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Alexandre Gabriel
“Artistic Composer of Rum”

By W Peter Hoyne

Rum is an artisanal spirit that has not been bestowed the same recognition or social awareness as cognac, scotch or single batch bourbon. Yet, in the hands of an accomplished and creative master blender, rum can surpass other spirits, captivating the consumer with its seductive personality and richly, exotic flavor profile.
As an early disciple of rum, I embarked on a visit to an acclaimed rum distillery on the island of Barbados, during a recent cruise to the Caribbean. It has been known that Barbados is the original birthplace of rum dating back to 1650 and was George Washington’s spirit of choice. I made it my mission to meet with a scholarly master blender, Alexandre Gabriel, at the West Indies Rum Distillery to delve deeply into his artistry in crafting rum. What is fascinating is that Alexandre has used his experience and distilling expertise to craft some of the finest cognac, gin and rum in the market.

Alexandre grew up on the family farm in southern Burgundy with his grandparents. He had a playful life, but also worked hard, developing a strong work ethic. He formed a deep respect for the land and agriculture which he credits to his grandfather. Alexandre’s grandfather taught him many aspects related to farming,, but especially how to harvest grapes, make wine and at the age of ten, the process of distillation. His grandfather trained him to ”take your first taste with your ears. Listen. Your raw materials for distilling and fermenting must be impeccable. Your wine must be fresh, right out of the press. Because when you crush your grapes it must be non-corruptible (without flaws or defects).”

Alexandre pursued his studies in economics in Lyon, France. Afterwards, he decided to become an exchange student at Macalester College in Minnesota where he perfected his English. Returning to Paris, Alexandre acknowledged that he could now speak English and knew farming, but needed an understanding of the fundamentals of business in order to pursue his ambitions. He admits, “I went to an international business school and I didn’t have any money to pay for it. So I created a little company. I thought I can help people export in the US, farming people. I know products well, farming and winemaking and so on.”

Along this path at the young age of 22, Alexandre became well acquainted with one of his customers, the Ferrand Family of Maison Ferrand Cognac fame. Ferrand Cognac had been a prestigious 100% Grande Champagne Cognac with roots in the region dating back over four centuries and ten generations. There were only two people left running the company and they asked if he was interested in joining them, so he gladly agreed. His vision, “I concentrated in doing super high grade, super limited quantity Cognac.” He was a creative guy, knew the basics of distillation from his grandfather and was trained classically by a master blender.

After graduating from business school, Alexandre devoted all his time to the distillation of Ferrand Cognac and developing distribution channels for the company around the globe.

As Maison Ferrand continued to build their inventory, Alexandre traveled to the Caribbean to see if rum distillers were in need of second-hand used Cognac barrels. Along this journey he developed love affair with rum and thought, “why not use our cognac barrels to make delicious rums.”

During this time he would develop a relationship with master distiller Laurie Bernard from St Lucia, the late “chairman” of St Lucia Distillers who would become his mentor. Laurie Bernard inspired and created the iconic brand Chairman’s Reserve Rum in 1999 and respected Alexandre’s knowledge. Bernard wanted to know about barreling and Alexandre wanted to now about fermenting and distilling in the Caribbean. It seemed obvious that their passion for crafting exquisite rum complemented each other.

Alexandre recalls, “this fine gentleman introduced me to all the Caribbean distilleries that he was friendly with, which was a lot of them. One of which was the one I ended up buying.” After exploring some of the best rums of the Caribbean, Alexandre was intent on crafting rum that was based on historical practices and expressed the terroir where it was produced. He discovered that rum from each of the islands had its own diversity and expression. Alexandre also believed that he could elevate rum to the same esteemed level as Cognac. In 1999, Plantation Rum was born from this vision.

As the years passed, Alexandre had become a key customer and partner of the West Indies Rum Distillery. This distillery, located on the whites sands of Barbados, just outside of Bridgetown, had been originally founded by German engineer George Stade in 1893.

The family was looking for someone to purchase the distillery and return it to its original glory. In 2017, after a year of discussions together and a 17-hour daylong negotiation, the family agreed that Alexandre was the person that would take this distillery to the next level.

“I always invest in the quality of the product. I learned with a very traditional, educated taster to be a master blender. What we call old school master blender where you learn from a lot of tasting and experience. You learn by practicing. It usually takes 20 years in Cognac before you are recognized as a full-fledged master blender. This happened to me in 2009.”

At the distillery, Alexandre began reactivating the Vulcan chamber stills and sent the old Rockley pot stills back to France to be refurbished and then shipped back to the distillery. He was fascinated that pot stills extract a lot of deep flavors in a very precise way while column stills offer a lighter, more neutral spirit.

He recalled his grandfathers wisdom” human wealth is in the land. Your body needs farming, but also farming is pleasure for the farmer. Farming products can be so delicious. The beauty about fine spirits is that there is a French poem that said “the role of the artist is to make nature delicious.” I think when he said that, it is the role of the distiller or master blender to take what nature produces, work with nature to grow beautiful fruit and to distill it and make it beautiful.”

Alexander embraced this principle when he created Citadel Gin in 1996. “To me the raw material must be important and you must be involved with it… I knew I could make beautiful gin and thought what if we grew juniper berries because we are farmers. So we started studying juniper berries and now we have 25 acres of juniper berries, which nobody does for gin making.”

During the years that followed, Alexander planted 500 acres of sugar cane and grew various yeasts and bacteria knowing that they contribute significantly to the end flavor of this spirit.

Alexandre maintains that barrels are equally important in the expression of rum. Plantation rums are double aged. One year of maturing in bourbon casks in Barbados, and then an additionl year in Ferrand oak barrels at Château de Bonbonnet in France. He experiments with different barrels because “exploring is fascinating and it’s wonderful. If you are a great blender, you learn one thing, the sum of the barrel that you are using is going to better than any barrel on it’s own and I have shown that. To this day, I still create iterations of Plantation called single casks with three or four of these expressions every year. I work with a different master distillers.” Currently, he is working with a French Whiskey distillery in Brittany. “He will make a whiskey using my rum barrels and I’m going to make a rum using his whiskey barrels and it will be a Plantation single expression. It never stops. Creating is not a lonely theme. I work as a team. I get a lot of influence from ancient techniques.”

Alexandre professes, “At the end of blending, my master blender always said a perfect blend always has enough notes that only you know about. You look at somebody who is too beautiful and they are boring. You like someone to have a curve or something. It is true about a blend. You have to find that element or off note that creates beauty. Like in music. You need to do it in such a way that it is genius. When you taste it, it’s got character. Character that you cannot imitate.”

As far as his future aspirations, “there are 2 reasons why I wake up in the morning. I love to see my team growing and I grow with them. The more they grow the more I grow with them. The second reason is, I love to create spirits. These are elements of emotion. I think fine wine and spirits is a vector of emotion. I want people to taste something. The worst to me is when it is boring. Emotions are important. I like to drink emotions.”

As I peered into Alexandre’s soul he admitted, “passion is an engine. Passion is what makes you get up the next time and makes you go the extra mile, because you have got this thing inside of you. More important than anything else. In a way, if you think about it. In our life, we are trying to make peoples life a little sweeter and a little better. Like a great wine or dish.” It’s an adventure that he wants to share with people. It seems obvious that Alexandre’s expression of rum will inspire the genesis of a new evolution of rum consumers and define the future of this spirit.

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