Alexandre Gabriel: the reopening of the ancestral Long Pond distillery, a highly emotional moment

Jamaica… an island lost in the Caribbean Sea, south of Cuba and off the coast of Haiti. Colonized in 1494 by the Spanish, the island officially became English in 1670 and finally gained independence in 1962 and remains part of the Commonwealth. With the unique geology of its Cockpit Country, its Blue Mountains mountain ranges that almost dominate the Caribbean, its rivers leading to natural waterfalls and lush hills surrounded by turquoise waters, white sandy beaches and wild coves…

Described in this way, Jamaica sounds like paradise. But if you add the fact that this island is the birthplace of Rastafari culture and reggae music and that mythical distilleries dating back to the 18th century are still in operation, there is no doubt, Jamaica is positively magical! The island is divided into fourteen administrative parishes, and today, I’m taking you to Clark’s Town in the parish of Trelawny, known for its rich history in the sugar industry, alongside Alexandre Gabriel, President of Maison Ferrand and its Plantation rums.

Alexandre Gabriel Long Pond

Damien Sagnier: Hello Alexandre. Did the purchase of the WIRD at the beginning of the year make you want to buy Long Pond distillery or is this just another step within the same project?

Alexandre Gabriel: My team and I have been lovers of rum and rum culture, and have been studying and working in the field for over 20 years. The diversity of rum techniques and terroirs make it a very distinctive spirit. The Plantation range is an expression of the richness of rum terroirs and culture. With this in mind, it’s easier to understand that, for us, taking over an old Caribbean distillery is a long-standing dream come true.

“I’VE BEEN QUIETLY DREAMING OF ALL THIS FOR YEARS.”

We’d had our eye on several distilleries, including the West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados, which we know very well, for almost 10 years. It’s a 19th century distillery led by geek technicians, a team of enthusiasts who dreamed of being able to let loose and create great rums. However, the WIRD hadn’t had a sales service in over 80 years, and the shareholder wanted to make rums in its own way, according to its own needs, without saying a word more and so that’s how it was for many years.

A bit like great musicians who ended up being in wedding band…some left to continue their training on other islands, in Scotland or Cognac, where we welcomed them. We saw this eager team as a “perfect match” for our Plantation team. In fact, for us, the Long Pond Distillery turned out to be a sleeping beauty with some hidden treasures, including 2 columns stills; a John Dore column still (John Dore bought Aeneas Coffey’s patent in 1872) and a Blairs twin column still.

There were also 5 stills including an old Vulcan chamber still (vertical retort made at the end of the 19th century), the last of its kind. According to David Pym (current director of John Dore, the boiler-making company), one of these unrestored small stills is the oldest rum still of which he is aware (18th century). For years I had been quietly dreaming about all of this and had been talking to Goddard, the company that had been the previous owner for over 50 years.

We found a safe containing more than a century of archives, including the distillery’s Minutes of Proceedings dating back to 1901, which, to me, is itself a gift from heaven. There is even a small cooper’s workshop that used to repair all the barrels in Barbados, which we will bring back into operation.

Among the treasures of this former distillery is a 1/3 ownership share in the famous National Rum of Jamaica (NRJ), which owns the Monymusk and Long Pond distilleries and the Inswood site in Jamaica (the Inswood distillery has now closed). So it is not, strictly speaking, an acquisition of Long Pond Distillery, but a continuation. Plantation’s mission is to work the most beautiful terroirs of rum.

With this 1/3 share, we are in the heart of Barbados, where I live for one week per month, and now also in Jamaica. It’s easy to understand that this important investment for a family company like ours is a dream come true.

 

 

Long Pond Distillery

DS: In the late 1970s, the Jamaican government took control of Long Pond Distillery and since 2006, the distillery has belonged to a consortium of 3 entities: the Jamaican government through the National Sugar Company, Goddard Enterprises (which held 92% of WIRD’s shares before the takeover by United Caribbean Rum Limited (UCRL), a holding company owned by Maison Ferrand), and the famous Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL). Can you tell us a little more about that?

AG: That’s not quite right. In January 1980, the Jamaican government (National Sugar Company) took over 3 mythical distilleries in order to save them, because at the time, good rum wasn’t selling. These 3 distilleries were Clarendon, Long Pond and Inswood. NRJ has owned and operated these distilleries since May 1986.

