As part of our Rum Month coverage, we talk to Alexandre Gabriel about rediscovering old distillation techniques, a pineapple concoction inspired by Charles Dickens, and a release that’s as “funky as James Brown.”
We normally call interviews ‘Five minutes with…’ but that would rather misrepresent my meeting earlier this year with Alexandre Gabriel in which I spent a fascinating two hours listening, discussing and sampling different spirits. It could easily have been two days and the time would have flown by because not only is Gabriel an enthusiast but he is also a scholar who is hungry to know more about the history of rum, Cognac and other spirits. For Gabriel, learning about the past is the key to the future.
He was brought up in Burgundy and after attending business school, came across Maison Ferrand, a historic but fading Cognac house. It was the beginning of a love affair with the region. He is now the chairman and majority shareholder of the company. In addition, he makes Citadelle Gin and Plantation Rum as well as doing collaborations with other producers such as Ocho Tequila. This interview is only a fraction of what we discussed. We aim to publish the Cognac portion later in the year, but as it was rum month, here’s Gabriel on rum:
Master of Malt: Where did the idea for Plantation come from?
Alexandre Gabriel: Plantation was born out of maturing the rums in our Cognac barrels and trying to treat rum beautifully and respectfully, this was our take. And the first barrels we made, over 20 years ago, were for us to drink. Then a friend of mine at the time, who was the buyer of Nicolas [chain of wine merchants in France], got to taste these and she said, ‘Mr Gabriel, this is absolutely delicious, I want to buy this’. And I said ‘well we don’t have a brand’ she says ‘make a brand’. And a farm in the Caribbean is called The Plantation – so I grew up on a farm, I live on a farm, I said ‘we’re going to call it Plantation’.
MM: Did you always want to own your own rum distillery?
AG: The idea of Plantation was really cherrypicking what I thought were great barrels. But I knew I would like to invest in a distillery. So, for quite a few years I was looking at different options. And one day West Indies Rum Distillery, which is an old lady on the beach, that’s been around since 1893 at least. There was a spring right on the water so it was the perfect place for a distillery: they could ship out the barrels and have fresh water. And I approached the family who owned it, it was a very old Bajan family and after a year of negotiation, they agreed to sell. And luckily, West Indies Rum Distillery owned a third of the National Rums of Jamaica, which consists of Long Pond and Clarendon distilleries. So we own a third of National Rums of Jamaica.
MOM: Do you think rum is in the sort of place that say whisky was maybe 30 or 40 years ago where you have distilleries making these incredible rums but nobody’s heard of them because most go into blends?
AG: That’s a good point. Now people are rediscovering the distilleries. Historically, West Indies Rum Distilleries which was supplying most blenders of every county, including Barbados, was forbidden by law, to have its own brand, until recently. By law they couldn’t sell directly in Barbados or elsewhere.
MoM: Where do you age your rums?
AG: All the Plantation rums go through a double-ageing, so first in the Caribbean, it depends, one-two-three-four-five years, rarely more than ten years in the Caribbean. After ten years you lose 7% a year, it’s a lot. And then we ship it to France for one or two years, it depends, three years. And we insist that that journey where the rum is travelling inside the barrel is magical. We are now we analysing it scientifically.
MOM: Tell me about the archive at West Indies Distillery:
AG: In the middle of the distillery, there is a room called ‘The Vault’. And inside they have been storing the documents since 1893. So we discovered stuff that was crazy. For example, they were fermenting using a little bit of seawater. The distillery is right on the beach. Just a small amount and I thought ‘that’s crazy’ and we tried it and the old guys were smiling, thinking ‘we know!’ kind of thing. There’s a guy, Digger, who’s been at the distillery for 40 years, and another, John Kinch, who has been at the distillery for 40 years as well. So these guys are smiling. We have an old still that used to be for making navy rum and went silent some years ago, and Digger said, ‘I can’t wait to run that baby again!’ And it still had the little ruler, the big piece of metal that he was using for the valves and stuff. We had to change a lot of the valves because they were faulty. We fixed it up. It’s distilling as we speak.
MoM: Did you discover anything else?
AG: We dug out documents from the 19th century showing the barrels were made or fixed with local wood, mango trees, from the Caribbean. Why should we give that up? We have to keep that diversity. And it’s true with fermentation yeast, there were many yeasts in the old days. In Jamaica you find several ones, they are natural but they are also cultured, we should allow that. The same with the pot still, the same with the water we discussed. That’s the beauty of rum.
Then Gabriel brought out a couple of rums for me to try, and he told me a little about them:
A blend of two Jamaican distilleries, Long Pond and Clarendon. This is the one that was described by a bartender as “funky as James Brown.” The nose is extremely powerful with lots of overripe pineapple and banana, but the palate is very elegant and dry. It’s the kind of rum that would have gone into navy rums in the past.
AG: “This is what we call a ‘plummer’. In Jamaica you have different grades of rum and a plummer is when the rums are heavy, have a high level of non-alcohols and a high level of esters, higher than 150 grammes per hectolitre. Mr Plummer was a British guy who had plantations in Jamaica and was a trader and was in the docks, you know the docks of London, and was bringing back all the rums and they were going into blends. It’s 43% alcohol. This is a dry expression. I wanted to create quite an intense but elegant rum”.
This pineapple-infused rum inspired by Charles Dickens came about from conversations with Dave Wondrich, American booze historian and author of the book Punch. It’s made by infusing pineapple rinds in white rum for a week and then redistilling it. This is then combined with a dark rum that has been steeping with pineapples for three months. The two components are left to marry in cask for three months before bottling.
AG: “He [Wondrich] was saying: ‘Alexandre, the pineapple rum of the 18th century and 19th century, you’re the one to recreate it.’ And then he keeps sending me these different recipes and different patents really. There were a couple that called for using the skin of the pineapple. But they were not very precise. So we distilled the skin of the pineapple, we peel it, and then we infuse the flesh and we blend the two together. And I was looking for a name and he says ‘why not the Reverend Stiggins from The Pickwick Papers, the guy always preaching abstinence and he had a little flask of pineapple rum’. So we called it Stiggins’ Fancy. That was a cool name and it stuck.”
Thank you M. Gabriel!
We will be publishing the Maison Ferrand Cognac story later in the year.