Par Laurence Marot et Alexandre Vingtier
Since April 2019, Trudiann Branker has been at the helm of the production of the famous Barbados rum. The first female master blender of Mount Gay Rum is writing a new chapter in the history of this rum founded in 1703 thanks to her expertise, her fresh eye and her talent. Meeting with a woman passionate about her job and the famous Barbados water.
Rumporter: What was your background before joining the world of rum?
Trudiann Branker:I trained in chemistry with a specialization in fermentation and distillation. My university studies took me to Howard University in Washington DC, and then to the Siebel Institute of Technology in Montreal and the Fermentation and Distillation Institute in London.
After graduation, I returned to Barbados to begin my career at Banks Brewery, Barbados’ iconic beer. In 2014, I joined Mount Gay as a quality manager and was taken under the wing of our former master blender, Allen Smith. In April 2019, I was honored to assume this role upon Allen’s retirement. I grew up with Mount Gay and to be the one creating the rum that sits in every Bajan’s home today is truly an honor.
As the master blender of the oldest rum distillery in the world, surrounded by thousands of barrels of rum, I spend every work day carrying on the history and tradition of rum, something that has always been dear to me.
Becoming the first female master blender at Mount Gay, the oldest distillery, how did you take on this challenge?
I wouldn’t say it scared me because I had been working closely with Allen for a few years. My first project was to create the next edition of the Master Blender Collection. I was passionate about going back to Mount Gay’s roots and creating a rum that would be made only with pot still rum, as we have done for centuries.
With the support of everyone on the blending and distilling team, we created Pot Still Rum, which received rave reviews. As I took over from Allen, my team and I discussed working on the Black Barrel and XO blends as well.
It was exciting to change the story of Mount Gay, something we hadn’t done in several years. Working on these landmark creations, I think I held my breath a few times during the first few tastings.
Fortunately, when people tasted these rums, the look on their faces was clearly one of pure pleasure. I could breathe easier then! In fact, I knew in my heart from the beginning that I was staying true to the Mount Gay legacy.
What exactly are the golden rules of rum making according to Mount Gay?
Allen instilled in me the idea that “when it’s ready, it’s ready.” The balance between science and art is the key to making a great rum. I don’t work exactly like Allen because I write everything down on paper in a notebook, but he taught me the patience needed for rum, to smell the rum and to taste it with a clear head.
What are the main assets of Mount Gay today?
Everyone knows that Mount Gay is the oldest operating rum distillery in the world and while that doesn’t automatically mean we are the best, it does mean we have centuries of experience in refining our craft.
One of our greatest strengths would be our artesian well, dug over 300 years ago, which gives us water filtered by coral and filled with the minerals that make our rum unique. This is something that no other rum distillery in Barbados has at their fingertips.
We also have a great selection of casks, some of the ones we use for our core range, but also the casks we use for our limited editions such as our peated whisky (Port Charlotte, the peated single malt from the Scottish distillery Bruichladdich, another property of the French group Rémy Cointreau, ed.), Tawny port and a few others that we can’t talk about yet! Finally, I would say that having the largest collection of aged rum in Barbados is one of our greatest assets (close to 50,000 in all, ed.).
What do the limited editions The Peat Smoke XO, Pot Still 2009 and lately The Port Cask represent ?
What are your aspirations today to develop the Mount Gay Rum brand?
Our limited edition series that we have named The Master Blender Collection is not necessarily the new direction for Mount Gay.
It’s an opportunity to showcase our expertise and innovation, and it gives me a chance to push my boundaries. It’s also a chance for us to get the rum community excited about interesting bottlings each year. Ultimately, I want to continue to make good rum, as I imagine any other master blender would, and in doing so honor the true tradition of rum with more transparency for the category and ever more sustainable practices.
Right now I’m working on a few exciting projects, including using our copper Coffey Still and some limited editions. We have some exciting things coming up!
What are the characteristics of your column and pot still rums?
Our different types of stills impart different flavors to our rum. Our Scottish McMillan double copper-twisted stills give heavier, more palate-catching rums. Our Spanish Fragasa double copper-twisted stills give us a lighter, fruitier rum. Finally, our traditional column still produces a rum with fruity, herbal and caramel notes.
Regarding the use of other casks such as port casks, what do they bring to your rum?
Using different barrels as part of our Master Blender Collection, whether for aging or finishing, gives different flavors to our rum. When I used Tawny port barrels for my last limited edition, the barrels gave subtle but recognizable port notes.
The nose is still very “Mount Gay” but the taste allows the port notes to show through and linger on the palate. For XO The Peat Smoke Edition, the casks really gave the rum smoky notes. So they add a new level of depth to our rum.
What about your casks for classic aging?
Our casks are a standard size of 200 liters for American whiskey and bourbon casks and 225 liters for cognac casks. We fill them with fresh column and pot distillates. The barrels we use are old enough to bring out the unique notes of what they once contained, whether it be cognac, bourbon or American whiskey.
However, we don’t want barrels that are so old that they won’t hold up in transit to Barbados. I would say the average age of our barrels is 4 to 8 years.
How do you see Barbados rum today compared to other styles of rum?
There is no one style of Barbados rum but we are working with the government to finally put a stamp on what is, and what is not, Barbados rum with the addition of a Geographical Indication.
Our signature is that Mount Gay Rum is made and aged entirely in Barbados using only molasses, water and yeast. We do not add sugar to our rums, so our flavors are not masked by anything. Our style is a dry flavor with layers of aromatic complexity.
How is rum consumed on the island of Barbados?
Rum is consumed in large quantities here in Barbados. There is a funny little anecdote: next to every church, which is very busy, there is a rum shop. Bajans like to drink their rum straight or with a simple mixer like soda water or a soft drink.
However, it is becoming more and more common in restaurants to enjoy cocktails like a good rum punch or a daiquiri. Personally, my favorite way to enjoy Mount Gay is to freeze coconut water in a large block of ice and pour our XO over it.
Are you close to your fellow master blenders?
I wish I could say yes, but my schedule and theirs don’t leave much room to spend time together. I admire Joy Spence and all she has done for Appleton and Jamaican rum as a category. As the first woman to truly make a name for herself in rum, she is a true inspiration.
What benefits does this new female community bring to the rum world?
I think putting women in leadership positions is a good thing in any industry and it’s high time we started doing that. Having more and more women in rum is breaking down some of the barriers in the spirits world, and although it’s a stereotype, you can tell that women have a different way of looking at rum.
For me, it’s about combining the art and science of blending and aging rum. I hope that by using my scientific background, young women can choose to follow the same path in their education.
What are your plans for 2021?
I hope to travel more, for sure! I would love to do tastings in other countries as I haven’t had the opportunity this year! I’m currently working on the next batch of the Master Blender collection but it’s a little too early to talk about it, and I’m working on the rum that comes out of our Coffey Still column still…