On the Trail with Alexandre Gabriel
As I've written before, my views on Cognac and the way the French mature their spirits have changed over the years since I first started visiting the region regularly. One of the biggest and, in retrospect, most embarrassing mistakes of my career was my misguided mindset that Cognac could be improved and better marketed to a new generation by adopting more of a whiskey-oriented approach. Single malt and Bourbon sales were peaking, whiskey fever was in the air, and we thought we could expand on that excitment by moving into new categories with a similar approach. Thus, we initially went into Cognac looking for single barrel brandies that were left to mature like Scotch or Bourbon, bottled at higher proofs and without any adulteration. Not only was this an incredibly pompous and arrogant attitude by someone without any training as a Cognac producer, it flat out didn't work. The full proof, single barrel Cognacs we purchased were off-balance, unshaped, and lacking in character. Not only did they fail to catch on with our whiskey fans, our customers who did like Cognac didn't like these new whiskey-esque editions one bit.
What went wrong, you ask? Besides the obvious naivete, we fell into the sugar trap. The rather misplaced mentality that unadulterated spirits are inherently better ultimately guided our decision-making, rather than the core philosophy that should be on the forefront of any buyer's agenda: flavor. Sugar is a very divisive issue in the booze world. Purists denounce even the slightest bit of added sweetener to their booze, believing the sole motivation behind doing so is to mask mistakes or flaws in the distillate itself. They see it as a con. As someone who gets more than his fair share of consumer email and feedback, I'm well aware of the rigidity that dominates this line of thinking. That being said, sugar tastes good. There's a reason sherry bomb single malts are all the rage and Port-finished Bourbons have become fashionable. They're sweeter and rounder on the palate, which is ultimately what most consumers want from their hooch. It's how the spirit is sweetened that becomes controversial.
While I originally thought that brandy would be the battleground for what is a complex and intricate debate on additives in alcohol, rum's re-emergence over the last few years has proven to be the current center of conversation concerning sugar in spirits. A number of labels have sought to establish themselves as additive-free in contrast to the sweetened brands that continue to dominate the market, taking up the modern whiskey mantle that fine spirits should never be tampered with. While it's great to have options as an aficionado these days, to immediately draw the conclusion that "unpure" spirits are somehow lower in quality than unadulterated spirits is a slippery path. It's an issue with many shades of grey in a world continually pushing for cleaner and quicker explanations in black and white. That's why I thought I'd sit down with Maison Ferrand's Alexandre Gabriel for a discussion about what the French call élévage, the careful maturation of fine booze. Seeing that Ferrand's Plantation rum selections are a huge hit with bartenders and tiki fans alike, despite the sweetened dosage, I figured he would be just the man to dig into that detail. Trained as a master Cognac blender, he's bringing the same savoir-faire to the maturation of rum and has plenty to say about the topic.
Our recent conversation is below:
David: When and why did you decide to expand from Cognac into the rum market? What got you interested in the Caribbean?
Alexandre: It’s almost like an unexpected love story. I’m trained in Cognac. I’ve been doing this now for twenty-nine years. I’m trained formally as a master blender and I own and run Maison Ferrand. The way people age Cognac is very different from any other spirit. My mother is a painter who was classically trained and she always told me about how the masters from the old days would travel from one studio to the next to check out the work of other painters, through Italy and France, wherever. To me, this is a model. I’ve learned from, distilled, and blended with a lot of different guys around the world and when I meet others in the trade I try to share this know-how of Cognac maturation, something we call élévage in France. When you have vineyards and make Cognac in Grande Champagne, barrels are used and reused again, then sold off for additional usage, because we’re all trying to achieve different things at different times. When you have a distillery in Grande Champagne it’s usually easy to find a buyer for your second hand barrels.
David: Because it’s considered the finest quality of Cognac?
