Mark Reynier: the renegade of the *terroir, wines with rum and whiskey

*Terroir is a term invented by the French to describe the complex interconnection of microclimate, soil, exposure, geology and topography on the fruit of the vine

Mark Reynier marked the 2000s in a very unique way in the whiskey industry, especially with the acquisition of the Bruichladdich distillery, which he managed to revive from the ashes like a peat-doped phoenix, innovation and the soil, sometimes organic. Coming from the world of wine and especially the London scene known for its avant-garde, this renegade has often encountered the all-powerful Scottish industry but has held for more than a decade before being forced to sell … Shortly after, he announced the creation of an even more ambitious project in Ireland, to produce the first biodynamic whiskey, on a large scale!

And it is this same desire to question the terroir that led him to launch an unprecedented project in Grenada, replanting dozens of acres of cane to produce a rum of pure cane juice with multiple distillatory apparatus. Mark took to the game of rum in 2005 with his Renegade bottling, 46%, unfiltered cold, like his single malts, with special finishes in wine barrels. A pioneer of the genre so, misunderstood at the time, but who has not said his last word in rum. Meeting with one of the greatest agitators of the spirit planet of the last quarter of a century

Mark Reynier

Rumporter: Ten years ago, you started bottling rum. What was your idea at the time? How did you discover rum and what did you think?

Mark Reynier: The first bottles of Renegade rum came from interesting stocks of bulk rums available on the market at that time, if you knew where to look. The similarities between the two industries, Scotch whiskey and rum, seem strange to me: the same owners (Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Beam Suntory, Bacardi, Campari, Rémy Cointreau – all these groups have brands of rum and whiskey, editor’s note) Same dominance, same strategy – only the rum seemed to be about thirty years old. As with single malt, it quickly became clear that these bulk stocks were limited due to distillery closures and the concentration of large groups and that the pleasure of looking for venerable casks in forgotten distilleries was not going to last long. And that happened very quickly.
Bulk rums available became increasingly boring and predictable, as prices kept rising: the supply was expensive and dull. We scraped the bottom of the proverbial barrel. This is how my trip to find my own rum distillery started. It is exactly the same logic that led me from an independent whiskey bottler (Murray McDavid) to a distillery owner in Scotland (Bruichladdich).

R: How do you compare rum to wine and whiskey? How did your experience in this field motivate you to start a rum distillery?

M.R.: I spent almost exactly half of my career in wine, the other half in spirits – with a transition period from one to the other via the independent bottling of rum and whiskey. I grew up in the wine trade, trained from a very young age to tasting by my father. Children, we were not allowed to start Sunday lunch without identifying the wine in the carafe! It was this real tasting experience – research, questioning, understanding – that led me with some luck to the spirits and the Bruichladdich distillery. But this is another story.

I called it the dark side: it could be said that the wine trade is full of small businesses, enthusiasts and tiny budgets – while the spirits sector is controlled by a handful of large groups, cold professionals and big budgets. In other words, wine is a matter of production, spirits, marketing. My goal is to reverse this trend.

Mark Reynier

R: Why and how did you choose Grenada?

M.R.: I chose Grenada because I liked the atmosphere of the place. The only problem was that there was no cane on my arrival. I was looking for a real home for this project for ten years. I had hoped to buy an old distillery, as for Bruichladdich, but I could not find anything worth it: too decrepit, too far away or too much compromise. Certainly, the cane was eagerly growing around the island – it was very profitable. There were three distilleries, River Antoine, Clarke’s Court and Westerhall, all associated with sugar refineries.

R.: You designate your project as “the most compelling rum the world has ever seen,” can you be more explicit?

M.R.: We do not yet know the answer to this question, but we will know it soon enough. The driving force behind this project is how to produce a rum with a degree of complexity like that of a single malt such as Bruichladdich. My debut as an independent bottler of whiskey allowed me to taste many malts in their natural state and to appreciate the intensity of the flavors. Later, as an independent rum bottler, I was disappointed by the lack of complexity of the flavors of what I tasted, whether it was a single estate, venerable, old and rare, or unique barrels: more complexity, richness, dimension, length. I guess. I was looking for the same ethereal intensity that requires the taster to continually return to his glass, focusing on the unprecedented development of flavors and flavors that stimulate our senses and reward our patience.

