If you’re a fan of rum then you’ve probably heard of Plantation. Exploding onto the scene a few years back, they’ve already grown to become one of the most-awarded rum bottlers in the world, including one gong that we (modestly) think is worth trumpeting – The Whisky Exchange Spirit of the Year 2016.
While it was the Plantation Barbados Extra Old 20th Anniversary rum that caught our eye this time, they’ve long been a favourite at The Whisky Exchange – along with great drinks, we also like a good story, and Plantation’s origins are very different from other rum bottlers. It all started with Cognac and gin…
At the root of it all is a gentleman by the name of Alexandre Gabriel. Born into a family of Burgundian winemakers, he has a long heritage of wine and spirits making. However, in a classic inversion of the stereotype, he ‘ran away’ to the US to work in international politics. Once he’d got that out of his system, he returned to France and after some time studying business, decided that it was time to return to the fold – to become a Cognac maker.
In 1987, he bought Maison Ferrand – makers of Pierre Ferrand – a venerable Cognac house that had slipped between the cracks as its contemporaries grew to be big names. He began to learn about Cognac and has since grown the company to be a well-respected producer again. However, his foray into the world of spirits doesn’t end there.
In 1996, he created Citadelle, an old-school gin made in direct-fired pot stills. Launched well before the gin renaissance of the past few years, it was a very different prospect to other gins on the market, and by 1999, Wine Enthusiast magazine had rated it the Top Gin in the USA, an accolade it has continued to pick up from time to time. But still Alexandre wasn’t finished.
One of the by-products of Cognac-making is casks. While they can be reused many times, there are usually a few that are surplus to requirements, and Alexandre started to find out who might want to buy them. He heard from rum producers, always eager for casks and especially for the high-quality oak that Cognac makers use, and went to the Caribbean to meet them. While the trips started as an exercise in selling on used casks, they quickly became the foundation of a new company: Plantation.
Taking his knowledge of Cognac production and maturation, and comparing it to how his new acquaintances made their rum, Alexandre quickly realised that he could add something: ‘The fermentation and distillation process was unique,’ he said. ‘The ageing process was even more primary and sometimes resulted in some of the rums being harmed. At that point, I could even taste what my team and I would succeed in producing with such distillates. I knew deep down what we could achieve by working on the ageing process and crafting wood which we were well acquainted with.’
Alexandre now spends three to four months a year in the Caribbean, working closely with the rum makers to create the raw materials for his team to sculpt into their finished products. All of the rums begin their lives in the Caribbean, produced and initially matured – usually in ex-bourbon casks – in the area’s hot and humid climate. However, once they have reached the Plantation team’s specified level of maturity, the spirit is shipped to France to start a second maturation at Château Bonbonnet, the home of Maison Ferrand. This harks back to the days when rum was shipped from the Caribbean to France in casks, before being left to rest in the country’s wine cellars until drunk.
The imported rum is filled into French oak casks and stored in the cool cellars of Maison Ferrand – a very different environment to its early years. The combination of casks imparts a wide range of flavours to the maturing rum, from the lighter and sweeter notes of tight-grained American oak to the heavy and tannic character of wide-grained French oak. It’s not a passive process, with regular sampling and tweaking of the maturation environment a hallmark of the Plantation approach.
‘Maturing a great spirit is like raising a child, it requires constant involvement’
– Alexandre Gabriel
The result of Plantation’s attention to detail and Alexandre Gabriel’s skill as a blender is a regularly changing line-up of great rums, with new vintages popping up alongside ongoing favourites throughout the year. The Plantation Extra Old Barbados is a deserving winner of our Spirit of the Year award, but it’s just one entry in a range of outstanding rums – it’s worth exploring the lot.