a one of a kind delicious product it’s exhilarating.
And you know what? We made rum using this age-old technique. It took us some time to fine tune it but, once we got it right, it made a delicious one of a kind rum. You can imagine how we felt when we finally got there. These are the reasons why we wake up in the morning. Somebody’s going to love it as much as we do, and someone might not like it; that’s fine too. That’s the beauty of rum.
You think the first time somebody tried an Islay whisky, they decided it was delicious from inception? Maybe yes, maybe no. Draw your own conclusions.
That’s what I think is so beautiful about rum. The most unique thing that rum has to offer is the diversity of techniques, palette of tastes, and aromatics. We don’t only defend this vision, we embrace it.