With this new section, Rumporter is going to dig deeper into the furrow opened by the feature on hexagonal rums published in issue 24 and set out to meet the men and women who distil rum in mainland France. Let’s start with a visit to the Distillerie d’Isle de France in Seine-et-Marne. And if that doesn’t sound very exotic, wait until you taste the rums and listen to the ever original ideas of Olivier Flé, Michael Landart and Antonin Van Niel.
It’s not customary for us to take you to hot, humid climates, sugar cane fields bordered by exotic oceans, lush forests or poorly extinguished volcanoes… but to the Briard countryside in Seine-et-Marne (77). To be more precise, to Fresnes-sur-Marne. There, just a stone’s throw from the village church, a small distillery equipped with a Stupfler® still smokes, nestled in the former farmhouse of the château that belonged to the Countess of Ségur, built in 1760.
If you go through the wide sliding door, you’ll no doubt be greeted by Pétrus, the labrador (it’s a female), who ‘guards’ the premises… by making merry with the newcomers. You’ll also see a beautiful manor house on your right, and on the left, in a long building that used to be a cowshed or garage, you’ll find Olivier Flé. This farmer from Versailles (78) cultivates some 200 hectares of land: wheat, spring barley, flax, maize, etc. Since 2019, he has been distilling gin, rum and whisky here. But how on earth did this happen?
THE CRAZY GUY WHO USED TO MAKE COCKTAILS AT YOUR MARRIAGE
Antonin Van Niel, his childhood friend and business partner, says it best. “A few weeks after my wedding in 2016, Olivier phoned me and told me that he had the idea of setting up a distillery. He asked me to put him in touch with the ‘crazy guy’ who was doing the cocktails at my wedding”, says the man who works as an IT consultant from Italy.
The ‘guy’ in question was none other than Michael Landart, a renowned bartender who works at Maria Loca in Paris (75004). The first contact was short-lived, as the globetrotter was in the middle of a rum tasting session in… Mauritius. But a few weeks later, Michael called Olivier back and told him that he was interested in setting up a distillery with him. The two men decided to take a training course together to get to know each other better and learn more about their future occupation. They spent a week at the CIDS in Cognac.
“We came from very different worlds, but we got on well straight away, we had the same product philosophy”, recalls Olivier. And in the meantime, Antonin, sensing that a great human adventure was in the making, had joined the duo, transforming it into a trio. The Isle de France distillery was born. Or almost…
After several sessions of testing and tasting, Olivier, Michael and Antonin decided to buy a Stupfler® still. The demand for these little copper jewels was so great that they had to wait two years to finally get their hands on one. “We ordered it in April 2017, and were able to start distilling in June 2019,” says Olivier.
But wait, I still haven’t told you why and how this funny idea of setting up a distillery on the farm came to Olivier. So we have to go back in time again, to the 2016 harvest to be precise. The harvest was so catastrophic that many farmers on the Briarde plain decided not to depend solely on cereal growing, but to develop diversification activities alongside it. And just as well, since Valérie Pécresse took over as head of the region in 2015, she has just introduced subsidies for this purpose.
“Some of my colleagues have made ice cream on the farm, others pasta, strawberries or goats, but I wanted to make whisky”, explains Olivier. Yes, but why whisky? I got the idea from my usual wine merchant. He showed me a whisky that had been made in Versailles. But that was impossible, because I’m from Versailles and I know there’s no distillery there,” says Olivier. In fact, it was Versailles in Kentucky, but that planted the seed and I thought, why not me?
RUM AND FALERNUM
In fact, the trio didn’t try their hand at whisky straight away, but at gin. A question of financial profitability. Whisky needs to age for 3 years, while gin can be marketed very quickly after it leaves the still. At the time of writing, the Distillerie d’Isle de France is offering 3 very well-made vintages of gin, which can be enjoyed as cocktails or long drinks, or neat.
We even have a soft spot for the autumn gin with carrot and hazelnuts! As you can imagine, between two bizarre distillations (rice lees obtained after sake production, for example), the fine team tries their hand at rum. The first batch, a 40% white, will be made from molasses imported from Laos. “We fermented for a week and double-distilled to avoid the molasses being too heavy,” explains Antonin.
The molasses from Laos has since been replaced by molasses from Cuba, but the rum remains in the same vein, with vegetal, spicy notes and roundness, but no added sugar. The trio have also brought out a falernum, which is historically a fairly sweet rum-based liqueur with lime, almonds and spices, originating in Barbados and created in the 18th century, and which is generally between 10% and 20% proof. “We start with our distilled molasses rum once, which we macerate with almonds, ginger, cloves, lemon…. And then we redistill. In the end, we end up with a product that has a strength of 40%, which bartenders love because it’s not sweet and can be used as a base for their cocktails”, says Antonin.
For the record, it was Cyril Lawson, from HSE, who convinced them not to sweeten their falernum after tasting it. Also for the record, Olivier, Antonin and Michael even tried to make rum from pure cane juice, by bringing in frozen cane juice from Asia… before finally settling on molasses because of the financial and ecological costs involved.
NUGGETS IN THE MAKING
The distillery also has a cellar where a small number of casks are kept. Whisky, of course, which was Olivier’s original idea, but also rum. And we can already tell you that in a few months or years, some fine things will be coming out of this cellar. In particular, we were able to taste rums that were ageing in ex-red and white wine casks, or in a Navarre cooperage exhibition cask gleaned at Rhum Fest 2022, a blend of accacia, American oak and French oak! Given the promising results of these rums tasted in high proof barrels (still with that fresh, spicy, planty texture), we can’t wait to see what the Seine et Marne conti- nental ageing process will finally produce!