From Bangalore and Kuala Lumpur to founding a French distillery that makes a perfume-inspired gin, Comte de Grasse CEO Bhagath Reddy has had quite the journey. He tells us his story here and discusses age-old perfume extraction techniques, the potential for ultra-premium gin and plans to create rum and whisky in the future.
Comte de Grasse is not your typical gin distillery. It’s housed in a 19th-century perfume distillery in Grasse, France. It employs techniques such as ultrasonic maceration, vacuum distillation and CO2 extraction. It has even established a partnership with the University of Nice, enabling access to research facilities and technical understanding. A visitor centre in 2021 is planned, and rum and whisky could well be on the way (more on that later). For now, spirits fans can enjoy its signature Comte de Grasse 44°N Gin, which it described as “the world’s first luxury, sustainable gin”.
To discuss all of this and more, we managed to get some face-to-face time with Bhagath Reddy, CEO and founder of Comte De Grasse.
Master of Malt: Hi Bhagath! Tell us how you came to found your own distillery.
Bhagath Reddy: My background is fashion retail. I previously worked in Malaysia with luxury brands like Gomez, Rolex, Chanel etc., but I always wanted to start a distillery. It was a passion project. I always say that my family is governed by a spirit-line and not a bloodline! My dad loves his whisky, and this made me want to make the best whisky for my dad. This was around the time that Amrut was launched and I thought maybe I could make a whisky from my country, India, too. But setting up a distillery in India is a very complicated business. It’s not a very conducive environment. Most states are still conservative, where drinking is still a social taboo. I had to rethink. The essence of my idea was to make really high quality, super-premium, luxury drinks. So, why not go to the home of luxury? Which is Europe. I wanted to stay away from Scotland and the UK because the market was saturated.
MoM: So how did you make your way to Grasse in France?
It was through my research that I found Grasse and the connection with perfume. I realised that perfumers used to use copper stills, which are very similar to copper alembics but smaller in size. I thought there’s an idea there; to pick up some old perfume stills, recondition them, and make whisky out of them. That’s what I came to research the first time I came to France in March 2016. We found a contact for the University of Nice and met up with them, and that’s when things changed completely. I spoke with the head of the lab and he explained that in the past 25 years spirits and perfumes have taken a very different direction. In spirits, the investment has been in automation but the marketing and the storyline have been based in tradition. Whereas in perfume, they had to invest in technology because the raw materials are more delicate and becoming more expensive. They needed to invest in advanced sciences to be able to extract and distil better, using less energy in more efficient ways. That’s where vacuum distillation, molecular distillation, CO² extraction and all of these processes came up. I said ‘wait, hold on, why hasn’t somebody else made this connection?’. That’s when I realised that Comte de Grasse needs to be a distillery, it can’t be about just one spirit, it needs to be an innovation hub. So, we started building the company on our key fundamentals: innovation, sustainability, curiosity and art.
MoM: Tell us about Grasse itself and its history.
BR: The perfume history in Grasse is about 200 years old. Before that, Grasse was known for its tanning and its leather industry. The perfume came about completely accidentally; one of the tanners decided to perfume their gloves, because gloves then had an unpleasant smell, and gave them to Catherine the Great. She loved this so much the tanners started working with perfumers and slowly the perfume industry grew, and the tanning industry eventually died out in Grasse. It’s also very unique because it’s got a microclimate of its own. It’s located in the hills, just off the coast, and there’s plenty of good rainfall. Therefore, the soil in the area is very, very fertile and is great for growing exotic botanicals. This also helped to build up and reassert the perfume industry in and around Grasse.
MoM: You say you employ ‘age-old perfume extraction techniques melded with cutting-edge distilling technology’, can you explain what this means?
BR: The age-old extraction techniques are actually very simple ones. For example, rose hydrolat is one of the first perfumes ever made. It’s just steeping roses in water. At Comte de Grasse, we bring the rose in on two levels. First, we bring in rose petals into the ultrasonic maceration process. We ultrasonically macerate them with pure alcohol and then distil in a vacuum distillation. What we realised is the flavour of rose that we got from this process disappeared in the middle of the palate. It didn’t remain consistent throughout. So, we introduced the rose hydrolat in a final stage, back into the drink, so that the rose hydrolat stays and remains at the back of the palate. That’s a combination of cutting-edge, where we use ultrasonic maceration and vacuum distillation, but also bringing in an age-old technique to create the depth we desired.
MoM: Tell us about the set up at your distillery.
