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Master of Malt Blog

Tag: Rum Month

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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New Arrival of the Week: Spice Hunter Boldest Spiced Rum

To kick off Rum Month in style we see if an expression that claims to be ‘the boldest spiced rum in the world’ lives up to its name… The world…

To kick off Rum Month in style we see if an expression that claims to be ‘the boldest spiced rum in the world’ lives up to its name…

The world of spiced rum is a confusing place. It wasn’t long ago that it seemed it was condemned as just a party drink. The black sheep of the rum family. It has even been debated if the category can even be classified a rum. Which is not a great start. It’s generally useful if people believe that you are what you claim to be (hot dogs being a notable exception).

But the last few years have demonstrated that there’s more to spiced rum than poorly made, vanilla-drenched and pirate-infested nightmares. Blenders, bottlers and distillers are increasingly keen to capitalise on a market hungry for innovative flavoured booze. Even spiced rum haters should be able to find an agreeable bottle they like if they look hard enough.

In steps Berry Bros. & Rudd distribution arm Fields, Morris & Verdin., which released its own attempt at a premium spiced spirit with Spice Hunter Boldest Spice Rum, a Mauritian rum blended with 13 spices.

Spice Hunter

Spice Hunter, surrounded by spices. It’s probably going to be spicy.

The first thing that stands out about Spice Hunter is its title, which contains an ambitious claim. Fittingly the vivid orange, white and black colour scheme, enlarged block capital text and overall presentation is also bold. Behind all of that, you’ll see a man on a boat. His name is Pierre Poivre and he was the inspiration for Spice Hunter. You know Pierre, right? The 18th-century botanist turned spice smuggler? Jeez. Read a book.

Poivre began his career after he noticed there was an abundance of spices growing on the Dutch-owned islands of Indonesia, where he was recovering after losing his arm while fighting the British (a wooden arm isn’t quite as iconic, is it?). Back then, spices fetched more than gold and the death penalty was imposed on any ‘spice hunter’. That didn’t stop our Pierre, oh no. His smuggling career was so successful that it is said he single-handedly broke the Dutch monopoly.

Between this rum’s name and the story, there’s a billing to be lived up when it comes to the spice blend. Fortunately, Fields, Morris & Verdin didn’t let us down there. A total of 13 spices feature in Spice Hunter, including allspice, caraway, cardamom, chilli, cinnamon, clove, cubeb, elemi, ginger, nutmeg, pepper, pimento and, of course, vanilla. That’s one packed blend. Quite a bold spice blend, you might even say.

Of course, a truly great spiced rum doesn’t just have a great spice blend, the base rum needs to be up to scratch too. In this case, the rum used in Spice Hunter is a column distilled single-estate rum from the Medine Distillery in Mauritius. For all the marketing bumf and playful claims, FMV isn’t messing about here.

At the time of release, Jack Denley from FMV said: “Spice Hunter is designed for the modern drinker; complex, approachable and undeniably bold.” It’s still very much expected that you play with this spiced rum and Denley wanted to make it clear that this is a rum that “doesn’t get lost in the mix”.

It also “challenges you to make a bold move”. There’s even a cheesy video (above) that cements this message. But don’t let it put you off, this spirit stands up to scrutiny. Fiery spices are certainly there and make their presence known without hesitation, but there is enough sweetness to act as a counterpoint. Most pleasingly, that sweetness is not saccharine or cloying. The spicing itself appears to have been infused, so it comes across as authentic and not at all artificial.

Is it ‘the boldest spiced rum in the world’? No, instead, rum fans should enjoy Spice Hunter as the intriguing, warming and satisfying drink that it is, especially at the price. It’s custom made for cola, cutting through the sticky sweetness and lifting the whole drink. But there’s also a number of cocktails it would shine in like a Cubanita (rum Bloody Mary), for example. Luckily the brand has a few suggested serves so you don’t have to do the hard work yourself, and we’ve them listed below our customary tasting note. Make a bold move, or something.

Spice Hunter Boldest Spice Rum Tasting Note:

Nose: Fresh ginger initially, then long pepper, cardamon and heaps of aromatic cloves. More spice comes in the form of green peppercorns, allspice and a couple of drying dashes of nutmeg and pimento before cinnamon pastries, cola cubes and vanilla pods add a balanced sweetness. A hint of spent firework adds something interesting underneath.

Palate: More cinnamon, clove and an earthy twist of black pepper, then root beer, gingerbread and mulled fruit.

Finish: Short and delicately sweet, with earthy and dry spice lingering underneath.

Spice Hunter & Cola

Ingredients: 25ml of Spice Hunter and 150ml of cola.

Method: Build in a glass over cubed ice and garnish with an orange wedge. If you mess this one up, I suggest letting someone else handle the cocktails for the time being.

The Smuggler

Ingredients: 30ml of Spice Hunter, 30ml of orange juice, 22.5ml of agave syrup, 22.5ml of Grand Marnier, 15ml of lime juice and a dash of grapefruit bitters.

Method: Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker with ice and shake that bad boy up. Strain into your glass and then garnish with an orange wheel. If you’re a total badass, make the dehydrate the orange and add a spritz of mezcal spray over the glass.

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