A few years ago, thanks to their knowledge and reputation in the professional rum community, WIRD and DDL were selected by the Jamaican government to take a stake in NRJ. Demerara Distillers is led by Komal Samaro, a man for whom I have affection and respect. It is therefore a pleasure to meet up regularly in Jamaica, in addition to our moments together in Guyana. Moreover, the 2 representatives of the Jamaican Government in our group are competent people who know their stuff. So I’m optimistic for the years ahead, the rum should be good!

On the subject of the closure of Long Pond, I should point out that the Jamaican government has a very strict policy on recycling vinasses. Long Pond therefore had to close in 2012 pending a solution and that was the final step. On July 26, we attended together the official reopening of the ancestral Long Pond Distillery and this was a highly emotional moment, for me and for the whole team. For rum aficionados, this promises some superb expressions of Plantation Jamaica!

“JAMAICA’S FAMOUS “DOCK RUMS” WERE THE WORLD’S MOST POPULAR RUMS IN THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES”

DS: Apart from Appleton Estate, all Jamaican distilleries send most of their production to Jamaican brokers. The rum therefore spends most of its life aging in a temperate climate. Very few rums are aged on site and have an age of around 4 years maximum. Now that UCRL has bought the Long Pond Distillery, are we going to see a Jamaican rum that will finally age on its own terroir and beyond the usual 3-4 years?

AG: As your question suggests, the double aging of Jamaican rum (tropical aging following by European aging) is indeed a very old tradition. It dates back to the very beginnings of this great spirit. For those who know their history well, the famous “dock rums” of Jamaica were the most popular rums in the world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Tropical aging alone is a more recent practice, and also interesting.

Moreover, this diversity of practices is one of rum’s riches. Plantation is a range of rums that work within this ancestral tradition of double aging, which produced the great rums of centuries past. Tropical aging in barrels made of white oak (Quercus alba) was followed by continental aging in European oak (quercus robur and quercus sessile Flora), that had previously contained cognac.

It is a precious legacy that allows for the development of absolutely delicious rums, and it is also the DNA of Plantation, of which we are particularly proud. So we’re not going to change on a whim. It is a choice and commitment that we will uphold. Enthusiasts who trust us know that.

DS: The Long Pond Distillery is one of the oldest still in existence (created in 1753, at the same time as the Long Pond Sugar Factory, which supplied molasses to the adjoining distillery) and is known by enthusiasts of Jamaican rum for its heavy rums, rich and strong in NA, along with Clarendon/Monymusk and of course Hampden (which like Long Pond, is located in the parish of Trelawny). Will Long Pond reproduce ester-loaded rum by retaining ancestral techniques (dunder/muck breeding in open-air wooden pits for several months or years – adding bagasses, rotting fruit or meat to the dunder pits – very long fermentation of molasses, in the order of several weeks, etc.)?

AG: Long Pond is known for its famous “High Ester” rums, which have been the bedrock of its reputation for more than two centuries. The “new” distillery will remain true to this tradition that has made its reputation, and I think that is something to be welcomed.

DS: European brokers introduced a little classification, which Jamaican distillers use in part to identify their rums according to the non-alcohol, or NA, level (very broadly, NA= esters). I guess you will distil in such a way that you’ll win awards in all 4 categories (Common Cleans, Plummers, Wedderburns and Continental Flavoured)?

AG: You bring up an important and specific point regarding rum that is often overlooked or misunderstood by amateurs and requires clarification. (I apologize in advance because this may seem a bit technical…).

To simplify, the NA (non-alcohol content) is the set of natural olfactory and gustatory elements of rum that make it a superb product or totally undrinkable. So it’s important! Whether you’re aware of the fact or not, that is the work of a great distiller and a great cellar master. In addition, some rums have a low NA count and are light rums.

Rums high in NA have much more flavour and intensity from an olfactory and gustatory point of view. NA is therefore a quantitative expression of the natural olfactory and gustatory elements of rum. Be careful not to confuse NA with esters. NA is often summarized in a common (and somewhat hasty) manner as belonging to the family of “volatile substances” which make up a sizable chunk of the elements of the olfactory and gustatory profile of rum.

“Esters” are a subset of volatile substances and therefore a subset of NA if we’re going to simplify things (volatile substances being the most characteristic elements of NA).

“VOLATILE SUBSTANCES PROVIDE AN OVERVIEW AND MEASURE OF THE RICHNESS OF A RUM”.

More clearly and practically speaking, esters bring a fruity component (very ripe fruits and fresh exotic fruits). However, many other compounds contribute to the olfactory and gustative complexity of rum. For example, in addition to esters, volatile substances also include higher alcohols that bring chocolate/malted notes etc. Volatile substances provide an overview and measure of the richness of rum. Indeed, they quantify an important part of the natural compounds that the rum contains (including esters and higher alcohols).

