Rumporter met Grégory Vernant in a Japanese restaurant in the 3rd district of Paris, during his visit to the capital for the last Whisky Live (September 2022). Even if he talked a lot about rum, it is with sake (hot and cold) of which he is a fan, that this interview was conducted. Star system of rum, organic, speculation, AOC, social networks, novelties, water, and especially the terroir, his great concern, almost everything goes through it!
Gregory, the enthusiasts bring Neisson to the firmament of rum, your products are among the most sought after, when you land in France you must be welcomed like a rock star?
Not at all, I think there is a gap between what you see on social networks and what you experience 8,000 km away. I even thought that other brands, more present on the networks were more celebrated than us. In fact, when you talk to people who are passionate about Neisson, you realize that they don’t realize how big we are. When we tell them that we represent only 2% of the production of Martinique, they are surprised.
The enthusiasts are waiting for the new products from Neisson like the messiah, what can we tell them?
It’s all about social networks. People often ask us what’s coming out this year, they’re always waiting for new products. They forget that with each campaign, there is a new white rum with a superb 52.5 Organic and an equally good 107 Organic profile. So above all, the novelty this year is the 2022 campaign!
But still, what can we expect to see as a new product, apart from the 2022 campaign of course?
Maybe a new elevated under wood which will be sold exclusively at the distillery store as well as straight from the barrel offered in small containers so that the greatest number of customers can benefit from it. There will of course be the 90th anniversary Nonaginta, as well as the new 15/18 and 21 year old bottlings.
What do you think of the flowering of new types of rums: single-varietal, vintage, brut de colonne, parcel rums…?
I find that we are sometimes in the excess of novelties, we always want to find something that the others do not do to stand out, to make the buzz. We’re in a bit of a race to find the highest degree, the most esters, the new type of finish… I’d like things to settle down a bit and get back to terroir.
So for example, we will never see a finish at Neisson?
I don’t want to bottle a finish because it doesn’t correspond to my philosophy, not because I think it’s bad. I have a simple vision of my job, which is to defend a terroir and an origin. Fashion by definition passes, the goal for us is to last. Finally, I have tasted a lot of products that were finished with ex-barrels of various alcohols, which had lost the taste of rum, and which in the end are no longer AOC.
In fact, with Alex Bobbi you prefer to play with the types of casks? Which ones do you use for your aged rums?
Alex and I have a small preference for bourbon barrels but that remains our personal taste, far from me wanting to establish a hierarchy of oak. For our new barrels, we have American oak and French oak.
During my visit to the distillery in May 2022, I tasted a rum aged in a mizunara (Japanese oak) barrel.
It is resting quietly
Do you often receive proposals from independent bottlers who want to buy a barrel or two from you?
Very regularly, it’s very fashionable. Historically, it started with the Germans and the Dutch. But I am doubtful, we work hard to make our rums and to raise them, not to send them to others later. I have even received people who wanted to combine my rum with that of Bielle or transport it by sailboat…
Isn’t that ecological?
Yes, but if it’s for people to come by plane to film with an iPhone 14 full of rare materials, it seems contradictory to me. But it’s true that it’s fashionable at the moment. After that, I sometimes do collaborations, but they come on location and we taste together, we keep the hand on the design, the bottle. It’s not a blank check. There is one exception, it is with Luca Gargano (Velier, editor’s note). It is thanks to him that we were able to make the Armada range and that we brought out the Profiles.
And is it possible to make a Neisson blended rum one day?
It’s not our cup of tea at all. We prefer to work on our traditional liqueurs:
Coconut punch and shrub
Yet you have an orchard!
We have already tried to distill fruits but the result does not please us. The orchard is an asset in the context of a visit to the distillery when it is not working, it also allows our visitors to see something else and to discover other facets of our profession of farming.
How is spirit tourism at Neisson?
People are often a little disappointed when they come to visit Neisson, because we don’t have an incredible tour circuit, but we are going to try to remedy that. We have invested a lot in signage and explanatory panels which will be installed in December. The self-guided tour will remain free, but we will set up a tour with a guide and a tasting which will be paid for. It will remain symbolic. But when you produce 4,000 bottles of XO and you receive 60,000 visitors a year, you can’t put it up for tasting, otherwise you won’t have any bottles to sell. However, we are thinking about systems to charge less for a tasted bottle.
You once told me that you defined yourself as a farmer, is that still the case?
Farming is our profession, rum is the end result of the cultivation of the cane. Everything starts from there, from the raw material for the white rum mainly but also for the other rums. This is only my opinion, but I think that from time to time, it is good to put the church back in the center of the village.
The AOC: chance or straitjacket?