It’s completely modern, with custom-made equipment. Everything was built from scratch. There’s no copper anywhere, no steam, no use of heat. Everything is cold-distilled, like the ultrasonic maceration we use, which is the first step in our three-step process. In ultrasonic maceration, you take GNS (grain neutral spirit), add the botanicals and bombard it with ultrasonic frequency. The ultrasonic frequency creates microbubbles in the GNS through a process called ‘cavitation’ and these bubbles extract the flavour from the botanicals. Traditionally, in a 45-minute maceration, you get the same level of extraction as you would from two weeks of steeping, or traditional maceration, depending on the botanicals. It’s a much faster process, but it’s a much higher quality process. The liquid then gets passed through a vacuum still where it gets distilled at a very low temperature. With vacuum distillation, you reduce the atmospheric pressure to create a vacuum. At low pressure, the boiling point of alcohol decreases, so you are able to boil and extract the flavours at 35-45 degrees. The freshness of the compounds that were extracted through the ultrasonic process is retained and then we get what we call the base for our gin. This base gin is then compounded with rose hydrolat. We also do CO² extractions for certain botanicals, like jasmine, which cannot be treated to any form of heat since it is extremely delicate. CO² extraction is where you pass liquid CO² over powdered jasmine or the flower itself. Liquid CO² is a universal solvent and the minute you expose it to the atmosphere it completely evaporates, leaving only the flavour compounds behind. We bring those flavours in the third stage. So that’s the three-step process for the making of our gin. We call it the Grasse (HyperX) Process.
MoM: I was going to ask you what sets your gin apart, it sounds like that’s it!
BR: Yes, that’s it – The Grasse (HyperX) Process!
MoM: Tell us about distiller Marie-Anne Contamin, why was she the right person for the role? What was the process of bringing her into the company?
BR: We found Marie through the University of Nice, she was a professor there. Initially, we worked together on an experimental basis as she is one of the rare people who is experienced in both flavour and fragrance, and has spent a lot of time researching the correlation between the two. We thought that for our core USP, which is translating the perfume science of Grasse into a flavour and spirit, she was the right profile. We worked with both Marie and the other professors at the university to understand all the distillation processes. Marie helped us create a flavour profile, and instructed us how to identify and extract the best aspects of a particular botanical.
MoM: Let’s talk about the botanical selection in the gin and how you distil them.
BR: It took us almost 11 months to develop the recipe. We tried about a hundred different botanicals. The principle was to try and use botanicals from the region; if not from Grasse, then Provence. It wasn’t just about using rare or exotic botanicals, it was about making sure that we identified the ideal flavour profile. The brief we gave Marie was: ‘if light were a flavour and illumination a scent, this is what it should taste like’. This was because of the beauty of the light in Grasse, we wanted to capture that feeling and put that emotion into the liquid. Marie then started working on a pyramid, which any perfumer works on, where you have the base notes, middle notes and top notes. She started building and engineering a flavour profile lived up to that phrase and that’s how the botanical selection began. We slowly narrowed it down to 20, with the focus always on the consumer’s experience, mouthfeel and ensuring the flavour worked through the whole palate from front to back. Every botanical was put through a test, something called a GC-MS analysis. It’s a gas-chromatic graphic analysis that allows you to identify what kind of flavour extraction you are getting. That’s how we were able to zero in on the ideal timings, the ideal temperature and the ideal process for every single botanical. Of the 20 botanicals, 13 are used in the ultrasonic maceration. The other seven are introduced in different stages because they are not suitable for an ultrasonic maceration. There was some pre-existing knowledge because a few of these botanicals are already used in the perfume industry, such as rose water and lemon peels, so that helped speed up the process. But we still had to do every single test ourselves.
MoM: So would it be fair to say you were drawn to making gin because the use botanicals mirrors that of the perfume industry?
BR: Yes, and the fact that gin is the spirit of the moment! In terms of translation and synergies between the processes, gin was the most immediate spirit into which we could apply some direct learnings from the perfume industry. Gin is all about botanicals, all about flavour and all about being able to deliver a smooth palate.
MoM: What was the inspiration for the name?
BR: The latitude on which Grasse is situated. The city of Grasse is situated on 43.663 degrees north, so we adjusted it up to 44 degrees north. Grasse plays a very important role in the company in terms of technology, the terroir and everything it lends to the company – that’s why it is called Comte de Grasse.
MoM: What are your personal tasting notes?
BR: I love the citrusy notes, the verbena, and I love the smoothness that the rose and honey brings too, which rounds everything off. If you put a couple of cubes of ice into the liquid and let the gin rest a bit, you see the taste profile evolving. I sometimes feel that the liquid is a living creature! We don’t chill-filter it, we don’t remove all the nice stuff, we want the liquid to be constantly evolving.
