Meet the Maker: Rum Innovator Alexandre Gabriel

Meet the Maker: Rum Innovator Alexandre Gabriel

Alexandre Gabriel has led one of the leading French cognac houses for over two decades. But history will likely remember him best for bringing his remarka-ble blending prowess and inquisitive, experimental nature to rum.

By David Zivan

Currently, the spirits world is awash in experimentation with aging vessels, in-cluding aging bourbon in wine barrels, gin in bourbon barrels, and so on. It’s a time when nearly every producer has not only released some curveballs but likely has other quirky stuff resting somewhere to be revealed later. But there are as many misses as hits.

Alexandre Gabriel, while he has led French cognac house Maison Ferrand, is also the owner and Master Blender of Plantation Rum and the storied West Indies Rum Distillery, to boot. This rum fascination has sent him as far afield as anyone – and yet he keeps introducing one delicious variation after another.

So, let’s meet the maker!

Pure Caribbean Spirit

Gabriel’s wheelhouse is rum sourced from across the Caribbean and given the long, close attention required to deepen and integrate the spirits’ complex fla-vors. Take, for example, one recent limited edition, Extrême Collection n˚5 – a Barbados 2007, Barbados 2000, and Barbados 1986 (not coincidentally, the Plantation Rum’s first release was a Barbados 1986).

This juice, the distiller says, “epitomizes the iconic terroir of Barbados, the exper-tise of the West Indies Rum Distillery, and the magical effects of Plantation’s sig-nature double-aging process.” That last element is the most critical. Plantation rums mature in bourbon barrels in the tropics; they then cross the ocean by boat – a process that swirls the cane spirit more aggressively in its oak barrels – and the final aging takes place in ex-cognac barrels in the changeable climate of southwest France.

All that effort bounces the prices up: Suggested retail prices on the set are $200 for the 2007 (58% ABV), $300 for the 2000 (47.8% ABV), and $1,500 for the 1986 (55.1% ABV), all in 750ml bottles. They reside, in other words, in the same price ranges as single-malt scotches while providing a not dissimilar to single-malt in its complexity.

In them, one can taste time – the ups and downs of temperatures, the swelling of the barrels, and the richness of the cane sugar. It’s rum elevation with a pro-found back story. And at this point, Gabriel is almost single-handedly driving a global explosion of renewed high-end rum interest.

Rediscovering Rum Traditions

Gabriel was born and raised on a farm in southern Burgundy in France, where his grandfather taught him how to make wine and distill spirits. In 1989, he discov-ered a legacy cognac house in the heart of the Grande Champagne area of Cognac and built it into what is known today as Maison Ferrand. Quality cognac, above all, requires expert blending; Gabriel brings that same sensibility to rum, which he first bottled in 2003.

The archives of the West Indies Rum Distillery in Bridgetown, Barbados, stretch back more than 125 years – and that’s where Gabriel says he rediscovered the double-aging technique, common in the 18th century (likely more a happy happenstance than a necessity). He’s old school like that, mixing contemporary experimentation with deep-rooted techniques.

In 2021, he shipped the distillery’s Rockley Still, one of the oldest rum pots in the world, from the West Indies to Cognac for restoration. It is thought that the gnarly-looking thing was made by the British coppersmiths James Shears and Sons sometime between 1785 and 1891 and was in use up to the 1960s. Now it’s back in action.

“I often feel less like the CEO and more like … part of this exemplary team I call my colleagues – a community that works together, sharing a passion for creat-ing beautiful rum,” Gabriel noted recently with some modesty. “It is about shar-ing our ideas, creations, and company ethos with people who are like-minded in terms of values and mission – these are the two legs we walk on.”

Everyone Gets in on the Fun

Also admirable about Gabriel’s efforts is that he delivers quality across all the price points of his portfolio. For instance, in the fall of 2022, the company intro-duced a new sub-brand bottling, Canerock Jamaican Spiced Rum. It’s what the business calls a “permanent addition,” meaning that you can find it for probably around $35 for a 700ml bottle at your better retailers.

The blend of Jamaican aged rums comes from two legendary distilleries – Long Pond and Clarendon – and gets enhanced with natural spices and is finished in ex-Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. Moreover, it took three years and over 90 exper-iments to find the best ingredient combination to highlight the rum’s character: vanilla beans from Madagascar, coconuts from the Caribbean, and a touch of ginger from Jamaica.

Lastly, each ingredient is infused individually to ensure the best extraction of aromas before being blended with the rum. That’s a lot of inventiveness for a well-under $100 bottle.

Lastly, each ingredient is infused individually to ensure the best extraction of aromas before being blended with the rum. That’s a lot of inventiveness for a well-under $100 bottle. It’s a treat neat or on a cube, yet not so fussy that you can’t pour it into a Dark ’n Stormy. Personally, I like its complexity so much that I find a double shot over crushed ice, with the tiniest splash of ginger beer, has me daydreaming of a sun-soaked beach and some jerk chicken. Just the scenario, I suspect, that this rum visionary had in mind.

(Images © Plantation Rum / Front image ©

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