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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Jamaica

New Arrival of the Week: Plantation Fiji 2005

Today, we’re looking at a brand of rum, Plantation, that announced last week it is in the process of changing its name because of the word’s unsavoury connotations. We’re shining…

Today, we’re looking at a brand of rum, Plantation, that announced last week it is in the process of changing its name because of the word’s unsavoury connotations. We’re shining the spotlight on two particularly interesting bottlings, one from Fiji and the other from Jamaica. 

Before telling you about the rums that have just arrived at MoM HQ, we’re going to start with the news that Plantation is in the process of changing its name. “As the dialogue on racial equality continues globally, we understand the hurtful connotation the word plantation can evoke to some people, especially in its association with much graver images and dark realities of the past,” says the brand’s founder Alexandre Gabriel. “We look to grow in our understanding of these difficult issues and while we don’t currently have all the details of what our brand name evolution will involve, we want to let everyone know that we are working to make fitting changes.” We will let you know as soon as we learn more.

When you think of rum, your mind probably goes to Caribbean and Latin America, but sugar cane spirits are made all over the world. According to Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation rum (as the brand is still called for the time being), sugar cane which is native to Asia would have been planted in Fiji long before it was brought to the Caribbean. The country is made up of over 300 islands which together have a landmass about twice the size of Jamaica and produce about 160,000 tonnes of sugar annually. The variety planted, which Gabriel calls ‘noble cane’, was wiped out by disease in the Caribbean in the late 19th century but still thrives in Fiji.  

It’s hard to say how long rum has been made in Fiji though. Gabriel thinks it dates back a long time: “You cannot help human beings from making booze, it’s been happening throughout the world. It’s a rule that’s never been broken.” He has found evidence of distilling from the early 1800s but thinks it goes back further. 

The distillery that our New Arrival of the Week comes from, however, is more recent. It was built about 50 years ago by the Fijian government at Lautake on Viti Levu, the largest island (which is roughly the same size as Jamaica) to process molasses from the nearby plantations. In 1980, it was bought by a private consortium, the Rum Co. of Fiji

One of the pot stills at the Rum Co. of Fiji

As well as using exclusively Fijian sugar cane, Gabriel said: “The yeast you use, how you ferment, how you distill, how you handle it is as important as your raw material. The sense of terroir in a holistic way including the local know-how that perpetuates itself from that one generation to the other.” He then filled us in on production methods: “The Rum Co. of Fiji uses both wild yeast and cultured yeast, depending on what they’re trying to achieve.” Fermentation of the molasses takes around five days depending on the batch. The distillery has two pot stills, both adapted with double retorts to produce rum by John Dore & Sons, and an old column Canadian column still which produces spirit a little over 80% ABV. Gabriel describes the country’s style as combining some of the weight and intensity of Jamaica with the elegance and balance of Barbados. 

The team at the distillery are all Fijian except head distiller Liam Costello. An Australian, his background is in wine but he married a Fijian woman and moved to the island: “And fell in love not only with a wonderful Fijian woman, but also with the country and became the master distiller at the distillery,” said Gabriel. 

Today, the distillery produces two brands Ratu and Bounty (not to be confused with the brand of the same name from St. Lucia) as well as selling bulk rum. Which is where Gabriel stepped in. He explains: “I met Liam five or six years ago, I knew about his rums and I really liked them. I said one day: ‘I think we should do something together’ and he says ‘yes’. So we kept on communicating until one day he called me and he says: ‘You know I sold some of the bulk here and there and I was very often disappointed with what they did with my rum.’”

Gabriel & Costello, a great double act

So Gabriel and Costello hatched a plan to bottle some spirits that will show off the Fijian style to the full. There’s a popular blend but Plantation also bottles some special vintage offerings. The latest batch of which comes only from the column still. According to Gabriel, even with just the column, you still get that intensity but, as he puts it “in a very elegant way.”

