[Independent bottlers] Swell de Spirits, a love of spirits and their diversity

Michael Barbaria, the founder of Swell de Spirits, has been delighting us for some years now with his cutting-edge, finely-crafted bottlings. There’s rum, of course, but also cognac, whisky and pastis. Meet this lover of spirits in all their diversity.

Swell de Spirits
Michael Barbaria and his partner Kelly.

Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your background?

Coming from a family of Italian origin on my mother’s side, I was immersed in the world of wines and spirits (meals ended with Grappa). So that was the start of my interest in spirits and distillation.

I’m an engineer by training, and I started at Airbus in structural design and calculation, but I wasn’t in phase with that job (behind the PC in geek mode every day…). The spirit of escape and an undeniable thirst for adventure got the better of me, so I left to surf the wave in Australia. In fact, my passion for surfing inspired the name of my company: Swell de Spirits.

Swell means swell, and in surfing it means a wave that’s perfect for riding. This powerful wave is full of energy, the same energy that drives me to make my dreams come true. Swell de Spirits captures my desire to create a synergy between the different eaux-de-vie and to highlight the stories of the estates and distilleries I’ve discovered, which I hope will shine a little brighter.

To sum up, I was an expat for over 14 years (Australia, Asia, Germany). It wasn’t until 2017, when I resumed my studies at ESCP Europe (Business School with an Executive MBA) that I started to get a feel for being able to make a living from my passion for spirits. I’ve always been an aficionado of fine vintages, and I’ve spent a lot of time visiting distilleries in Scotland and all over the world.

My vision is to share, driven by the discovery of all spirits, with a focus on transferring the most precise message about the distillation methods from the cane (or cereal, vine, fruit, agave and others) to the glass. At the same time, we pay tribute to the hard-working craftsmen and women who make it possible for us to enjoy these fine vintages.

How did you become an independent bottler?

It was a decision taken with my partner to embark on a human and family adventure, so that one of us could make a living from our passion. In 2020, the project reached maturity, and in 2021, I opened the ball with cognac from our friends Amy and Jean Pasquet.

The idea is to introduce whisky and rum lovers to other spirits such as cognac, armagnac, calvados, fruit brandies and liqueurs, and to build bridges between the different categories of spirits.

Swell de Spirits

How do you make your selections?

I go for what I like, but I go into a lot of detail, which must come from my engineering side. I don’t do a lot of tasting, but I do a lot of nosing, including long weeks of tasting, depending on how I’m feeling.

There are also some spirits that I’m not at all crazy about, but which have potential for maturation (a finish in another cask) or which will go into a specific blend and mature in different casks. It’s an approach based on olfactory sensations and aromatic analysis, linked to human encounters that leave no one indifferent.

Swell de Spirits

Can you explain how you make your blends?

The blending stages are crucial and have to be mastered. I use what I’ve learnt on the job in Scotland (Scotch Whisky) and during my visits to distilleries. But I also learn by learning (as I’m self-taught), and I read a lot on the subject, because it’s by making mistakes that you learn.

It’s all about chemistry, and the older the spirit (ageing in oak casks), the more time you need to take with blends that are left to rest in vats with the molecules taking time to meet and create chemical bonds. Reductions are carried out very slowly (to avoid rushing the old eaux-de-vie, or even destroying the aromas and creating homogeneity while preserving the structure) with analysed and identified water of appropriate hardness.

The blend will be aged under wood using different types of wood, which will bring new flavours to the cuvée. I’m not a big fan of finishing with sweet wines, Sherry, beer, or the like, but I’m open to experimentation. But I’m a big fan of ageing in bourbon casks, with a tropical first part and a continental second part, which I’d say is my preference. I’m looking for the finesse of the maturation, combined with the elegance of the distillate.


Swell de Spirits

Not only rum, but also whisky and pastis, what motivated you to diversify?

Passion got the better of me and I love paying tribute to stories, to producers, highlighting know-how, the human side, sharing. So why deprive yourself as long as the quality is there?

I have no limits, and even if at the beginning it was risky, because diversification can bring fragility in terms of commercial approach, on the contrary it has made us strong. Our vision is always to win people over, to show them the way to sublime French spirits. For example, those that we largely export (Cognac, Armagnac), which I think is a shame.

With no shortage of ideas, we opened a company in Mexico, Los Convidados, with my friends and associates Bruno Sarabia and Darian Penichet, specialising in Mexican spirits and seeking out Mezcal, Tequila, Gin and Rum. We have also developed a Jamaican-style Rum High Esters in Mexico, which should be on our shelves by early next year.

What are your most memorable selections?

My first selection was the launch of Swell de Spirits with our friends Amy and Jean Pasquet, with a superb memory of distilling the ‘heating heart’ in their home. The discovery of Mexican spirits in Guadalajara and the development of Rum High Ester on the spot and exclusively with Swell de Spirits, a jewel of which we are proud. And finally, a friendship that turned into a professional collaboration between two enthusiasts Karim Karroum (Grandmont distillery) and myself on a liqueur with rum…


Swell de Spirits

What type/profile of rum do you prefer, and why?

It’s difficult to answer this kind of question, because there’s beauty in every distillery with so many different profiles… I’ll try anyway. I’ve always had a soft spot for Rhums Bielle, La Mauny and Neisson on the pure juice side, along with those bottled by Chantal Comte (La Tour de l’or 2001) and on Reunion Island, I fell in love with Savanna and the Herr Japan Tribute 1 (at the time) with its exuberant profile.

Terroir is an important factor in the distilleries mentioned above, and I think that each of them represents it perfectly, working from A to Z to perfection. That said, there are so many other names that also deserve to be named, and destinations that are emerging with some lovely treasures. I’m thinking in particular of Guillaume Ferroni and Jonathan (Sodade)’s Grogues du Cap-Vert.

How do you see the independent bottling sector and what do you think of the proliferation of players?

As Luca Gargano (Velier) explained so well, the word ‘independent’ should be ‘dependent’, because we (bottlers, producers, refiners and blenders of spirits) are all dependent on the distilleries/ estates that enable us to do our work.

In stating this point of view, it’s important to remember that our job is to sublimate the work already done, not forgetting to remain humble with the producers and consumers without whom we wouldn’t be here.

I don’t have any negative thoughts about the proliferation of players, on the contrary, I’ve done some great collaborations with my colleagues and others are in the pipeline, so mutual support is essential.

What’s more, I’m certain that each player brings his or her own touch to the table, which in turn increases the diversity of what’s on offer, pulling everyone up by their bootstraps.

What are your future plans?

I’ve got a lot of plans… One project that’s coming up fast is the arrival of Mexican spirits on the French and European markets. I teamed up with my friends Bruno and Darian to set up Los Convidados in Mexico, in order to expand the Swell de Spirits business model tenfold in Mexico and unearth some great rum/mezcal and tequila nuggets.

It took almost 2 years to develop our High Esters white rum (local molasses) using Jamaican techniques and local cooperation with complete exclusivity on the subject. Long fermentations (up to 5 weeks), “dunder”, cane acid and “muck pit” are all used in the production of our precious rum. Pure cane juice rum is planned for next year.

The rest I’ll keep to myself…

Share This