These elements are responsible for the different aromatic and gustatory notes of rum. That being said, Long Pond has a much more comprehensive classification than that of the “Continental”, “Plummers” or “Weddeburns” which are, in fact, a measure of esters and not NA. Long Pond actually has 12 expressions of rum classified by level of esterification. These expressions include the famous STCE weighing 550 to 700 grams of esters per HLPA (Hectolitre Of Pure Alcohol) and TECC (1500 to 1600 grams/HLPA).

And of course, the distillery will continue to produce these rums! For over 20 years, the Plantation team has been campaigning for a better understanding of rum, including proper knowledge of the elements of olfactory complexity and taste. This is perfectly understood by the best distillers in Jamaica. Unfortunately, this central point remains completely unrecognized. Under the Plantation name, we develop rums of taste with substance.

For us it is a vector of emotions, it is central and not negotiable. A relatively circular debate has begun on the technique of dosage, while ignoring everything of the essential element of rum, which is its aromatic taste and complexity. That, of course, is the central element of rum, both for the producer and the enthusiast of great rums. Fortunately, more and more people have understood this and are either learnedly or instinctively seeking out rums with flavour and more aromatic complexity for pleasure (rather than boredom-inducing neutral rums). This is our central theme with Plantation.

It’s all the more important because this has been the culture of rum for centuries already. Fortunately, things are moving forward. We’ve been working on casks made of tropical hard wood for about five years now. About a decade ago, Plantation launched our limited collection of Single Casks by working with other types of casks such as barrels previously used for aging Banyuls, Sauternes, Porto, etc. It was very rare at the time because these traditional techniques (especially for double aged rum) had been neglected…

They were even banned in certain appellations. At the time, when we launched this “Single Cask Plantation” range, some were offended, others relished them. I am pleased to see that several producers have now started doing the same. It’s all for the best and makes us happy (and we are honoured). For over five years, we’ve been working on casks made from tropical hard woods such as Amburana or Grapia. The oak used to make barrels does not grow in the Caribbean. We think that in centuries past, these other species, more accessible from the Caribbean, were part of some expressions of rum.

We have therefore been working with the University of São Paulo to update these practices and work on these casks. The results exceed our expectations. It’s absolutely amazing and utterly delicious. Just as they were 10 years ago, some are surprised or offended, and others relish them. With Plantation Rums, our mission is to always go further in making exceptional rums. It is always a quest for taste first and foremost, and that is centred around the wonderful culture of rum.

I bet you anything that in 10 years it will be totally accepted and others will be doing the same. Anyway…It’s a subject that we will gladly talk about another time, glass in hand!

DS: Will the Grand Arôme produced only serve as a flavouring intended to be added to other rums to balance or boost a blend, or will it be bottled and marketed pure?

AG: Plantation will indeed be coming out with some surprises… And I don’t want to say more than that right now. You’re going to have to wait…

DS: Alright! Are you going to develop a new brand around this distillery or will all the production be used in the blends of independent bottlers such as Duncan Taylor, Bristol Classic, Cadenheads, Berry Bros & Rudd and of course Plantation?

AG: Once again, it touches a little upon the previous question and so the answer does too. So patience please…

WITH REGARD TO THE DOSAGE OF SOME RUMS, IT IS AN ANCIENT TRADITION

DS: With the arrival of Long Pond in your portfolio and as such, a potential inventory of resources for Plantation, will you move more toward the “Extrême” range or will you continue to add sugar to your rums like most of the “classic” range?

AG: With Plantation, the vision has always been to produce exceptional rums that are rooted in their terroir and culture and are aged according to a demanding technique, that of “élevage”. This notion of terroir is important for rum because the techniques are very different from one island or country to another and the taste profiles are also very different.

That is what makes rum an exceptional spirit. However, it is important not to become a stereotype. For example, many believe that Jamaica’s rum, in its best expression, is systematically a high-ester, very robust rum. I thought that at first, and our Plantation Jamaica, which is a very robust Weddeburn, is the result of that belief.

We are very proud of it, and it continues to win many awards. It is one of the most concentrated rums available on the market. But I also think that to achieve excellence, we should not hesitate to call things into question. A while back, a great collector served me 8 editions of the mythical and elusive 15 year-old Wray & Nephew (which was actually 17 years old after spending 2 years in a bonded warehouse).

