Since the BBS group (La Mauny, Trois Rivières) was taken over by Chevrillon in 2012, there has been a real transformation of the rhum agricole industry, which is orienting itself more and more towards the production of aged spirits. Redesigning packaging, increasing limited editions, enlarging aging cellars, attributing more value to heritage, securing supplies, conquering export markets… the task is immense. Chevrillon has decided to entrust this task to a woman of strong and resilient character, Nathalie Guillier-Tual. And, we had the occasion to meet with her.
Rumporter: Nathalie, how did you get into rhum?
Nathalie Guillier-Tual: My previous professional experiences all involved passionate subjects within an international context. I worked in chocolate for 10 years, and I learned the importance of the industry, the differentiation of origin and the subtleties of blends and great vintages. Approximately ten years in the sugar industry allowed me to understand the rhythm of sugar harvest seasons, the factories that work over several months, and the dependence on certain climatic conditions. The Chevrillon group recruited me to manage its printing activity, with 20 industrial sites in Europe, a big industry sector undergoing significant technological transformation, where the workers are just as concerned with the scent and grain of the paper as the name of the writer or editor. Cyrille Chevrillon shared his passion for rhum with me when he acquired BBS. I liked Martinique and I moved there; I was impassioned by the rhum environment, the tradition of the industry, the expertise and the challenge of continuing the history of brands such as Trois Rivières and La Mauny with so much heritage. Rhum is all about passion, and I’m a passionate woman.
Rumporter: It’s a notoriously difficult industry, with its own codes, how did the initial contact come about? How was the arrival of a new actor (Chevrillon) perceived by others in the industry?
N.G-T.: Initial contact was not at all difficult. I didn’t know the spirits industry, I met up with those who had experience in it, within the company and outside of it, in Martinique, in mainland France, and I listened to them; also former directors, workers, plantation owners. I took AOC training, a rigorous tasting school. And now, after two years, I feel completely at ease. As for others in the industry, I have them to thank for my nomination, which they suggested, to the Presidency of the Delegation of Martinique and to the Administrative Council of CIRT DOM (Interprofessional Council for Traditional Rums in French Overseas Territories) and to the Vice-presidency of CODERUM (Martinican Committee for the Organisation and Defence of the Rum Market).
Rumporter: Do you think that the fact that you are a woman in this male-dominated industry is an obstacle, or rather a motivation, something quite refreshing?
N.G-T.: It’s true that female heads of distilleries are a minority. And minorities are often pugnacious… Personally, I see it as an advantage, we provide a fresh take on things, a different sensitivity, in management, in problem-solving and in the way we approach the product. Don’t forget that women represent a significant percentage of rum consumers. And they are often very good at tasting.
Rumporter: You have just completely overhauled the Trois Rivières range, employing a “premiumisation” strategy. Do you see this as salvation for Rhum Agricole?
N.G-T.: I wouldn’t use the word “salvation”. For me, it’s mainly a question of recognising the quality and grandeur of Rhum Agricole. Rhum Agricole is like malt whisky… it’s not blended. Economically, there is definitely a sort of logic in as much that agricole is a living product, based on agriculture, also more expensive… but the difference it produces justifies its premiumisation.
Rumporter: In this respect, what are your export ambitions? In terms of export, in what way do you believe Rhum Agricole is disadvantaged, too little-known outside of our borders?
N.G-T.: Our ambition is to make Trois Rivières an international star, shining beyond our borders as the French reference for top-of-the-range rhum. Our roots are in Martinique, we are also well-rooted in Europe and are planning a medium-term development into the USA and Asia, in particular where the whisky and cognac markets are well-established. We reckon that rhum’s time has come in these countries, and after the opening up of the market by the Cubans or the sweeter rums inspired by South America, consumer interest will extend to more complex products, which is where rhum agricole’s strengths lie.
Rumporter: There is often talk of a lack of unity within the agricole sector, with old rivalries. Do you think that a sacred union will soon take place? Perhaps in order to take on the export markets?
N.G-T.: The competition is tough in Martinique in a well-established market. In terms of export, particularly the high-end rhums segment which is still emerging, the part of the market occupied by each brand is tiny. The growth of each brand of rhum agricole can only contribute to the growth of the rhum agricole sector as a whole since it contributes to the sophistication of the market.
As for a union, I doubt it. But we could establish collectives aiming to make the gems of rhum agricole better-known on certain targeted markets. The SWA (Scotch Whisky Association) could serve as a model for our sector.
Rumporter: Rhum is also an agricultural industry. There seems to be a shortage of sugarcane at the moment compared to the needs of a growing number of rhum producers. What is the BBS policy for getting its supplies?
N.G-T.: Martinique has indeed seen a shortage of sugarcane. Due to an initiative from the Regional President, the industry is structured around a SICA (Agricultural Collective Interest Society, Ed.). The rhum industry represents a real export opportunity for Martinique, and it is vital that those who have been elected support it. Our distillery provides work for almost half of Martinique’s small plantation owners, who are very attached to the life of the estate and have formed an association. As far as Trois Rivières is concerned, our plantations benefit from a unique situation on an estate of almost 700 ha overlooking the Caribbean Sea, on the sunniest part of the island, which is our sole source at the moment, yet due to an increase in sales (over a 30% share of the market), we also need extra sugarcane.
Rumporter: To finish on a refreshing note, can you share the most important points which will define the launch of the new Trois Rivières range in 2015?
N.G-T.: We’ve just completely renewed our range of Trois Rivières Rhums, a variety of white Rhums, an amber Rhum, vieux Rhums Agricoles with innovative products such as Trois Rivières Triple Millésime, a unique Rhum made from a blend of 3 great vintages and also with Rhums expressing all elements of the house’s ancestral expertise. Since the beginning of 2015, we’ve launched Trois Rivières12 yr and Trois Rivières Millésime 1995, two exceptional très vieux Rhums which will complete the range. Our objective in 2015 will be to increase brand awareness and to help consumers discover our products, especially by working with barmen on original ways of consuming them.