It is well known that barley is at the origin of the extraordinary concentrations of aromatic compounds that make single malt whiskey the most complex spirits that are (in terms of aromatic diversity, note). It is unlikely to be confused with cognac or bourbon. The question I’m trying to answer is this: without barley, can we produce a rum with a convincing depth?

R: Do you want to follow a path similar to that of Bruichladdich and / or Waterford?

M.R.: In Bruichladdich, there was an industrial, cultural and economic opposition to my ideas – “that’s not the way we do it” – and we did not have the logistics and the means to put them in place. In Waterford, we had the opportunity to establish it specifically considering the terroir from the first day: 40 separate farm terroirs per year, with full traceability and provenance from the field to the barrel to the bottle. I think its magnitude is unprecedented. Grenada relies on this experience – and this software – for which we were able to spread our sugar cane fields along the terroirs in order to maximize the natural variables, the ultimate expression of the pure Grenadian terroir.

 

Mark Reynier

R: How far do you want to go with this project?

M.R.: I want to focus on production, as I did with Bruichladdich and now Waterford. Personally, I believe that the distillation industry, ever more efficient, has lost its soul on the altar of marketing. Now, it’s about knowing which story will affect the consumer, the new fashionable aroma, the next big novelty; that’s where the money is spent – telling stories (or nonsense) – tracking and exploiting trends. We have achieved maximum homogeneous efficiency – how to make the cheapest liter of alcohol possible – the work is done. So, it seems to me that there is a huge gap between the two ends of production and marketing. I want to reconnect. I want our story to focus on production: raw flavors from rum and barrels, raw materials and origins, cultivation methods; its reaction during fermentation with yeasts, different distillation techniques…

I’m totally for tradition, after all, distillation techniques have not really changed since they were discovered around the year 800; apart from the stills. We will use both a pot still, a twisted still and a column. One for regularity, the other for variety – you might be surprised to know who does what. But when it comes to religiously following what used to happen out of blind faith, without wondering what one could do better, then tradition can become a dead-end trap. I do not like traps.

Innovation is another buzzword in the industry, too busy, meaning different things for different people. After all, one man’s innovation is probably the tradition of another. I wanted this distillery to be fresh, free of existing rum influences. So, we have all questioned (to the chagrin of our builders). It’s not every day that we have the chance to build a new rum distillery. I suppose there are many “innovations”. But for me, innovation is a state of mind.

R: Beyond the distillery under construction, you have started an agricultural company to revive the cultivation of cane in Grenada. With what ambitions?

M.R.: We created CaneCo. three years ago, to implement the research commissioned from Booker Tate on the viability of reintroducing sugar cane to Grenada. The island was once a major producer of sugar cane, but as elsewhere, the vagaries of the sugar industry and especially in Grenada, the political will to eradicate sugarcane meant that there was only 4 hectares in 2015. Land tenure had also changed; large estates and abandoned plantations for the bush and jungle or the flatter areas for housing have disappeared. Identifying a suitable land with enough land, clearing it and planting it took us three years, proving that it was worth building a distillery.

The design and development of the distillery has, however, been associated with the cultivation of sugar cane. Therefore, pressing the button to continue means that we should be running quite fast – July 2019, with a favorable wind. We have a base of 60 hectares of cane, grown from varieties selected and adapted to the soil and the climate of the islands, mainly on wasteland, which remains of old plantations. We are preparing about 40 additional hectares and have another 50 hectares of land. And that before including small farmers. CaneCo employs nearly 100 farm workers in northern and southern teams and grows sugar cane at eight sites along the southern and eastern shores of the island.

Mark Reynier

We sent engineers around the world to research new methods of harvesting and growing sugar cane on this hilly volcanic island. Once again, we are digging our own path, so to speak, to take a fresh look at this island: how can we always do better – using, for example, suitable wooden trailers. It’s a logistical game that involves sending units of about one hectare each with its own terroir characteristics – to the plant as gently as possible within two hours of cutting to avoid contamination or deterioration.

R: How do you define the terroir?