The rum was aged for 14 years in Fiji in ex-bourbon barrels before being shipped in cask to France: “The interaction with the wood and the elements is incredible,” he said. This is how rum was shipped in the old days, and Gabriel thinks it really makes a difference and this is apparent not just in taste but through analysis with gas chromatography.  “I can show you a chromatography before and after you’ve shipped the rum,” he said, “the ester elements, the fruit elements are totally boosted, you have wood extractions that’s 10% more, just during that journey.”  Once in France, it is transferred to old Cognac casks and aged a further year. It’s bottled at 50.2% ABV with 4 grams per litre of sugar added. The result is something that is elegant and fruity with notes of toffee, mint, apples and crème brûlée with spicy ginger and cinnamon. A gorgeous luxurious rum that pays tribute to a rum tradition that deserves to be better known.

But today’s excitement doesn’t stop there: in addition to this exclusive Fijian rarity, we’ve got something very special from Jamaica. It’s a rum from Clarendon distillery distilled in 2003. It’s a high classic high ester style (422 g/hl)  known as a Monymusk Wedderburn (a designation created in the 19th century by rum blenders) produced from a two week ferment followed by distillation in a Vendome pot still. It’s aged for 16 years in Jamaica in American oak before spending a year in Cognac. It’s bottled unsweetened at 49.5% ABV. “I do a dosage depending on what I’m trying to showcase,” Gabriel said, “Here I wanted to really bring forward this rustic, in a good way, feel”. As you would hope, it’s packed full of high ester goodness like overripe banana and pineapple melded with chocolate and spice cask flavours. 

So there we have it: two utterly different, unique Plantation rums.

Plantation Fiji 2005 and Jamaica 2003 are now available from Master of Malt.

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New Arrival of the Week: Merser & Co. Double Barrel rum

This week we delve into the history of rum blending in London and try a very special rum part-matured in the capital by the Hayman family.  Gin or porter are…

This week we delve into the history of rum blending in London and try a very special rum part-matured in the capital by the Hayman family. 

Gin or porter are what probably comes to mind when you say the words ‘booze’ and ‘London’, but according to James Hayman, “for over one hundred years, the streets of London were home to a bustling network of merchant rum blending houses. The merchant’s skill lay not in distilling but rather in the sourcing, blending and secondary maturation of the rum. Our family was involved in the trade for some time – sourcing stock from West India Docks to create our own proprietary blends.” Apparently, if you landed at the Tower of London you had to give the Warden of the Tower a barrel of rum.

Now those heady days are back! The Hayman family, famous for their gin, have converted a four story townhouse off the Strand into a rum experience called Charles Merser & Co which is open to the public. Here you can learn about this lesser-known part of London’s history and even blend your own rum. On my visit, I tried the component parts of the first release from Merser & Co called Double Barrel, named not after the top Jamaican tune but from the way the spirit is matured. 

The rums are aged and blended in the Caribbean into three component parts (see below) before being married for 15 months in fourth-fill hogsheads which provide a very neutral container. The marrying takes place at Hayman’s distillery in Balham because health and safety wouldn’t let them store lots of flammable spirit in an old house in central London. Boring!

Merser & Co

The make-up of Double Barrel

And what a fascinating blend it is, mixing unaged high ester rums from Jamaica with older Spanish-style and Barbados rums. Brand director Jonathan Gibson explained it to me: “Young Jamaican rum gives vibrant freshness like a drop of Caol Ila in a blended Scotch. I love them but these might be too much for a general audience. We want that voluptuous quality as well.” He went on to say that the lack of an age statement gave them more freedom in the blend, “age statements can be limiting.”

Part A (19% of the blend) majors on the high ester pineapple with earthy, funky and balsamic notes.

Part B (47%) all mature Latin American and brings tobacco, dried apricot and orange peel like an old Cognac.

Part C (34%) adds chocolate, vanilla, toasty oak and more pineapple. 

Tasted together, it’s a fascinating experience with Jamaica dominating on the nose but on the palate it’s more about something elegant from Latin America, Flor de Caña perhaps. There’s no sugar or colour added. Full tasting notes below. It’s designed as a sophisticated cocktail rum and indeed tasted excellent in a Palmetto, half and half with Martini rosso and some orange bitters. “If you don’t have funky element then rum can disappear in cocktail”, Gibson told me.

Merser & Co.