Alexandre: Yes, but about twenty-two years ago for some reason there was a barrel glut in the region, so I had to think about going to another market to sell my casks. Scotland or somewhere else. At that time, the Scots were buying very cheap barrels from America, and believe it or not even sherry barrels were still inexpensive. My barrels in comparison were too pricey, so I didn’t sell anything. Then I thought about the Caribbean. I didn’t really know anything about it, but I thought: why not give it a shot? I knew Thierry Gardère, the former owner of Barbancourt, who just passed away a year ago. His daughter had worked for us at Ferrand in the past, so they bought some Cognac barrels and that’s when I started to fall in love with rum. To be honest, back then and before this founding trip to the Caribbean more than 20 years ago, some of the aged rum I tasted were not so impressive. Then I tasted rum straight from the still and I thought: this is great stuff. We can do something with this. We can bring rum to the standard of a great Cognac. I must say that rum has come a long way since then. It's not just Plantation, other distilleries are now doing a great job as well.
David: What are you doing differently with your élévage process versus what the average producer does with standard maturation in the Caribbean?
Alexandre: With Plantation there are three sides to it. One of the most important aspects is what we call "double aging." meaning aged first in the Caribbean and then aged further in Cognac. I wish I had invented this technique so that I could have a claim to fame, but this is a technique as old as rum. This is how rum was made in the old days, it was purchased and then transported. The U.S. as you know was built on rum. My daughter did an essay in college about the geopolitical role of rum in the early Americas and it’s fascinating. What happens with double aging are four crucial things. Firstly, you get to play with two different climates. If you’re a master blender this is heaven. You get to use a tropical climate which is like a tool. You have a high angel’s share, lots of humidity, and that heat designs the rum in a specific way. This is great during the early years, but after ten years it can get rather tired.
David: You’re saying that it can mature too quickly in the heat?
Alexandre: Not exactly. What happens is that under a tropical climate you have a huge angel's share: 7% to 10% a year depending on the cellar. The angel's share, which as you know is the evaporation of the rum through the cask, is one element of aging and there are others as well. But when you lose 7% a year, after ten years you start losing some of the elements from the rum you would actually like to keep. But, if you bring that rum back to France then you have a cooler climate and you also have the seasons. Seasons are magical for aging, as the Bourbon guys will tell you. When it’s cold, the spirit retracts from the wood. Then when it’s hot it expands into the wood. That’s how we play with two climates. Also, at Cognac Ferrand, an old master blender thought me long ago how to use varied conditions offered our cellars. We have humid cellars and dry cellars. In a humid cellar, the angel share is predominantly alcohol, and to put it simply, it makes the spirit smoother. In a dry cellar, it is the opposite that happens: water evaporates faster than alcohol and it results in a brighter spirit. This is a great tool, but you have to taste your rum barrels regularly to check how they are evolving—a typical day at work involves tasting more than sixty barrels. The second aspect of double aging is the oak. In the Caribbean, they’re using mostly American oak. Back in Cognac, we then transfer that rum into French oak barrels. Now that we’ve purchased our own rum distilleries, we can go even further.
David: You guys bought West Indies Distillery on Barbados, I know. The other is Long Pond on Jamaica?
Alexandre: That’s right. We bought West Indies and a third of National Rum of Jamaica, which owns Long Pond and part of Clarendon or Monymusk. That’s a dream come true, by the way. Back to double aging though. American oak brings you upfront sweetness and then those flavors you find in whiskey like coconut and vanillin. French Limousin oak then gives you fine tannins and structure. That combination gives rum a great elegance and complexity. Some rums lack structure, they lack the ribcage that is given by the French oak. Empty American oak barrels also usually contain remnants of the spirit that was formerly aged within them, namely Bourbon or rye whiskey. That’s the third tool: the finishing. When we use empty French oak barrels, they still have the remnants of the Cognac. So far you have climate, oak, and the finishing. The fourth aspect has to do with the shipping of the barrels.
David: You mean the potential for ocean or marine aging?
Alexandre: You got it. In the old days I always tried to push our suppliers to ship to us in barrel and not in stainless steel tanks or plastic drums. They would always bitch and moan and sometimes do what they wanted to. But now that we own the distilleries, we get to ship from the Caribbean in wooden barrels every time, which is really a great thing. Imagine a liquid traveling in cask for three months, being shaken by the sea, with different temperatures and movement along the way. The liquid is rubbing against the barrel non-stop, day and night. A few master blenders had told me of the benefit of such a voyage. In fact, some of the best Scandinavian aquavits are shipped back and forth to the equator just for this reason. In our case, it is a one way trip from the Caribbean to France like people use to do it in the old days.
