Since September 2022, the Managing Director of Mount Gay, which has been distilling in Barbados since at least 1703, has been none other than Antoine Couvreur, a Frenchman who joined the Rémy Cointreau group (with a few trips back and forth in between) in the early 2000s. Here we meet the man who is overseeing the destiny of this veritable treasure trove of rum history, and who continues to bring it up to date.
What was your background before becoming head of Mount Gay?
I’m 45 years old and originally from Champagne. I joined the Rémy Cointreau group in 2000, and very quickly the group offered me a wide range of opportunities. I worked in France and abroad on prestigious brands such as Cointreau and St-Rémy, the leading French brandy producer.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to discover the richness of Barbados and Mount Gay when I took over as head of the Latin America and Caribbean zone. I also spent a few years in Asia, between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Since September 2022, I’ve been back in this fantastic part of the world, dividing my time between Barbados, where we produce all our rums, and the United States, where I’m concentrating on our business development.
What is the history of Mount Gay and its place in the history of rum?
You already know that Mount Gay, located in the parish of St Lucy on the Caribbean island of Barbados, is the oldest rum distillery in the world still in operation. We’re proud to say that a notarised deed dated 20 February 1703 officially establishes the distillery’s existence in its current location and confirms the presence of stills…
We celebrated 320 years of existence in February, earlier this year. That’s quite a milestone. The history of Mount Gay is closely linked to that of Barbados. The island was discovered by sailors. As trade developed in the Caribbean, their successors, on their way back to Europe, loaded their ships with barrels of rum, and rum became the sailors’ drink… The barrels turned into bottles, and that’s how the strong and authentic link between the ocean, sailors, sailing and Mount Gay was born.
Today, our brand is still very much involved, and we maintain this unique link with the world of sailing and the community, we collaborate with many regattas, and we continue to offer participating sailors the famous ‘red caps’, which we are celebrating 40 years of this year. Looking at the history of rum more broadly, we are proud to be pioneers in the old rum category, and ultimately the pioneer, being the oldest distillery still operating today, and coming from the island where rum was born.
This means that we have developed a unique knowledge and expertise in terms of fermentation, distillation, maturation, blending, know-how and understanding of woods, casks and so on. These 320 years of experience represent exceptional know-how. In fact, it’s unique.
What is the identity of rum from Barbados, and that of Mount Gay within it?
One of the distinctive features of Barbados rum is that it is produced in the traditional way from molasses obtained during the sugar extraction process. What’s more, all Mount Gay rums are produced with no added sugar, in the typical style of ‘English’ rums. The privileged geographical location of our estate and distillery, on the heights of the island, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, and the purity of our water naturally filtered by the island’s coral soil, are assets that mark the definitively Barbadian character of our rums.
Mount Gay’s unique maturation process, the oceanic influence and our tropical climate, give each bottle a set of incredibly rich aromas and nuances of flavour, all of which illustrate the history, heritage and, above all, the expertise of our House, passed down from generation to generation. Gustatively, I’d like to finish with the signature style of our rums, which can be found in varying degrees in all our expressions: banana, vanilla, dark chocolate and almond.
Tell us about the raw materials used to make Mount Gay rums
At Mount Gay we import the finest 100% Bonsucro-certified sugar cane molasses. We prioritise local Barbadian and Caribbean molasses, as both have significant differences that translate into different and complementary flavour and organoleptic profiles.
Barbadian molasses offers a higher sugar content and, as our soils are alkaline, which tends to increase the acidity of the cane, a flavour specific to molasses, giving Mount Gay its unique style
If the raw material doesn’t necessarily come from the region, or even from Barbados, what is Mount Gay’s terroir?
The concept of terroir is a very French definition of the combination of the elements that make up a natural environment with the people who work them… Topography, soil types, climate or climates influence the characteristics of a spirit, just as they do with wine, or tomatoes or melons, as soon as they are grown in one place or another.
For Mount Gay, we can talk about terroir and terroirs in many ways. First of all, the tropical environment, with its seasons that are always warm but dry and wet, an average of 3,000 hours of sunshine a year and an average annual temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, provides the ideal setting for growing sugar cane.
It is also the ideal place for the tropical ageing of our rums, which increases evaporation compared with temperate regions, and therefore accelerates the maturation of the liquids and the development and concentration of the aromas.
What role does water play in rum production?
The water in Barbados is different from many other places on this planet, and certainly different from that available in all the other Caribbean islands. Barbados is the only island whose soil is made up of coral rock, which is quite alkaline.
Here, the water is naturally filtered by this highly porous rock and reaches the aquifer pockets, and this geological specificity gives us some of the purest water on the planet, with a unique minerality.
We use this naturally filtered water at many stages in the production of our rums, and it comes from our own well, just a few steps from the distillery.
Is there a particular terroir to St Lucy?
Finally, terroir also means climate, air… and wind. The parish of St Lucy, where the Mount Gay estate and distillery are located, is the most northerly parish on the island. It is also the narrowest: we are surrounded on three sides, to the east, north and west, by the Atlantic Ocean.