Just off the Strand look for the Sign of the Post & Hound

The Hayman family have clearly put a lot of thought into this first release. The packaging is stunning. At the moment, Merser & Co is going to focus on the Double Barrel, but there are plans for other blended rums, perhaps inspired partly by Gibson’s old employer, Compass Box. So, let’s raise a glass to the return of rum to the capital. 

Tasting notes:

Nose: You can’t mistake that high ester Jamaican component, pineapples just jump out of the glass, followed by grassy vegetal flavours, orange peel and dark chocolate.

Palate: Creamy and elegant, with stone fruit to the fore and the Jamaican funk present but very much in the background.

Finish: Vanilla, coconut and chocolate.

Overall: Elegant, harmonious and distinctive. 

Double Barrel is available now

 

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Rum past, present and future with Alexandre Gabriel from Plantation

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 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:

Alexandre Gabriel

Alexandre Gabriel in his element at Maison Ferrand

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. 

The West Indies Distillery, Barbados

The West Indies Distillery, Barbados, as you can see, it’s right on the beach

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:

PlPlantation Xaymaca Special Dry

Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry – funkier than James Brown’s trousers

Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry

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”.  

Plantation Stiggins’ Fancy Pineapple 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.

 

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Five minutes with Joy Spence from Appleton Estate

We had the honour of an audience with the queen of rum, Joy Spence from Appleton Estate. We talked about Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication, whether she might ever launch a…

We had the honour of an audience with the queen of rum, Joy Spence from Appleton Estate. We talked about Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication, whether she might ever launch a single pot still spirit (please!), and why when she became master blender some people thought her parents owned the company.

Last month four of the most eminent names in global distilling were at Carlton House Terrace in London for Gruppo’s Campari’s Meet the Masters event. The big four were Eddie Russell of Wild Turkey Bourbon, Patrick Raguenaud of Grand Marnier, Dennis Malcolm of Glen Grant and Joy Spence from Appleton Estate in Jamaica.

The fab four, from left: Raguenaud, Russell, Spence and Malcolm

For rum lovers, Joy Spence needs no introduction, but we’re going to give her one anyway. Spence trained as a chemist and did her masters at Loughborough University in England. She joined J. Wray and Nephew, Appleton’s parent company, in 1981. She held a number of positions before becoming chief blender in 1997. The first woman ever to hold this position.

Appleton is one of the oldest names in rum. The first mention of the estate producing rum is from 1749. In 1916 it was acquired by the J. Wray and Nephew, who make Jamaica’s number one rum, and in 2012 both brands were bought by Campari. Appleton has been instrumental in taking rum upmarket with its excellent age statement range like the exceptional 25 year old Joy Anniversary Blend (bottled to honour Spence’s 20 years as master blender). 2018 was a big year for Appleton as it opened a £5.4m visitor centre called, naturally, The Joy Spence Experience, and Jamaican rum’s Geographical Indication was approved which means that it has protected status like Champagne or Stilton. To learn more, we spoke to the lady herself, Joy Spence:

Master of Malt: How important is the GI for Jamaican rum?

Joy Spence: I think the GI for Jamaican rum is extremely important because what is happening globally is that a lot of producers outside of Jamaica are purchasing Jamaica rum but diluting it but still declaring it as a hundred percent Jamaican rum. So we set up some key characteristics for Jamaica rum: first you must use limestone-filtered water in your fermentation, Jamaican limestone-filtered water to be precise! You must ferment and distill in Jamaica. If you’re going to have an age statement it must be the minimum age system, similar to the Scotch whisky system. And last but not least, no additives in Jamaica rum.

MoM: And do you think other countries will follow you? Because some countries have slightly less clear labelling systems?

JS: Yes. Actually Barbados is now working on a GI for Barbados rum and I think others will follow suit because they see the importance of having a geographical indicator and protecting your turf. Unfortunately it’s not an even playing field in the rum industry, because you have so many different regulations from different countries, so it’s not quite clear exactly what an overall definition for rum is and what is allowed and what is not allowed. This is why we have decided to clarify what Jamaica rum is all about so they know exactly what they’re getting when they purchase a bottle of Jamaica rum.

MoM: Does all the sugarcane used in your rum come from the estate?

