Interview with Raphael Grisoni by Allen Smith
Rumporter: Without entering the specialist debate on the birthplace of rum, Mount Gay is in any case one of the very first rum distilleries and the only one that can boast of being documented for over 300 years. What does this mean to you, being ambassadors of a piece of history?
Indeed, without getting into a fight that isn’t necessarily very interesting, and which becomes very sterile very quickly, we can clearly prove the anteriority of our distillery. We
have a notarial act which dates back to 1703 and which clearly states the existence of the distillery at that time already. 1703 is therefore a date that we can proudly claim and that we are particularly delighted to share with rum lovers.
Being the oldest rum distillery in the world still in operation means that we have developed an absolutely unique breadth of knowledge and expertise. We place over 300 years of experience at the service of our clients, in order to offer them a very specific and incomparable rum. Our rums bear the signature of this heritage, but also that of the island of Barbados, unique because of its geographical location and its geological features.
Barbados is a coral and non-volcanic island, unlike most of the Caribbean islands; and it is thanks to these corals which filter the water that the latter reaches an extraordinary level of purity. Today, we are the guarantors of this legacy and proud to preserve it while working to build the future of Mount Gay.
Which anecdote about the history of the brand/distillery best embodies its values for you? Which story do you tell in your master classes?
The first anecdote is the name itself! If the brand is named Mount Gay, it is simply because it pays tribute to a compelling figure of the island, Sir John Gay. He was a prominent person in the history of the island, but also of the distillery. In effect, he managed the distillery at a pivotal moment in history (18th century) and managed to make it prosper. To pay tribute to his work, the plantation owners (the Sober family) decided to name the distillery after this man, Sir John Gay.
A rather extraordinary decision, obviously. That is our first anecdote and it is particularly important because it relates to the identity of our brand. Another salient point is the sense of adventure and travel, which is at the very heart of the history of rum and Mount Gay. Navigation and great sagas are the founding pillars of our myth; explorers lie behind the discovery of islands like Barbados (by Europeans, ed.), but also behind the spread of exotic commodities such as sugar cane.
And then, regarding our rums more specifically, there are two references which are extremely important to us. The first is the launch of XO in 1992, which for us is truly one of the iconic signature rums of Mount Gay. Another of our signature rums is Black Barrel. It is our latest innovation, a unique rum blend, since it is aged in previously charred bourbon barrels, which give it spicy and woody notes.
This is the first time in centuries that we have made any major changes to our production processes. Black Barrel is a perfect incarnation of our creativity and expertise acquired since 1703.
This history is, of course, available through the preferred and/or historical sales channels. How has the brand spread over the centuries, what are your main markets in 2018 and in which direction are your ambitions taking you?
Our history is unique, because it is intrinsically linked to the history of Barbados. The first adventurers who discovered the island were sailors. They arrived in Barbados aboard ships loaded with bricks for the island’s various constructions. On their return journey, they needed to ballast their ships with a weight equivalent to that of the bricks. So they decided to load their ships with barrels of rum!
Gradually, bringing back a bottle of Mount Gay even became a sailor’s bona fide proof of courage! Indeed, a bottle of Mount Gay was testament to their passage on the island of Barbados, known for its extreme navigation conditions. That is how rum became the beverage of sailors, and left the confines of Barbados, thereby gaining global fame. The genesis of rum strongly correlates with these notions of adventure and navigation. Today, we still have an unbreakable bond to that world, and we participate in a number of regattas which are a symbol for us of what Mount Gay was at its beginnings.
On the question of markets in which we have a strong presence: they are the United States, England, of course Barbados… indeed, and by extension, the Caribbean, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well. Territories that also remind us of this notion of maritime sagas! For the future, of course, the idea is to strengthen our presence in Europe and Asia; these are the regions that we really want to explore. These markets are interesting because they are high-end and artisanal rum is booming there. Customers are interested in products that have a unique history, tradition and development quality. Which are all qualities that Mount Gay can proudly lay claim to.
Mount Gay is sometimes criticized for being a Sleeping Beauty during a time of much experimentation (finished, single casks, organic rums, etc.). Since launching Black Barrel, Mount Gay hasn’t really made the headlines. However, we (meaning only us pros) have recently seen the outlines of a real R&D policy based around limited editions?
