A Chat with Alexandre Gabriel, Maison Ferrand
Though his response came in too late to be included in the May/June 2020 print edition of Quench Magazine, Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand (the French parent company of West Indies Rum Distillery / Plantation Rum) provided so many interesting insights into the past, present, and future of the Barbados rum industry that we decided to run his observations as a stand-alone piece here.
Quench: What makes the rums from your distillery unique from others on the island?
Alexandre Gabriel: What makes West Indies Rum Distillery unique to Barbados is its incredible rum heritage. At its heart lies the “Distiller’s Vault,” a 19th century safe room where ancient documents about the history of the distillery and rum-making methods have been preserved for more than a century. Andrew, our Distillery Manager, is a rum history buff. Along with Don Benn, our master distiller, and the technical team, they are uncovering day after day these previously “lost” methods. They cover a lot of aspects including dynamic ageing, seawater fermentation, and special regional yeast strains, just to name a few, that have been part of the rich Barbados rum heritage for centuries now. The team is very proud of this work, and I feel humbled to be able to share this with them.
The distillery is also a treasure trove of ancient distilling apparatus which, thanks to the Barbados preserving culture, have never been taken out of the distillery. For instance, we are lucky to have the last triple chamber still in the world named “The Vulcan.” It is the last one of its kind. Built in the 19th century, it was put to rest (and luckily preserved) in 2000. Our dream was to recommission it, which we did on the memorable June 6, 2018, under the watchful eye of Digger Skinners, the longest standing operating distiller in Barbados. Digger is a legend. His father, who trained him, had worked 47 years at the distillery before him. The Vulcan is now again distilling some unique and delicious rum, playing an active part in our experimentation program by which we are working on reviving ancient rum making methods. Some delicious rums that are now aging in our cellars, just a few yards away from the tides of the Caribbean Sea.
We have also been celebrating some key achievements here at the distillery. We awarded three of our employees, John, Digger, and Noel, for their dedication to rum. Together, they represent over 100 years of accumulated experience in distilling and blending, and each one of them were awarded for their years of service: John and Digger celebrated their 40 years at the distillery; Noel over 20 years. Their commitment, know-how and passion are a great source of inspiration for the whole team and I.
Q: When it comes to production, rum is in a bit of a “wild west” situation in that there aren’t really any stipulations (that I’m aware of) in terms of how it is made and what goes into it (other than cane sugar juice or molasses). What problems (if any) does this cause for both distillers and consumers when it comes to rums being distilled in Barbados? Would you like to see some regulations put in place to impose a bit more control?
AG: Many years ago, the 16 countries of the Caricom (Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad, etc.) put in place the Caricom rules of rum that stand for important fundamentals of rum making. The Barbados rum standard, which is still in place now, derives from this document. At the moment, all producers agree on three key characteristics that are part of this old standard, and which constitute the essence of the identity of Barbados rum. There is an old and strong belief that the greater part of the identity, style and taste of a rum is created by three major elements: the nature of the raw material it is made from, as well as by the fermentation and distillation process. Therefore, rum is exclusively made from cane molasses or juice, and can only use cane produce for its whole making process. It imposes mandatory fermentation and distillation on the island. Importantly, the Barbados rum standard states that the age declared on a bottle of rum is the minimum age of the rum in the blend.
Moving forward, West Indies Rum Distillery and Maison Ferrand are in favour of a strong and inclusive Geographical Indication for Barbados. We want to protect and promote great “Barbados Rum,” while allowing producers to honour their heritage and continue to do what they know and enjoy doing. We feel that is important to do so with clarity in order to also protect consumers so they can make the right choice, while being reassured of product consistency in regard to the identification of the place of origin, quality and process specifications.
The key here is transparency and we urge all rum producers to state on their label exactly what is in the bottle. This being said, we think that the Barbados rum standard needs to be updated. For instance, we are firmly against the use of genetically modified yeast for making Barbados rum. While this was not an issue previously (GMO yeast did not exist), we think that we need to collectively address this type of issues. We are engaged in discussion with the other Barbados producers and with the Barbados government so as to shape a Barbados Geographical Indication (GI) that would do right to Barbados rum. The team at NRJ (National Rums of Jamaica) is also involved in the same type of discussions in regard to the impressive Jamaican rum heritage, and the best way of protecting it with the help of a GI.
Q: As far as raw materials go, do you have contracts with local cane farmers, own your own, etc.? Where do you source your water from? Is the yeast strain (or strains) you use to ferment indigenous or cultured?
AG: The West Indies Rum Distillery team and I share the dream of engaging the community even further by producing more cane and molasses in Barbados. We are actually increasing our local molasses usage by working closely with the Barbados government towards this goal. Also, for the past three years, West Indies Rum Distillery has been able to distill all of the Plantation Barbados rum from local molasses. As we also produce other brands, we also source quality molasses from neighbouring countries, all certified sustainable thanks to the Bonsucro or Proterra certifications which is very important to us. Indeed, we are making sure that the molasses we use is not only of great quality, but also respect the human standards that we stand for.
