A French Twist

The Birth of a Rum Giant

Plantation Rum is shifting from a buyer to a formidable producer of rich and historic rums.

Last July, Alexandre Gabriel, CEO and majority owner of spirits producer Maison Ferrand, spent several days at a cocktail and spirits convention in New Orleans. “I had a big smile the whole time,” he says. “People thought I was drunk.”

He wasn’t. What put him in a buoyant mood was knowing that a few days afterward, he would fly to Jamaica for the re-opening of the Long Pond rum distillery—“one of the iconic distilleries of Jamaica,” he says—which had been shuttered and gathering dust for five years. Better still, he’d be attending as part-owner, having quietly acquired a one-third share last spring, as part of his company’s purchase of West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados. “For me, it’s like being able to rejuvenate a cathedral,” he says.

Long Pond, located in northwest Jamaica, traces its roots back to 1753, when it was part of an extensive sugar plantation. The distillery went through a cavalcade of owners, both public and private, including Seagram Limited, which bought it in 1953. The Jamaican government acquired it in 1977 and then sold it and bought it back again as part of National Rums of Jamaica, a government entity formed to keep troubled rum distilleries afloat.

That’s how Gabriel’s acquisition came into play. But his story starts across the globe in France.

In 1989, then a business student undertaking research on the spirits industry, Gabriel came upon Maison Ferrand, a family owned distillery that was essentially defunct but still held a good store of aging stocks. He partnered with the family to sell the Cognac and breathe life back into the estate, reviving the distillery and adding a gin to the company’s portfolio.

He also began assertively hunting down other French artisanal spirits, including calvados, to acquire by the barrel that he would bottle and market. Starting in 2003, he looked beyond France to the Caribbean, creating Plantation Rum, to seek out top-flight rums and ship them to Europe for blending and further aging in used Cognac casks. “I really fell in love with rum” he says. “There’s so much to explore.”

One of the Caribbean distilleries from which he’d acquired rum intrigued him. “West Indies Rum was like the sleeping beauty,” he says, referring to West Indies Rum Distillery, a historic facility located on the outskirts of Bridgetown, Barbados. It was owned by Goddard Enterprises, a conglomerate with auto dealerships, pharmacies, and shipping companies, among other interests.

“I finally made my way through to the president and asked, do you want me to make an offer?” Gabriel says. “It took a year of negotiating. My wife said I was unbearable for a year. She wanted to divorce me.”

Gabriel’s acquisition was finally announced last March. He got a distillery situated on lovely white-sand beach that for decades had made rum on contract for others, including Cockspur and Malibu Coconut Rum.

In addition to an operating distillery, Gabriel acquired a load of distilling history, including five venerable pot stills, only one of which was actively being used. “When they bought a new piece of equipment they just pushed the old piece to the side and put the new one in,” he says. “And there was a room with a safe that had all the documentation for 120 years.”

Among those disused stills was a rare triple-chamber, American-made Vulcan still, once relatively common but now virtually extinct. (Leopold Brothers, a craft distiller in Colorado, starting using a modern replica made by Vendome in 2015.) That still “hasn’t been used for probably 30 years,” Gabriel says, “but it’s still hooked up to the boiler system.”

Also included with the purchase of the Barbados distillery was approximately a third of Long Pond in Jamaica, “which I knew but I kept quiet” out of fear that it might attract other suitors, Gabriel says. Long Pond ended up partially in Barbadian hands about two decades ago, when the Jamaican government approached the Demerara Distillers Limited in Guyana and West Indies Rum Distillery about sharing management of three distilleries in exchange for a one-third ownership, with the other third retained by the Jamaican government.

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In 2012, the group announced the shuttering of the Long Pond distillery, in part owing to chronic problems with waste disposal. They opted to invest instead in another Jamaican distillery they owned, Clarendon Distillers Ltd., in which Diego had a minority interest. (It’s where Captain Morgan begins.) But with a resurgent interest in authentic, funky rums, the idea of reviving Long Pond recently took root.

“Everybody was so excited to see this old lady wake up,” says Gabriel, who said the emotional re-opening ceremony last month was filled with speeches and songs from local residents thrilled to see it active once again.

Long Pond is reviving some of the five vintage pot stills on the property, which include prized vintage John Dore pot stills, made by the company that took over the patents from distilling icon Aeneas Coffey & Sons in 1872. (Long Pond also has also a column still, but National Rums has no plans to restore that.) 

What Long Pond also has in surplus, says Gabriel, is a powerful sense of terroir, thanks to its historic bacterial culture. Jamaican rums, perhaps more than any others, depend on local bacteria during fermentation, which is in part responsible for that deep, musky funk aficionados love in high-ester Jamaican rums. Local distilleries are famed for their “muck pits,” in which the bacteria is kept alive, much like sourdough starter. “It’s very local,” Gabriel says. “You could bring it by airplane to another area, but it then would grow into something different.” As a result, Long Pond’s high-ester rums, Gabriel says, are “generous,” rich with notes of overripe fruit compared to other distilleries. (Gabriel earlier acquired some barrels of Long Pond rum, which he’s used in blending in France.) The distillery maintained its mother culture through the five-year dormancy, and it’s now being called back into action.

For Gabriel, the rapid acquisition of two distilleries—one outright, and a large share in another—marks a significant shift for Plantation Rum, which made its reputation with sourced spirits. Almost overnight, Gabriel and Plantation will pivot from being a major buyer of rums, to a significant producer.

Along with acquiring the physical West Indies Distillery in Barbados, Plantation inherited a number of contracts to provide rum to third parties, and which it intends to fulfill while producing rum for its own use. (No buyers canceled their contracts after the sale). “We will recreate a distillery within a distillery, with the ancient equipment as well as new equipment,” he says. Plantation also plans to revive the distillery’s idled cooperage—a retired mailman trained under the last full-time cooper, and will help with training a new generation in repairing and restoring old casks.

Gabriel says he’s looking forward to producing a different style in Barbados, aging not in temperate France, but in tropical warehouses just yards from the beach—so close that sea turtles find their way in at night, attracted by the lights. The higher, less-variable temperatures and salty air will have a marked influence on the rum’s flavor, which he’s eager to experiment with, and will likely result in a new line of rums, which may or may not be sold under the Planation name. “It’s a nice little signature for a rum,” he says.

Does that mean Plantation will cease to source rums from scattered and varied distilleries, and abandon its aging program in France? Not in the least. Of the 15 distilleries where Planation currently contracts rum, Gabriel says, “I’m going to continue working with them.” He’s even recently added a new and more exotic distillery to the mix—a producer in Fiji that he’s been trying to buy from for more than a decade. “You have to work in different ways,” he says. “It’s like oil painting or pencil. It’s a very different technique—it just creates different profiles. And it’s for you to decide if you like one better than the other.”

Gabriel recently bought a house in Barbados, where he now spends about a week each month, overseeing the transition and working to get some of the historic equipment back on line. “I’m so thankful—to be able to work with rum and Cognac with even more control,” he says. “You can trust me, this will translate in your glass.”