We have been in business for over 300 years. Each of our products is carefully crafted and when our Master Blender creates a new product, it is the result of a long reflection. We don’t create rums to market for just a few years, nor to respond to a passing fad. Our rums endure through the centuries. We look for a quality blend and great aromatic complexity. However, innovation and R&D are at the heart of our strategy. Every day we test, taste and try to create new rums that will add to our iconic range. A few pearls will soon see the day…
Being part of a French group, Rémy Cointreau, which also produces brandy is of course an advantage for you, and especially for the cellar master. What kind of know-how do you exchange? Don’t hesitate to reveal your secrets!
Yes, it is indeed fortunate to be part of a French group that itself has such expertise in many exceptional spirits. Of course, there are many exchanges. We meet, we talk, we have the opportunity to meet in several places around the world several times a year. For example, every two years, the group organizes the creators’ conference, where the creators of each house exchange their expertise on technical subjects such as aging, and on broader topics such as corporate social responsibility.
Outside of these meetings, we like to write to each other and have long-term exchanges where we discuss whatever we are creating under the different brands. This is all very inspiring and, of course, leads us to experiment on new developments and new ways of doing things. Our exchanges might relate to the selection of barrels as well as the type of wood and its influence, or blending, which is of course not the same for a Mount Gay rum and a Rémy Martin brandy, for example. This allows us to share and brings us a lot of creativity, freedom and emulation, and that’s fantastic.
Barbados produces almost no more sugar if our information is correct. How do you ensure your supply of quality molasses? By quality we mean: intrinsic quality (raw material) and human quality (the treatment of cane workers) etc.
Indeed, we are extremely vigilant regarding the supply of our raw materials. We work with an independent laboratory and all our molasses are analysed to meet our exceedingly rigorous specifications. What we analyse is, of course, the properties of the sugar, but also other chemical and human parameters, which, we know, can have a direct impact on the quality and complexity of our rums.
Our supply is sourced exclusively from the Caribbean, it is a quality policy that is close to our heart. It is also an element of our sustainable development policy: reducing the distances that our supplies have to travel in order to reduce our environmental footprint. We work with a network of partner suppliers: proximity is a key issue, and we have a relationship of trust with them.
In this regard, following the purchase of several hundred hectares of land, we’ve heard about a long-term project to replant sugar cane in Barbados in collaboration with the Bourguignons, so a strong ecological approach. Is this project still current?
It is very clear that agricultural practices have indeed changed, and we really need to accompany and guide this movement with sustainable and environmentally sound agricultural practices. We’re very sensitive about this subject. The idea is not necessarily to replant sugar cane, but for us to base ourselves on a more comprehensive sustainable development logic. We are convinced that a wider reflection is necessary, and that we must think of our environmental impact in the broadest possible way, and thus beyond the mere cultivation of sugar cane.
For example, on our 143 ha plantation, we are implementing a new method which allows us to reduce our water consumption by collecting rainwater, thereby optimizing irrigation on our plantation. We have also introduced the notion of crop rotation; we know that crop rotation is essential for soil fertility and allows the earth to regenerate itself. Therefore, our plantation also cultivates mangoes and sweet potatoes, pomegranates and coconuts. With Emmanuel Bourguignon, we talk about biodiversity and how to enrich soils naturally, without any fertilizers. That is his mission.
We have introduced beehives, sheep, etc. on our plantation. We have also planted fruit trees (pomegranate, soursop, plum, java plum, breadfruit trees…) as well as native species such as mahogany, peacock flower etc. Our long-term vision is to have a certified organic plantation with a great diversity of flora and fauna. This diversity also reduces soil erosion, and ultimately ensures better soil quality.
As you can see, we are paying very close attention to the biodiversity of our plantation. Mount Gay has existed for over 300 years thanks to the richness of our soil. We are very aware of its fragility. We are the guarantors for future generations, and it is our responsibility to preserve it if we are to ensure our existence for the next 300 years!
Ritual question for multi-centurial brands: Where do you think Mount Gay will be in 300 years?
I just anticipated your question! Indeed, when you have 300 years of history, you see things through the lens of the very long term, and this very long term is something that we never want to stray from, that we absolutely want to respect. For us, our work vision is to see the future over the very long term. Whether that be the supply of high-quality raw materials, or protecting the land and biodiversity of our plantation.