David: So these are the four aspects of double aging, but what now are the impacts of French élévage?
Alexandre: In Cognac, it is believed that it takes twenty years of training to really master élévage. In essence it’s proactive aging. It means to elevate, as it comes from the same word. Some people in the Caribbean still think aging means putting a spirit in a barrel and then coming back five years later, hoping it’s all well and good. To us, that’s like raising your child by throwing him onto the street and telling him: “come back when you’re eighteen.” If you treat a spirit this way, I think about 80% of the time it will be less than average and 20% of the time it ends up fine. I guess if you throw a kid into the jungle the odds are he will be eaten by a lion, but there’s still a chance he might become Tarzan and can speak to the animals.
David: That’s a hilarious analogy.
Alexandre: Some barrels make it through the jungle, but some don’t. I know this because even while I’m distilling rum in the Caribbean now, I’m still cherry-picking barrels from my friends. Some of them are great but some of them are empty because of an unattended leak, and others are unfortunately tainted. It’s crazy. In Cognac, it’s not like that at all. I think it’s because the base material for Cognac is so expensive. Remember, it’s made from grapes that have to be grown and managed in a climate that is not always cooperative—good producers nurture their spirit like their own child. At Ferrand and Plantation, we mature the spirit in different types of cellars. Some are bone dry and some are very wet. You do this by either allowing light in or by keeping it out, digging to various depths, and by keeping dirt as the ground to keep it damp or by paving the floor. In a humid cellar, there is a lot of water in the air so the alcohol evaporates first. That means the spirit mellows by going down in proof. In a dry cellar, you have the opposite, so the water evaporates first and the proof actually rises over time. If we start by aging rum in a dry cellar, it might become spicy in its character, so we may then decide to move that barrel to a more humid cellar. Or we might leave it there so that when blending time comes we can use that spice as an ingredient.
David: Blending is about having options, right?
Alexandre: Yes, in a way, but more importantly it is about creating a perfect taste and aromatic balance. A great blend should be better than any of its individual elements taken separately. That’s part of the process of élévage. Another aspect is barrel size. If the spirit is young, you may want to start with a small barrel. Then as it ages you may want to transfer it to a larger barrel to slow down the influence of the wood, but you still want the aeration. Then when it hits fifty years old you might want to transfer to an 800 liter barrel. Size is important and you want to play with these combinations. Another aspect is staving. Wood is an additive, right? Some of the flavor of the spirit comes from the oak. That addition of flavor is like salt and pepper on a dish, but you should never blend based on that addition. You should blend based on the substance of the spirit itself. Then you accent. So when we want to add some salt and pepper to a blend we may put the spirit into a barrel that has had only one or two staves recently re-coopered. Or maybe ten staves. We’ll decide depending on how much accent we want. Maybe we’ll change the cap of the barrel instead. We’ll toast the caps and then change them around. That’s the wood management of élévage. We call them zebra barrels at Maison Ferrand because they look like zebras with the different colors of the staves.
David: That’s a lot more attention than most distillers give to their barrel program, especially here in the states. I have to imagine that extended commitment to care continues over to the dilution?
Alexandre: Oh man, I’ve seen some distillers dilute to drinking proof in a single pour process and it’s a disaster because it is a shock to the spirit! They should stick to full proof bottling. Good master blenders do it progressively, step by step, and with a lot of care. At Ferrand, I was taught by an old master blender to mature the dilution water itself in a barrel that once contained Cognac, so the water is softened in advance.
David: That’s the same with the dosage process, right? You’re aging the sugar in cask as well?
Alexandre: That’s correct. That’s another part of élévage and a process that’s sometimes misunderstood. If you have a spirit that’s very neutral like a vodka or a stripped-down rum, the last thing you want to use is dosage. Dosage is like a pinch of fleur de sel. If you use a pinch of fleur de sel in a glass of water, then it’s going to taste like holy water. But if you use a pinch of salt in a flavorful vegetable stew, then the flavor of those vegetables is going to be elevated. I don’t know if you’ve ever tasted bread without salt versus bread with salt. We can do it the next time we’re together and you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
David: I have actually tasted salt-free bread and I was shocked by how uninspiring it was.