The winds, which blow mainly from the east, arriving directly from the ocean without having encountered the slightest obstacle from the coasts of Europe and Africa, are often strong, as can be seen from the angle of the trees around the estate.
These winds circulate the air, cooling and purifying it, and adding a touch of salinity to the cane, as well as to the rums, which age peacefully in our five cellars.
How are Mount Gay rums produced?
Mount Gay rums are produced using three ingredients, and only three: water, from a deep artesian well first dug in 1703 by the founders themselves, on the site of our distillery. It is still this well and its water that we use today, 320 years later; the molasses; and finally the yeast, a yeast bred by Mount Gay, carried by the Caribbean breeze and cultivated using elements from our terroir.
What about fermentation?
At Mount Gay, we use two types of fermentation: closed in stainless steel vats, used for continuous column distillation. And open air in French oak vats, used for distillation in copper stills, with double distillation. Fermentation is relatively rapid, taking around two to three days.
The molasses is mixed with water, then boiled to sterilise it. For some distillations, we may decide to extend the fermentation time to a week or more. This is the case for some very special products that will be coming onto the market in the next few months, so I can’t tell you more about them today.
Isn’t distillation done in alembic and columns?
Distillation takes place in a combination of small copper stills and columns, which is a bit like Mount Gay’s DNA. The copper pot still is a true hallmark of the rum, producing intense aromas and flavours through double distillation.
75-80% of the rums are distilled in the copper pot still, while the column still produces a rum with a much sweeter flavour and character. The maximum output is 95%. It’s the combination of the two that gives our rums their inimitable flavour.
Finally, we have also brought back into service an old 100% copper Coffey Still, which was in use at Mount Gay until the 1970s. It’s a unique machine in many ways, and there are only three of its kind left in the world. We are the only rum distillery to own one… and to operate it!
What about aging?
We age all our rums separately, in a wide range of casks (70% casks), including ex-American whisky casks, old bourbon casks, cognac casks, scotch casks, etc. Each cask brings its own flavours and characteristics.
Each cask brings its own unique and remarkable flavours and qualities. What’s more, we age, or rather mature, all our rums on our estate, taking advantage of the tropical climate I described earlier, which accelerates the concentration of aromas and flavours.
What are Mount Gay’s main markets? What about France?
Our main markets are the United States, the United Kingdom and, of course, Barbados. The Caribbean, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are also among Mount Gay’s main markets. We want to strengthen our presence in Europe and Asia, which are interesting markets for us, as top-of-the-range, artisanal rum is booming there.
History, tradition and quality of production are important criteria for customers in these markets. These are all qualities that can be found at Mount Gay. So France is obviously one of the territories where we want to strengthen our presence.
How does the brand view independent bottlers?
We don’t work with independent bottlers. We look after all the rums we produce, and every bottle bearing the Mount Gay name contains a fermented rum, distilled on our premises and aged in Barbados in our cellars before being blended by our Master Blender and bottled.
Is Barbados suffering the effects of climate change?
We are well aware of the environmental problems facing our planet. Our small island is particularly hard hit, and every action we take has an impact very quickly, in a small environment. That’s why we strive to put in place processes and initiatives that respect the environment and our communities.
What steps has Mount Gay taken to protect the environment?
We have identified four key pillars to support our environmental & CSR initiatives in order to protect Barbados and Mount Gay for future generations. The first is agriculture and biodiversity, and our ambition to establish regenerative agriculture on our estate.
For a number of years, we have been improving biodiversity on the estate and involving all members of staff, as well as neighbouring villages (e.g. Mount Gay Village), plantations and agricultural students on the island.
This is achieved in a number of ways: on the estate and at the distillery, we plant 1,000 trees a year, including mahogany, fruit trees and flowers for our beehives. Staff at the distillery and on the estate have been trained in basic beekeeping techniques, and we have around fifteen beehives on the estate, so we look after the health of the bees and harvest honey.
Finally, we grow local fruit and vegetables that we sell at cost price to our staff or offer to less-favoured local communities.
What about energy?
Our second pillar is energy. We are aiming for 100% renewable energy by 2030. We are committed to the use of alternative energy sources, and have ambitious plans to install solar panels on the vast majority of our roofs, with the aim of covering our consumption by 2024.
The third pillar is water?
Obviously, in a country with a high level of water stress, water is a key part of our strategy. We are committed to managing our waste water by using the abundant rainfall received on our roofs and in our ponds to naturally nourish our land and our water needs. We are also committed to keeping the water around Barbados clean and plastic-free.
In fact, we’ve been associated for several years with 4Ocean, a US organisation whose mission is to reduce the problem of plastic in the oceans, and which runs campaigns to clean up the beaches, seas and oceans around the world.
What are you doing to reduce your CO2 emissions?
Finally, we aim to reduce our carbon emissions per bottle by 50% by 2030. To achieve this, we have already reduced the weight of several products. We are working on closed-loop solutions with ecoSPIRITS.
Finally, in Barbados, we have just launched a campaign inviting Barbadians to recycle their empty Mount Gay bottles, with the aim of reusing 30% of our bottles locally.