MoM: What about any suggested serves you particularly enjoy with it?
BR: While we were making the gin, we thought a lot about the perfect serve and did a lot of research on what should it be. However, we realised that if it’s a luxury gin it should work with anything. Each consumer should be able to identify their own way of enjoying 44°N. Some people just like sipping it with ice, but we don’t claim that as a perfect serve because we want it to be a process of self-exploration. We want every bottle to be a process of self-exploration where you identify what it works with. Personally, I like having it neat, but it works very well with most premium tonics. We recommend having it with a light tonic simply because in a strong tonic the quinine can be overpowering. It works fantastically in a Dry Martini and in a Negroni.
MoM: Tell us about the inspiration behind the striking bottle design.
BR: The inspiration was the Mediterranean. Much like the inspiration for the liquid, the design of the bottle was purely emotional. We wanted to be able to transport people back to the Mediterranean, that feeling of the south of France, the feeling of light, the blue sea. We worked with two French agencies: Chic and forceMAJEURE, and they collaborated to create the bottle design. If you hold it up against the light it looks like the Mediterranean, the blue sky, shimmering water. The yellow disc on the top of the lid represents the sun shining down on the ocean. For a luxury consumer, you need to be able to provide a more holistic experience that covers all these elements.
MoM: What do you think the potential for premium gin is?
BR: In the past ten years the premium and super-premium category have been growing. But when we looked at the market at the end of 2016, early 2017, we thought that the super-premium and premium categories were very, very crowded. There was still a lot of growth, but there were a lot of brands coming in and there was a lot of saturation. That’s why our goal was always to create a very unique consumer experience. We saw a gap in what we described as the luxury sector, above premium and ultra-premium. That’s how we went about engineering the product, the bottle, the look and everything. It came from identifying potential and trying to engineer the best product that lives up to the expectations of that sector.
MoM: People have been saying for years now that gin is a ‘bubble’ that will eventually burst. What’s your perspective?
BR: It’s definitely a bubble but I think the bubble is still going to grow. It might not burst, it might saturate. There might be a consolidation eventually where some brands which are more sustainable and have stronger legs will remain, but some of the smaller brands and others might disappear. There might be a small adjustment in the market, but I don’t think the bubble will burst and gin consumption will suddenly drop to nothing. It’s all to do with consumer trends. The most popular white spirit is vodka, and vodka’s growth is down due to its association with clubbing and the fact that it’s easy to mix. But increasingly, we’re drinking less and we’re drinking better. We drink for the experience. It’s about that moment in life when you’re sitting with friends enjoying a great drink prepared by a great bartender. Gin falls into that category because it offers options, there’s scope to innovate and create new things and keep that interest going.
MoM: Is there any possibility of you distilling rum or whisky in the future?
BR: Sure. I want Comte de Grasse to be an innovative hub in the spirits industry. The goal is to continuously challenge and innovate. We are working on a rum. Whisky is on the cards because my dad is waiting for it! We’re thinking about some other spirits as well. We have an innovation pipeline that we’re working on, but expect something different from every single spirit. None of the spirits are going to be made in a traditional manner and there will be some element where we challenge the norm with every single spirit. Hopefully in a good way and for the right reasons – not just for the sake of challenging it!
MoM: What does the future hold for the distillery, and what’s your ambition for it?
BR: The ambition is to continue to be innovative, and to continue to enjoy it. All of us enjoy what we are doing right now. That’s what drives most of the work and most of the energy that’s behind the company. The ambition is to build an environment where we are able to sustain this feeling. With most companies, as they grow big, this kind of energy starts dying out. I want to continue to love waking up every morning and going to work. I want to be able to build a work environment where this feeling resonates for everybody in the company. That’s the kind of an environment that fosters innovation, growth and the building of a great and sustainable business. So, I guess the goal is to continue having fun!
Comte de Grasse 44°N Tasting Note:
Nose: Bright, crisp and piney juniper positions itself at the core the nose. Aromatic spice, sea salt and potpourri follow, with a touch of tart pink grapefruit. A bouquet of floral notes then develop with some warming aromatic spice in support.
Palate: The winter spices (orris root in particular) take hold initially, before more of that woody juniper returns. There are more earthy and floral elements present on the palate, with jasmine, lavender and patchouli standing out. There’s a pleasant salinity that runs through from the nose, as well as a creamy sweetness that adds balance throughout.
Finish: More of that potpourri element lingers among warming citrus, softer juniper and orris root.