JS: Yes we grow over 4,000 hectares of sugarcane at Appleton, so we’re one of the few producers that can claim the process from the cane to the cocktail, where we have total control of our process.

MoM: What about yeast?

JS: We have a special strain that was handed down from the inception of rum making at Appleton so we generate a strain every three months to keep it pure. We ferment for between 36 or 48 hours and at the end of that we have fermented molasses that has 7% alcohol in it.

MoM: And that’s quite a fast fermentation for Jamaica, is that right?

JS: You have two methods of fermenting in Jamaica but this particular method represent 90% of the production in Jamaica. And we don’t use dunder in the Appleton process, those are for high ester rums. We’re looking to make smooth, rich, complex, and fruity spirits.

Joy Spence

Spence brought Jamaica to London with her

MoM: And can you tell me a little about the distillation. What sort of stills do you use?

JS: We use a combination of both pot and column in all of our blends. The pot still however is the heart and soul of our blends and our copper pot stills are specially designed in Scotland for us and so they produce this distinctive orange peel top note, which is the hallmark of the Appleton Estate range.

MoM: I know you’ve done some single cask releases but would you ever do a single pot still release?

JS: Eventually. Right now because we have so much aged stock, I am releasing limited time offerings of blends but eventually we will look forward to a single mark. But not just yet because we have quite a few products in the pipeline coming out. We plan to launch one every year.

MoM: That’s really exciting! Do you think the future of rum is to go upmarket?

JS: Yes, I think the rum consumer is looking for more sophistication, and genuine stories, a lot of the rum producers really don’t have a lot to say about their story. Appleton has genuine provenance and a huge story behind it. Premium aged rum category is now the hot category and it is going to be the next whisky.

MoM: At the moment whisky is trying to be less serious, do you think there’s a danger with rum becoming more serious that it might lose some of its sense of fun?

JS: At Appleton Estate, we make a rum for any occasion. So, we make rums that are great for fun parties and rums that are for a more serious, sophisticated setting. What we do is to try to cover both ends of the spirits category.

MoM: Can you tell me a little bit about how you became the master blender at Appleton?

JS: I joined the company as a chief chemist in 1981 and then I started working with the previous master blender and then I became so fascinated with the art of blending; being able to use my sensory skills to create all these beautiful flavour profiles. And he recognised that I had great creativity. So he took me under his wings, tutored with him for 17 years and then when he retired, I was appointed the first female master blender in the spirits industry. It was a male-dominated industry no woman had ever been made master blender. And some persons were sceptical, people thought that my parents owned the company and that’s how I got the position! And not the fact that I really earned it through expertise. But eventually people understood that I’d worked for several years in the industry and became quite an expert.

Appleton Estate

Joy Spence with the 25 year old Joy Anniversary release

MoM: What do you think the biggest skill that a blender has to have?

JS: People think that the biggest skill that a blender should have is being able to taste but no! It’s your sensory skills. Because we can differentiate much more by nosing than by tasting. Because the taste buds really get shattered after about three or four drinks. And when you’re doing sensory analysis you can smell and differentiate for hours the different aromas. And so this is the most important part of being a blender in the rum industry. Sensory analysis is based on memory so you memorise each aroma and it stays right there. There’s a little lobe right at the front here where you store everything for sensory analysis. And so I can differentiate over 200 aromas right now.

MoM: Do you have a favourite? I know it’s difficult, like choosing your children, but at the end of a hard day which Appleton do you reach for?

JS: I think my favourite blend to date is the Appleton Estate Joy Anniversary Blend. It is really the hallmark of excellence.

MoM: Do you have a favourite rum cocktail?

JS: I like simple cocktails. And I find that a Daiquiri with Appleton Estate Reserve, using brown sugar with a few drops of Angostura bitters, is quite delicious, simple and easy to make.

MoM: And then finally, what’s new on the horizon?

JS: Well we just launched Appleton Estate 30 year old for this year. And we are going to be releasing a product before the end of the year at the Joy Spence Appleton Estate Rum Experience that was specifically made for the Experience and so it won’t be sold anywhere else in the world, so you have to come to the Experience in Jamaica to actually purchase it.

We are so there!

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