Imagine an invitation to a spirit tasting where you had no idea what you’d be drinking. It might be cognac, armagnac, rum, gin, liqueurs, or—gasp—perhaps vodka! All you know is that everything you’ll try isn’t available on store shelves and may never be. Why on earth would someone put on such a tasting? If your host is Maison Ferrand, you don’t ponder this for long. You simply cancel whatever plans you’ve made and go.
FERRAND: EXPLORING OUTSIDE COGNAC
Beginning as a small French cognac house, Ferrand has grown substantially since 1989, expanding into gin, calvados, armagnac and vodka. But what they’re best known for is their Plantation Rum line. They purchase rum from around the world and transport it to Cognac, France for elaborate aging in cognac and other casks.
Plantation Rum Lineup / Photo Credit: Plantation Rum
Under CEO and Master Distiller Alexandre Gabriel, Plantation has released a dizzying array of attention-grabbing spirits—Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao and Stiggins’ Fancy Rum, among the most notable. Their small size, compared to other major players, enables nimbleness and extreme boundary pushing. This mindset gave birth to the exclusive tasting at this year’s Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
At the session, each attendee receives a placemat with seven stemmed tasting glasses. There is no indication what they are, only Mystery Product 1 through 7. By way of introduction, Alexandre says most of these liquids will never grace a bar shelf, at least not in the form presented here. Rather, these are internal experiments. Given the wide swath of Ferrand’s portfolio, the mind reels at the possibilities of what the tasting glasses might contain.
Mystery Spirits Lineup / Photo Credit: Matt Pietrek
The challenge from Alexandre: Guess what’s in each glass, with only the barest of hints provided. Only after much speculation from those present, does he reveal the truth of what’s in each glass.
Glass #1 – A Cognac by Any Other Name
This spirit would be sold as cognac under normal circumstances. However, it was aged in a chestnut cask—no longer allowed following 1945, per the cognac regulations. Eventually Alexandre adds that it will be sold as the second release of the Renegade Barrel lineup—expressions that may or may not technically be cognac, but which highlight lost traditions. It will be labeled as an Eau de Vie when released.
Renegade Barrel Cognac No. 1 / Photo Credit: Pierre Ferrand
Glass #2 – A Highlight on Colombard
Revealing itself as a cognac made from 100 percent colombard grapes, this experiment is aged for three years. Once a highly favored varietal in cognac production, these days, colombard grapes are used sparingly. Alexandre reveals that this varietal makes up ten percent of Ferrand’s mainstream Ambre Cognac today, and may increase in the future.
Glass #3 & #4 – Cane and Abel
The next two glasses comprise a matched set. We are told to taste back and forth between them to discern the differences. Given Alexandre’s rum obsession, it’s no surprise he’d try distilling his own in France. Purchasing batches of both sugar cane syrup and molasses from Barbados, they shipped the product to Cognac, where they were fermented and distilled in a cognac still. Both were identically aged for three years in both new and old cognac casks. Their flavors definitely fall within the rum domain, but they carry other notes that surprised me and are difficult to describe.
Alexandre Gabriel / Photo Credit: Maison Ferrand
Glass #5 – Funkytown
This is the sample that brings gasps of joy to many in the room. Pungent, with strong banana overtones, there is no doubt among the rummies present that they’ve found a mother lode of funk—high ester Jamaican rum at an eye-popping 130 proof. This rum holds the maximum amount of esters that Jamaica allows for export: 1600 parts per million (PPM).
While Ferrand’s recent purchase of the West Indies Rum Distillery grabs headlines, the deal also included 33 percent ownership in Jamaica’s Long Pond. They wasted no time in sharing the bounty from the purchase. While selling this rum exactly as tasted would make many hearts go pitter-patter, only a few hundred liters of it exist. Thus, it’s more valuable as bonificateur, essentially an intense flavoring agent to add a top note to other spirits.
Glass #6 – A Barrel of Fun
This spirit elicits a quizzical look from many. After nosing the heavenly Long Pond rum, the aroma of acacia-barrel aged Old Tom gin is an abrupt change. The company already has an oak-aged version of their Citadelle gin. But this one-year aged gin in a new, medium toasted acacia cask takes things in a very different direction. Acacia is gaining interest in the wine community because it doesn’t add the tannins and woody flavor that oak gives.
No Mistake Old Tom Gin / Photo Credit: Citadelle Gin
Glass #7 – How Sweet it Is!
This sample keeps the proceedings within the gin realm. The forthcoming Citadelle No Mistakes Old Tom Gin is dangerously sippable. It will also be released as the first edition of the new Citadelle Extremes line. The label notes read: “This OLD TOM gin has an extra touch of juniper with orange peel notes, blended with toasted barrel aged brown sugar…cask rested for perfect integration.” Only 3,000 bottles were made.
SNEAK PEAK: OLD COGNAC FINISHED IN JAMAICAN RUM CASKS
Before drawing the session to a close, Alexandre has one more secret yet to reveal. While new glasses are passed around, he tells of purchasing the very old archives of a cognac master blender, who described aging cognac in Jamaican rum barrels. With Alexandre’s recent acquisition of Long Pond and its available casks of high ester rum, it’s no surprise that he’d gamely follow in those footsteps.
The cognac was a 1981 vintage, aged for 34 years in Limousin oak. It aged a further two years in Long Pond high-ester rum casks. As you can imagine, it draws serious oohs and ahhs from the crowd—a very fitting end to the already impressive set of seven spirits.
TRANSPARENCY: THE KEY TO THE FUTURE
A consistent background theme threading through each spirit reveal was transparency about how it was made. Plantation Rum takes flak from some corners of the rum world for their use of dosage (added sugar, in classic cognac style). But unlike most producers, they are relatively transparent about doing so. At the presentation, Ferrand’s transparency ramped up even further. Each spirit had an accompanying slide with useful technical information, including source material, distillation type, ester and volatile counts, and type of cask used. Yes, even how much sugar is in the Old Tom gin (40 grams/liter, thank you).
In an industry where all the major players are focused on case sales of a small number of core brands, it’s refreshing to see Ferrand release numerous small batch, highly interesting releases, year after year. We look forward to what other delights Alexandre’s chamber holds for future tastings.