It is an intense rum, but doesn’t have the highest esterification, as you might expect. It had an exceptional elegance and finesse. I was literally under its spell…I can still taste it just thinking about it! That is how I see new challenges, both in research and in creation.

With regard to the dosage of some rums (what you call the addition of sugar), it is an ancient tradition that is found in many rum-producing countries, although it is often poorly explained and misunderstood in its method and proportion. We mustn’t forget that rum was invented in a sugar factory in a sugar-producing country. We’re not talking about whisky here, but rum.

Of course, like any technique, it must be mastered both qualitatively and quantitatively. The best cellar masters take a little bit of demerara or muscovado sugar, add it to the rum and barrel age it so that it integrates perfectly. Then they use it as sparingly as a pinch of salt during blending. To put things into perspective, 16 grams of sugar per litre, which is a good reference, corresponds to the equivalent of one twelfth of a standard French sugar cube (industry standard no. 4) per glass of rum.

Imagine cutting a sugar cube in 12 pieces! That’s what we are talking about here. The cellar master who taught me that, and his peers, devised this technique to enhance flavour. It’s not about sugar but about the exceptional taste of rum. Other countries don’t use this technique, and have their own rum culture. Once again, the beauty of rum lies also in its diversity. We mustn’t push back against different styles, but learn from them for even more pleasure.

That is what we have been tirelessly doing for over 20 years. So, for Plantation, some of our rums contain added sugar and others don’t. The priority is always excellence in taste and experience.

 

DS: Like the Hampden Distillery, the Long Pond Distillery is equipped with some mythical metal juggernauts that would give goosebumps to any enthusiast of distillation apparatus. Can you tell us more about these John Dores and Vendômes (pot still brands) and the Blairs double column (brand of Coffey-type column still)?

AG: Indeed, Long Pond is equipped with the mythical “double retort” stills. It is a pleasure to listen to them hum once again because, for me personally, it’s music to my ears. For now, we’re not planning to restart the Blairs column, but rather to focus on the stills.

DS: Strangely enough, this configuration of stills (John Dore, Vendôme and double column) reminds me of Saint Lucia Distillers, from whom you have already selected several rums for your Plantation brand… is that a lucky coincidence?

AG: I’ve been dreaming about and indeed producing cognac for almost 30 years. And 20 years for rum. With Plantation, we work with the best distilleries and the finest rum vintages. Throughout all these years, I’ve relied on them to learn about and employ these wonderful techniques of distillation and rum creation.

Some may seek to restrict rum to a few categories, but rum is much more than that. It is certainly the spirit that offer the widest diversity of taste. In this respect, it has no equal. For example, how can you put Barbados and Jamaica in the same category of English rum? It just doesn’t make sense. You only need 2 glasses to come to that conclusion very quickly. It would be the equivalent of accepting the idea that wines from Europe or even France all belong to the same taste category.

Go and tell a Sancerre winemaker that he belongs to the same taste category as a Sauternes. He’d think you’re crazy or ignorant. Moreover, I think that to understand the wide range of techniques and taste profiles of rum, we can draw some parallels with wine cultures from around the world. Each region has its own methods and culture.

For the wine-taster, some occasions lend themselves better to a robust red wine, others to a mellow and elegant white. Each of these products is the result of history, tradition and the talent of the producer… the same is true of rum.

DS: Given the amount of work done to upgrade the distillery, what yield will you need to get back on track and supply a sizeable stock?

AG: As always, beautiful things take time and require work…

DS: Long Pond has created many rums that are interesting, a bit disconcerting, and include some pearls – a good number of us, including me, have spent some magical moments in their company… I am thinking in particular of Bristol’s Vale Royal Wedderburn, Whisky Agency’s Vintage 2000, the 1986 IRW from Cadenhead’s, Samaroli’s Millennium and 1986, a 1977 and 1982 bottled by Hubert Corman and his Corman Collins boutique, Velier’s 1985 from Velier, not to mention the legendary 1941 from Silver Seal. Is it not too heavy a burden to bear to set yourself the challenge of taking over a distillery of such great importance? What position do you intend to take on that subject, and how do you see the future of Long Pond Distillery?

AG: It is an interesting question which touches on a topic that torments me. We have an old stock of Long Pond that I wanted to keep forever, as the distillery was closed. But now that we are committed to this distillery and that it has managed to reopen, I think we will give in to temptation and offer up some of these old treasures. We will be launching some superb Plantations! However, I don’t want to say any more for now. We’ll see what the future holds for us (and you). So watch this space…

 

 

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