Floating ageing cellar : presentation by Margaux Lespinasse, Private Casks Manager

As unveiled a few days ago, Maison Ferrand will soon install the first floating ageing cellar in France. Margaux Lespinasse, Private Casks Manager, in charge of the “Barge 166” project tells us (much) more. 

Margaux Lespinasse

Adrien Bonetto: Please tell us about the “Barge 166” project.

Margaux Lespinasse: At Maison Ferrand we are passionate about research on spirits, and on one subject in particular – the influence of the environment and wood on the development of a spirit as it ages. Our own cellar master and owner, Alexandre Gabriel, has done a great deal of research on this subject, so much so that he is currently writing a book on “the history and techniques of ageing in wood»!

The Barge 166 project is the continuation of this research and reflection. The idea came to Alexandre Gabriel after numerous studies on the sea voyages of our rum barrels from their countries of origin.

The first objective was to consider how to obtain a very humid cellar, to study the behavior of our spirits in a different environment. Our first studies on dynamic ageing inspired the idea of a boat, since it naturally has an environment conducive to moisture concentration. More precisely, a river boat with gentler movement and higher humidity than a boat at sea.

The humid environment favors the evaporation of alcohol faster than that of water, resulting in spirits with softer, smoother profiles. Just think, only a 6mm thick layer of metal will separate our cellar from the river, and the barrels will be stored below the water level: an optimal environment that promises to produce delicious rums and cognacs!

We decided to combine these ageing conditions with small capacity barrels (30L). This idea came after Alexandre Gabriel and the team visited our friends at the Mackmyra whisky distillery in Sweden. During our meeting with Angela D’Orazio, master blender, we were inspired and intrigued by the idea of using this cask capacity for the ageing of our cognacs and rums, little used at Maison Ferrand until now.

Today we are on the verge of realizing this dream after almost 30 years of contemplation and research by Alexandre Gabriel and the Ferrand teams. We are creating a new ageing site that will allow us to continue our explorations, especially on the evolution of flavor in relation to humidity. We plan to conduct a study over the course of 15 years to continue to provide data for the analyses Maison Ferrand has been doing for three decades.

At the same time, we are very sensitive to the fact that we have a community of consumers who have supported and followed us for many years; many have even become close friends of our teams. Maison Ferrand has always made it a point of honor to keep in touch and stay close to this community of true fans; it is thanks to them that we are where we are today! So we got the idea to offer our customers the opportunity to join us in this adventure and participate in this crazy project! How? By selecting from our range of Plantation rums and/or Ferrand cognacs and storing the chosen spirit in small 30L barrels on board a barge! We are developing a number of special events and experiences that we will share with our future network of Private Casks Owners. Whether on board Barge 166, a perfect place to gather for lively conversation and enjoyment during barrel tasting visits, or activities beyond the Barge, for enthusiasts and bon vivants to share unique moments… I am imagining a sort of crew of hedonists!

AB: Why did you choose the Paris region?

ML: Indeed, we’re talking about “greater Paris” since we will be located in Issy-Les-Moulineaux. The initial idea, as I said, involved choosing a river (something that is not lacking in France, nor in the Charente region!). Next, we considered the location from the point of view of our customers, looking for a place where we could share this experience with them without too many difficulties. The usual meeting point is mostly Paris and the surrounding region, an international crossroads, so that’s where we decided to drop the anchor.

The rest happened very naturally since the Seine and its barges are always an emblematic destination. After a long search, we are very happy to have found a mooring point in Issy-Les-Moulineaux. We enthusiastically thank the town of Issy-Les-Moulineaux for their warm welcome and the trust they have shown in us throughout this ambitious project.

We are very proud of the spot where our Barge 166 will be moored: a true little haven of green, very close to Paris, without the hustle and bustle and traffic! We hope that this location will please our future Private Cask Owners, because we also chose it for the quality of hospitality we wish to offer.

AB: Who are the “Private Cask Owners “? Do you already have an idea of the prices? Of the rums offered? Of the barrels? With or without finish?

ML:  Those we call the Private Cask Owners will be our fans, the curious, the adventurous, the passionate, the hedonists, who want to join in the adventure! By this I mean to participate in an innovative project, but also and above all to have access to an intimate place where you can choose your tailor-made Plantation rum and/or Ferrand cognac, according to your tastes or expectations, and follow its ageing process until bottling. All this in an atmosphere “à la Ferrand” – friendly and welcoming, with exceptional products at your disposal.