West Indies Rum distillery is established on an old estate that was called Spring Garden because it has one of the largest source of fresh water on the island. A few decades ago, the distillery and the government agreed that this amount of fresh water should also benefit the community, and agreed that part of the land and springs would supply the local population. In exchange of giving up some land to that effect, the distillery got a supply agreement from this source.
Also, as you know, the distillery is right on the beach, so one of the well that was used has a slightly brackish water thus defining a special taste for the rum. Also, we discovered in ancient documents that experienced distillers used a touch of seawater in their fermenting vats to make special rums. While the sea salt does not distill through into the rum, it does create a specific distilling wash thus allowing for the fermentation to occur in a very special way. While it makes very interesting rum, it does cost much more since the sugar conversion is not as high, thus scarifying quantity for taste which is unfortunately often the case. In the old days people took the time for these hard methods. They cared greatly about the taste, even if it meant costing them more in the end. We do feel the same way with Planation Rum. Interestingly, an experienced Jamaican distiller explained to me that, until 20 years ago or so, Clarendon Distillery used the brackish water of a river called “Salt River” having a little canal purposely bring the water to the distillery. If you find old bottling of Clarendon, I encourage you to try it and think about this. Delicious!
Our Fermentation Master, Dario Jordan, is leading this research, uncovering astonishing aromatic results with the help of his “little baby” indigenous yeast strains.
The same applies to our yeast: we use indigenous yeast as well as cultured yeast depending of the rum profile we want to achieve. We are currently working on a re-activation program for developing cultures of Barbados indigenous yeast that are important for the taste of great rum. For the past decades, most yeast strains used for rum fermentation have been developed with yield and profits in mind. With Plantation, we see this differently, rather promoting great taste and intensity than quantitative return. Also, we have re-introduced wooden vat fermenters to the distillery as to reconnect to West Indies Rum Distillery heritage. Indeed, until the late 1960’s, the distillery was exclusively fermenting in wooden vats, thus resulting in smaller yields but greater taste. Luckily, to distill these rums we still have the old copper pot stills that were used back then. We are all very excited about this hard work. I am always very glad to be able to bring with me and share with my friends some of these rums when I go to some different shows around the world.
Q: Chill filtering and caramel colouring – do you use these? In your opinion, are they necessary? What about sweetening agents?
AG: We filter as little as possible to preserve the full taste of the rum. We don’t think that chill filtration is compulsory. We sometimes do a slight chill filtration when a rum is destined for a cold climate that would trigger a haze in the bottle. This does not affect the taste but has a cosmetic effect. This is something that we are educating customers on so there will come a time when no Plantation rum at all will be chill filtered.
For centuries, a great majority of distilleries used to make their own caramel by hand from their locally made sugar and they used a touch that while making their rum. It was usually made from that same source of sugar cane. They used to call it “burnt sugar”. It was totally natural, and it had a small amount residual sugar that would bring forward certain taste elements of the rum. While most producers are now using the more modern and mass-produced carbonized sugar caramel called E150a, we are working hard in re-instating the old method of artisanal made burnt sugar that has been part of rum making for centuries and that some distilleries and brands are still using. Ideally, the heated sugar is blended with some rum and aged to be used much later. It is delicious when skillfully done. Faithful to the historical practice we use this method in some of our Plantation rums in the limit of 20 grams per litre in order to bring forward the aromatic profile of the rum. The virtues of this ancient method developed by generations of rum makers have since then been scientifically proven: it brings forward the quality of rum like a pinch of salt on a three stars dish.
Q: We don’t see a lot of cask strength rum (at least in Canada) – if you don’t do any cask strength bottlings, would you consider do it? If you do, what advantages/disadvantages are there to do this?
AG: We love cask strength rum as well. All our rum from the Plantation Extrême Editions are cask strength and also a few of our Single Cask releases. Our Plantation Extrême is a collection of very special barrels that honours legendary distilleries and extremely rare vintages. They are exceptional bottles sought out by collectors. They embody the essence of Plantation’s savoir-faire. They are chosen for the extreme and singular character that we feel should be bottled, at cask strength. Therefore, Plantation Extreme is usually dedicated to educated rum connoisseurs and is not accessible to everyone. But if anyone is after a unique sensory rum experience, I invite them to discover them.
We are by the way about to bottle eight unique and extremely limited releases in the coming months, but I am not allowed yet to disclose any details about them. I was blown away by these barrels and am proud to offer them in this precious edition comprising some of the rarest and most prestigious cask ever!
Q: If there’s anything you want to add that we haven’t asked you about, please do.
AG: At West Indies Rum Distillery, Maison Ferrand and Plantation Rum, we feed on working on dozens of mind-blowing projects and are constantly researching the flavors of yesterday’s traditions with the help of today’s understandings and technics. I am really grateful to my team for putting up with me and my relentless quest. Together, we feel both lucky and humbled that others find our work equally satisfying by collecting and indulging in our Plantation rums. My latest is a project with Matt Pietrek who has done an incredible work of research and groundbreaking findings. It is a book on the 350 years old history of Navy Rums & London Dock Rums, including the venerable practice of dynamic ageing which is the part I have been working on for many years. This is just another expression of our mission to learn more everyday so as to make one of a kind rum. Some very exciting coming out this year. Stay tuned!