The AOC is an extremely interesting framework, which has saved us, contrary to what some people think. We must not forget that it is we Martinicans who have chosen its rules. Nothing was imposed on us! Some local and European groups are questioning the AOC regulations simply because they prevent them from doing their own thing and that’s fine! That said, I would like the AOC to evolve in a way that takes more into account the terroir. Let’s take the example of champagne, there is a general AOC, but also sub-categories, like Grand Cru, Premier Cru… Or in Burgundy with the clos. In fact, in our region, I consider that some parcels are “clos”. They benefit from a difference in temperature between day and night which makes them atypical and very interesting.
Are you thinking of making them into clos, with a mention on the bottle?
I believe above all in blends, but for a parcel with a really atypical exposure, we are seriously thinking about it.
Neisson is the first distillery to have released an organic rum in AOC, how did it happen?
I am a wine fan, where organic is quite developed, so it was on my mind. In the early 2010s, I worked with Emmanuel Bourguignon on the terroirs to better understand them, and a young agronomist that we had hired also pushed us, and in the end the idea of going organic came naturally. It was not a big leap for us because in the cultivation of sugar cane, such as we practice it, there are doses of weed killers (we do not use pesticides) that remain acceptable, that is to say 5 litres per hectare and per year.
On the other hand, I did not want to switch the whole domain to organic. Good thing I did, because the first year on the converted plots, we went from 80 tons of cane per hectare to 17! We have been certified since 2016 after 3 years of transition and it is only this year, 2022, that the level of productivity is almost equivalent between the organic and conventional plots.
And today, are you thinking of making the entire estate organic?
Today, about 20% of the surface is organic, knowing that the complete cane surface is about 45 hectares, including 100% of the plots around the distillery, while the plots in altitude are in conversion. But I will never make the whole estate organic. The organic canes are becoming the target of species that we thought had disappeared, like the weevil. We are currently developing pheromone traps to counter them.
And biodynamics (a method of cultivation respectful of nature, more and more used in the vineyard, but controversial, editor’s note), are you thinking about it?
I don’t feel ready. I try to be pragmatic, you can’t go wrong when you sell bottles of white rum at 15 euros. If I have to do biodynamic farming one day, it will be in mini plots. But for the moment I am far from mastering organic, so we’ll see.
Organic requires more manual work, have you experimented with machines to relieve your workers ?
We can’t apply the tools of the vineyard as they are because the vineyard is a tree, with roots, we can bump into it without damaging it too much. If you bump on a cane, you lay it down. But we try things. For example, we had worked with manufacturers of autonomous robots, but they gave up. We also tried portable brushcutters, but they didn’t last. Now they’re coming out with a more powerful model, and we’re thinking about getting them. I had also thought of equipping the workers in the fields with exoskeletons, but a sports doctor dissuaded me because it would melt the muscles that protect them from back pain.
How do you process the waste from rum production (bagasse, vinasse…)?
Part of the bagasse is burned in the boiler to provide us with steam for distillation, the excess steam is cooled in an air condenser and provides us with water for the plant.
And for the machines that allow you to produce, such as the distillation column, what do you do in case of breakdown?
There are sometimes repairs to be made because the sandy soil around the distillery damages the column. We have a bending machine, copper, so when there is a simple repair, we try to be autonomous. Otherwise, I send sections for checks every 2 years. But it’s more and more complicated to get good thicknesses of copper. To give you an idea, in 2000 I had a copper condenser rebuilt, it cost me 40,000 francs, in 2020 I paid 45,000 euros. This is not specific to our business, but to the islands. We continue to have to buy our supplies in Europe, while the American continent is only an hour away by plane.
Would it be easier to turn west?
For example, in Brazil there are biomass boilers which are perfected and which correspond to what we do because they produce a lot of sugar cane and bagasse. In France, however, the boilers are used for sawdust, and are not adapted. But we can’t use them because they don’t meet European standards. We would also like to work with Brazil, which has the largest research center for sugarcane. Currently, we work with CIRAD in Montpellier and a little with Reunion. However, Reunion Island produces very good sugar cane, but not necessarily good rum cane. Afterwards, the variety of cane is not essential.
What is essential?
The secret is water. With water you can grow strawberries in the desert. The elected officials have sold ours to multinationals, without caring about the well-being of the population. In Martinique, some neighbourhoods have not had running water for months, and we pay more for our water than in Dubai. We only take surface samples from rivers where the quality is not always good and we do not drill. Neisson is located in a dry area.
Yet you are in the north of Martinique, which is supposed to be a rainy area…
Le Carbet is one of the driest towns on the island. It is completely enclosed. It often rains in Saint-Pierre but not in Carbet. But we collect a lot of rainwater, about 1.5 million litres per year. This will help us!
Water is important, what else?
The soil, the terroir. If you have bad soil, you can plant whatever you want, but it won’t grow. For example, we grow beautiful mango trees, but we are unable to grow an orange tree, whereas a few kilometres away you can find magnificent orange trees. I know that brands communicate a lot about sugar cane varieties, but that is not the main thing. Let’s take again the example of Burgundy where the winegrowers use only one grape variety in red wine, the pinot noir, and yet there are very big differences between the wines of the domains. Sometimes, when several winemakers, as in Nuits-Saint-Georges, work the same plot and the same grape variety, they obtain different wines.