Our dream is to bring together a community of hedonists with Barge 166 as their meeting and sharing area. Beyond the innovative concept of a floating cellar to study its influence on our spirits as they age, we want to create a true experience, an unforgettable emotion, a special place to spend time while sipping a great rum or a fine cognac! This has been our philosophy at Ferrand for many years: we regularly welcome our clients and partners to our Château de Bonbonnet in Charente, to enjoy a moment of congeniality and relaxation with a good Ferrand spirit!

It is difficult to talk about prices at the moment, as the concept is a work in progress. I can tell you that as part of the study we will conduct, I will have at my disposal, and therefore at the disposal of our future Private Cask Owners, a certain number of exceptional rums and cognacs carefully selected for the Barge 166. Our recent tastings have proved extremely promising!

The project will constantly evolve so we can play with the various parameters available to us. For rums: provenance/terroir, distillation and age; and for cognacs: blends and vintages. The launch will take place gradually, but we can of course imagine experimenting with the type of cask (wood) as well as finishes. We have 15 years ahead of us to explore all the facets and nuances related to ageing. This will allow us to deepen our research as well as indulge our creativity and that of our Private Cask Owners!

AB: When will I be able to “reserve” my cask ?

ML: It’s still too early to say! The project is still under construction, and I’m weighing my words since I follow the building process site of our barge very closely every week. I would like to be able to tell you that it will be possible to reserve a few barrels in a very private way before the end of the year… But remaining cautious, I think that a real possibility for reserving casks could be envisaged in early 2021, depending of course on the restrictions of the COVID crisis… and the progress of our construction!

AB: Dynamic ageing is fashionable at the moment; what else do you think it offers?

ML: I don’t think the central theme of our Barge 166 project is dynamic ageing. It is first and foremost an exclusive floating cellar in which we will, on the one hand, deepen our studies on ageing, and on the other, offer a brand new opportunity to select and monitor small casks of tailor-made spirits on board a barge ! Thanks to our expertise, we know that this new ageing venue will create superb cognacs and rums!

Having said that, I can tell you about dynamic ageing since we have been conducting research for several years so that we can compare our findings with archives mentioning the beneficial effect of boat travel on the alcohols transported. Because we are fortunate enough to have our own rums that travel by boat from their country of origin to France, we can set up quickly an experimental protocol and a series of studies.

Alexandre Gabriel is surrounded by a leading team dedicated to research, and they have designed a review based on data: measurements, analyses, graphs, in short, an armada of scientific proof! The result is a spirit that will have a stronger aromatic intensity thanks to the development of esters and higher alcohols in greater quantities, as well as the loss of an aggressive character thanks to the evaporation of the most volatile elements.

Finally, a particularly accentuated extraction of the aromas of the wood yields notes of caramel, as the primary woody notes evolve over pastry notes. Ultimately, we obtain a richer, smoother and more intense spirit!

AB: What do you say to skeptics who think that the Seine is not very “dynamic?” And, will the barge sail a bit or stay docked?

ML: Since our goal was a storage capacity of about 1500 30L casks (we are finalizing the structure of the custom-made racks right now!), we had to reassure the town that we would remain at our mooring point and remove our engine! The barge will therefore remain at the quayside with no possibility to sail (by the way, if you know someone looking for a 1948 Freycinet barge engine…).

In response to the “skeptics,” we are not trying to reproduce the effects of a trip across the ocean from our little arm of the Seine… that would be a little naive! Rather, the Barge 166 project is truly a new service we wish to offer our customers, and the logical progression of the research we have been doing for more than 30 years. For information, we plan to measure several factors on board the barge:

– We will have control over the thermal amplitude in order to push the experimental aspect and decide if we want to regulate this setting.
– We will be able to measure the hygrometry inside the cellar in order to relate it to the measurements taken directly on the spirits during their evolution.
– The spirits will be stored in 30L casks, which will allow us to measure for the first time the speed of maturation of our spirits in the conditions of the Barge 166, which we know will be perfect for exceptional rums and cognacs!

AB: A last word?

ML: Let me conclude by saying that this is only the beginning! We can’t wait for the renovation of our barge to be completed, so we can begin to bring the place to life with our passion and that of our clients, future Private Cask Owners! This new concept of selling small custom casks of cognac and rum stored on board a barge, in a true floating cellar… isn’t it irresistible? For me it’s like a dream which is coming true!


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