Alexandre: That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Yet, do you ever really think about bread having salt? Because you shouldn’t taste the salt itself.
David: I used to be much more puritanical about adulterated spirits in my youth, but it was my experiences in Cognac that changed my mindset. Tasting Cognac without dosage was very much like eating bread without salt. Only in very rare cases did it succeed.
Alexandre: I like the word you used there: adulterated. I was doing a conference on this subject once. I said I will show a document from the West Indies Distillery that dates back to 1930. The puritanical thinkers of that time thought that rum producers using oak barrels to store the rum and mature it were adulterating it. They didn’t understand why someone would want to add oak flavor to the spirit. If you use wood as a maturation vessel, you do so to fine tune your spirit. If you use a barrel that once contained Port, for example, are you not adulterating? You’re adding some Port notes, right?
David: I agree completely. It’s added sweetness that didn’t exist in the spirit originally.
Alexandre: Go and tell a great chef that you’re a food purist and to not add any salt or sugar to your meal.
David: I know you’re kidding, but people do that now. It’s becoming more and more normal to tell artisans how to do their work and it’s obnoxious.
Alexandre: You grew out of that mindset and that’s great, but not everyone does. It’s like the teenage version of spirits knowledge. Unfortunately for us, however, more rum producers are using dosage for spirits that have been rectified or distilled to an almost neutral character. It’s horrible because it tastes like sugar water, which is giving the process a bad name. Understanding dosage, however, requires the customer to have a greater understanding of the process and to be able to separate those examples from what others are doing. Back to the Port barrel analogy, we have done tests and found that when you empty a barrel there is still roughly 3.5% of the previous liquid in the barrel. If it’s a wet barrel, then you’re now up to 5%. That’s a lot, but if it’s done right then it can be interesting. It’s not about the process so much as it is how you use it.
David: When you’re using dosage and sugar, what are your guidelines?
Alexandre: The maximum allowed is sixteen grams per liter. Just to explain what that means, next time you drink your coffee you would have to split a number 4 sugar cube into twelve pieces and use 1/12th of that sugar cube in your coffee. That’s the limit in terms of quantity, so it’s very little. The quality of the sugar is also very important. You might want to infuse it with Cognac or rum and put that into a barrel and then age it. It takes up to five years to mature sugar that way. It depends on the spirit you’re working with and what you’re trying to express. This is what goes into being a master blender. For us, dosage is one of many different tools. When you feel it benefits to rum you use it, some other times you don’t. What truly matters is the quality of the rum. The nose, the taste. The complexity and balance. At the end of the day, this is what we work for.
David: And you’re applying those tools to rum now, using élévage to enhance Caribbean rum.
Alexandre: Yes, we’re combing that with the terroir of rum, something I find very interesting. Sure, we’re talking about climate and regional conditions, but we’re also talking about the hand of man. What is the regional know-how? In visiting these distilleries, I’ve learned fascinating things about yeast that I never knew before. If Cognac is the king of the barrel, then rum is the king of the yeast and fermentation. Every spirit has its angle, some part of the process we’re crazy about, and in Jamaica it’s yeast and fermentation. It was an eye-opener to me. They’re using special bacteria cultures—what they call the muck pit—in fermentation to turn some of the alcohol into esters. We do fermentation to turn sugar into alcohol, but they go a step further. I only know a few guys who really understand that technique. The first time I saw it I was struck by both admiration and horror, a combination of the both. I thought to myself: I want to know everything about this. We studied it like crazy. Last year I sat down with an old acquaintance at Long Pond that I now work with and he said to me: “Alexandre, you’re an owner now. I’m going to tell you everything about the muck pit.” I was so proud because we had figured about 95% of it out on our own, but there was this 5% that we could never have figured out. That’s part of the magic of Jamaican rum terroir and I love it. To be able to be part of this Jamaican heritage, as well as that of Barbados, and to try to preserve and maintain these traditions has been both fascinating and humbling. This is what we are trying to do with the Plantation range of double aged rums.