Are you thinking about aging your canes, a bit like vines?
I have tried, but after 18 months, they start to lie down, and they start growing again before dying. We’re making more progress on the cane plants. Before, we used to cut 50 cm canes and bury them, and they would start growing again at eye level. Today there is a very interesting technique developed by Depaz and JM, which consists in growing micro plants before planting them in the field. Instead of using 18 tons per hectare of plants, we use 1 ton.
What do you think about the speculation that some of your wines are subject to?
It is stupid to invest in rum, it is not a speculative product but a product of pleasure. A rum is made to be drunk. But at the distillery, we are going to try to have our most prized products tasted by the glass, for those who make the effort to come and see us and who are our regular customers, who don’t just come to take a photo to put on the networks. And we’re going to release two straight from the barrel that we’ll distribute in flasks, in order to reach a larger number of enthusiasts.
Is there a bonus for the Martinique then?
70% of my bottles are sold in Martinique, my market is my island. So I want to give priority to those who come to visit us. After some people tell us that we don’t produce enough, but I answer them that it’s a good sign, it will be more worrying when we will find XO all year long. To give you an idea, in 2023 we will have 600 barrels in ageing, which is our maximum allowed. The other distilleries on the island have between 4,000 and 30,000.
You criticize speculation, yet you release expensive bottles, especially the drop by drop (27,000 euros), isn’t that a bit contradictory?
How is it contradictory? Speculation is a financial operation made to take advantage of market variations! I don’t surf on it, I sell at a rate that corresponds to the product and the attention that is brought to the work behind it.
By the way, tell us about this famous drop by drop, what’s in it and how it was produced? I’ll let Alex answer that question!
I’ll let Alex answer that question!
Alex Bobbi’s answer by email: At first, I wanted to be inspired by this way of tasting whiskies with the drop of water that creates the thermal shock on the surface and brings out the aromas. By dropping the rum with the lowest degree (and therefore the highest water content) into a rum with a higher degree, we could create this thermal shock. By putting a thermometer in the mixture I only gained 1 to 2 degrees of temperature increase because the rums of the assembly (90 cl of Armada 1997, 70 cl of Armada 1991, 70 cl of Armada 1992 and 70 cl of Sacha 2003) have close degrees contrary to the mixture water alcohol which remains an exothermic reaction. On the other hand, we could observe an extraordinary phenomenon with the drops of alcohol that slid on the surface of the mixture as if we were dealing with essential oils, which embalmed the room. I did not count the number of drops but it can be estimated for a bottle of three litres (still I made only one bottle per day).
How does it feel to be at the head of a family business?
First of all, I am very proud but I am not alone, I work with my mother as a family, so we divide the different domains of an exciting company because it allows us to touch a lot of professions: agriculture, industry, research and development, trade, marketing, transmission of knowledge… I insist on this last point because we don’t talk about it enough, it is extremely gratifying to train young people and to see them progressing even if unfortunately some of them leave us because they are coveted by others, that means that we didn’t do the job too badly!
In any case, you have been doing this job for 90 years, since it is the age of the Neisson house this year, what do you have planned to celebrate?
For the 90th anniversary, we have planned a beautiful exhibition with Catherine Théodose and a small facelift of the distillery with a new reduction room (reduction of rums to the degree of bottling) which will be very nice. There is also the cuvée Nonaginta a blend that includes vintage 2000, armada 1997 and rum dating from 2004. 90 years old, that seems both enormous in relation to our island and our history but very little in comparison with so many family houses in France. Nevertheless, I would say that the last few years count double or even triple! The world is changing at a crazy speed. Your question is funny because I don’t know if you have noticed but we are now in a society under the diktats of beauty, youth and immediacy with social networks and the only field where old age is assimilated to excellence is spirits and more particularly rums, in every show I hear every time what do you have older as if it was a sign of perfection.
Have large groups or fortunes already come to you to buy your distillery?
Yes, it has already happened to us. But we are not there yet. If one day we close the distillery or have to sell it, it will be mainly because of legislation that is not adapted at all, because of ubiquitous norms, not for the money. After all, the aim of a family business is to pass on the business.
And what about that?
For the moment I don’t ask the question.
And finally, a few questions about your tastes. You say you are a wine fanatic, which ones do you prefer and why ?
Château Rayas for its absolutely inimitable taste, the great whites of Burgundy for their surgical transcription of the terroir and finally some Hermitage for their ability to stand the test of time. I am also more and more in love with great American wines.
What are your rum tastes, are you open to other types, other influences?
Fortunately, I love the rums of my Guadeloupean friends, I also taste very often the cognacs and whiskies of Speyside or Highland models of balance and reference in terms of assembly. Recently I visited Richard Seale at Foursquare, and he is doing some really good things. I also tasted a Flor de Cana Generaciones, and blind, I would have put it in agricole rum.