With Château Valandraud in Saint-Emilion as a model, Olivier Caen and Linya Chiou have created a terroir rum in Taiwan.
After having lived an intense first life in the automotive world, Olivier Caen and Linya Chiou decided to settle on the island of Taiwan in 2006 to create a wine and spirits import company.
Passionate about the great Bordeaux wines that age with time, Olivier Caen counts among his clients the visionary winemaker Jean-Luc Thunevin. Starting from nothing, this jack-of-all-trades (he was a lumberjack, a bank employee and a wine merchant) has succeeded with his wife Murielle Andraud (a distinguished winegrower) in raising Château Valandraud to the supreme rank of Premier Grand Cru Classé of Saint-Emilion.
Admiring the couple’s achievements, Olivier wants to follow in their footsteps but without rushing. “Before the official launch of Renaissance in 2017, we took care to conduct four years of pre-production testing, with molasses and pure indigenous cane juice,” he says.
Because on the island of Taiwan, often compared to the elongated shape of a sweet potato, sugarcane has been cultivated for centuries and it is possible to make both types of rum. Indeed, during the Japanese occupation (1895-1945), the Japanese chose to export sugar cane, as they did not want to develop the rum economy.
Today, there are only three sugar factories left in the south of the island and they are all loss-making. This explains, in part, the delay in comparison with producer countries in the Caribbean and the Americas. Olivier Caen and Linya Chiou are currently the only producers of artisanal rum on the island.
The top of the range or nothing
From the inauguration of their distillery in 2017, the couple wanted to position themselves on a high-end segment to show that sugarcane and the tropical Taiwanese climate could give birth to exceptional rums (after the insolent success of the single malt Kavalan, voted best whisky in the world in 2015 at the World Whiskies Awards, less than 10 years after its creation in 2006).
Contacted by phone, Linya Chiou confirms this desire to produce a well-informed clientele: “We have no ambition of production volume because we want to produce ‘haute couture’ rums in the image of the great names of Burgundy wine. Producing more always requires a compromise on quality, which we refuse. We advocate transparency. Each consumer has the right to know what he is drinking and to know the associated production process. Everything is indicated on our back label”, she claims.
The couple’s project seemed ambitious on paper because the Taiwanese do not consume rum at all or very little. On the other hand,” Linya Chiou points out, “Taiwan is the world’s leading consumer of whisky in average value. The inhabitants have a sharp palate and love high-end amber spirits. But let’s get to the heart of the matter, what does Renaissance offer to impress rum lovers?
Unlike many houses, we only offer single casks in order to highlight the unique properties of our sugar cane,” says Linya. It is important to specify that no sugar or coloring is added during the manufacturing process. This is an important clarification because, despite the recent evolution of European regulations, legislation in Asia and the Americas remains unclear.
To compensate for this lack of transparency, Linya and Olivier wanted to play the honesty card. “Our distillery has very strict specifications from production to sale. Thus we systematically refuse any proposal of independent bottling or maturation in a country other than Taiwan if it is not made by our distillery. We produce, ferment, distill and bottle 100% of our own production.
Some manufacturing secrets
The couple agreed to reveal some of their manufacturing secrets. Two varieties are used F10 and F16 while more than four hundred endemic varieties of sugar cane whose name of each species begins with the letter F for Formosa (name given to the island by the Portuguese during their landing in 1542) are available.
The fermentation period for molasses rum ranges from a minimum of 10 days to over 20 days. For first press cane juice, the fermentation time varies: 15 days on average in 2021 but 22 days on average for the 2015 vintage.
“The duration of fermentation depends fundamentally on the Brix (sugar level in the cane juice), which varies according to the character of the vintage, ” says Linya Chiou. So there are hot and concentrated vintages like 2015 or rainy and colder like 2016 with an average Brix of 22. As in the world of wine, each vintage has its own personality. The non-addition of water for the fermentations makes the distillation more precise and enhances the special character of a vintage.
A great vintage will make the second distillation broader, the spectrum of distillation cuts being wider. I think this rule is adaptable to pilot spirits in double distillation: for a classic quality distillate, the cut will be short,” analyzes Linya Chiou. On the other hand, the great distillates from the best terroirs have this length during distillation. The end of the toasting heart (or seconds as cognac producers call them) brings the necessary oils for a long maturation. A short-cut distillate of the “Middle Fifth 75-65%” type will be cleaner during distillation but less suitable for long maturation in casks.”
Very greedy angels!
Concerning the aging, the temperature of the cellar varies from 10 to 35°C for a hygrometry going from 60 to 75% while the share of angels reaches 14%. Several methods are used.
The rums can be aged in new barrels (from Limousin or American oak) and then transferred to wine barrels. Or they can be matured in wine barrels and then transferred to new barrels, as in the case of the Mizunara finish (probably the first commercialized rum to use the famous and expensive Japanese oak).
The finishing times depend essentially on the character of the wine barrel. A dry red wine barrel will require time to integrate harmoniously, but the same can be said of an Amarone barrel which is not dry. According to Linya Chiou, red wine barrels are much more technical to work with than white wine barrels, whether sweet or not.
Because the red and black fruits side takes time to disappear to give way to stewed fruits. “We are not looking for the superposition of aromas but their integration in the rum, ” she explains. “The best rums must be able to evolve in the glass and elevate your palate. Finishes are only one facet of what we produce. Many projects are currently maturing in our winery.”
Among the new products Renaissance is offering this year is the Pinot Rouge Finish: “A three year old molasses based rum made with long fermentation. The distillation is carried out in a small 1200-liter Charentais alembic in a discontinuous way in double distillation. No water is added at the time of bottling. We want to preserve the concentration, the aromas and the complexity of the rum, concludes Linya. We produce rum and nothing else!