M.R.: Terroir is a term invented by the French to describe the complex interconnection of microclimate, soil, exposure, geology, topography on the fruit of the vine. There is no direct English translation, which probably explains its pretentious reputation. Essentially, whoever pays attention to how he grows plants that grow best where he is, knows the terroir; he simply calls it gardening or agriculture. Despite what manufacturers may want to believe, the influence on a spirit can be as important as for a wine, assuming the harvest is harvested and processed individually – logistics are the key – and distillation can be precisely controlled. Think of pear brandies, raspberry or kirsch.

They have a pear taste. Take the same raw ingredient, but grow it in different environments, altitudes, soil types, humidity, etc. And the same type of plant will provide slightly different flavors derived from this specific place. We proved it in Bruichladdich, and even more spectacularly and definitively in Waterford. We expect the same thing in Grenada with the Renegade distillery, which is why we designed it specifically for logistics, planning and implementation.

Mark Reynier

R: Why did you opt for the farm model and pure fresh cane juice?

M.R.: I want sugar cane juice only because I do not think we can have terroir in what is essentially a commodity. Molasses is perhaps, in my opinion, one of the reasons why rum has never really been taken seriously. It is perhaps for this reason that grappas or marcs, made from grape solids, are only offered at the end of the meal. In addition, how can one get true provenance by using a product available around the world rather than a product grown, fed and influenced by its location? I do not even have to leave my country: I could distill rum in Scotland from the same material as most Caribbean players. Indeed, some already do it. But why copy everything else? That’s just not what I want: my point of view – and many will say I’m crazy (it will not be the first time) – is that if we want to do it, let’s do it right, authentically, originally – with as much integrity as possible. That’s what I do.

R: You launched one of the first certified organic whiskeys with Bruichladdich, Waterford is biodynamic. Would it be possible to switch to organic or biodynamic farming in tropical conditions?

M.R.: It is certainly viable to go organic and we are also looking at biodynamics. We will see. We have just followed ten weather stations to obtain detailed data from which we can better manage them. I am a big fan of biodynamics and I found a producer who might be able to collaborate on this. We need more climate data. The tropical climate would certainly be a challenge. We will see.

R: To better understand the project, can you compare to other recent Caribbean distilleries?

M.R.: I could not really say. I’m not really interested in what others are doing; I tend to focus on my own projects. In this game, one can be too easily influenced by the lazy duplication of existing practices: “it worked for them, it will work for me”. This was conceived and implemented with a total originality of thought. The best brains in the business have been involved in the design of a new environmentally friendly distillery. We designed the distillery to produce one million liters of alcohol per year. It is calibrated to manage about one hectare is a terroir a day.

He shares the DNA with the Waterford Distillery. This is not a vanity project for a rich man, a hobby or a tourist attraction, nor a simple work of conversion. It’s a totally new concept with the simple goal of trying to produce the deepest rum ever seen. It will be fun to try to get there!

Rendez-vous is therefore taken for 2022, estimated date of the first bottlenecks of the distillery and its many terroirs, distilled at several levels of wealth!


MARK REYNIER’S JOURNEY IN A FEW DATES

1980: First steps in the wine trade in the family business in London.

1985: La Réserve Fine Wines & Spirits, an import and retail company (sold in 2003).

1995: Murray McDavid, an independent Scotch Whiskey bottler, famous for its closed distilleries whiskeys, unusual atypical distilleries, and rare wine cask finishes (sold in 2012).

2000: Acquisition of the Bruichladdich distillery on the mythical island of Islay, where he creates many new expressions, including peat with Port Charlotte and the ultra-peated Port Charlotte, X4 distilled four times (against two and sometimes three times usually in Scotland), Islay Barley using only local barley, finishes in barrels of great wines, expressions Micro-Terroirs, Bere Barley returning to the quasi-wild variety of barley, Organic, expression bio, or The Botanist, gin highlighting the island spices (sold in 2012 to the French group Rémy Cointreau, also owner of Mount Gay in Barbados).

2005: Creation of Renegade Rum Company, independent bottler of Single Estate rum.

2014: Creation of Renegade’s Waterford Distillery, a new Irish whiskey distillery aimed at expressing local terroirs in partnership with farmers and in biodynamics.

2016: Creation of Renegade Rum Distillery.

2018: Laying of the first stone in Grenada.

 

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