The Sweet Taste of Success

Neo-puritanism is something we do very well in California. You’ve gotta respect our passion and ability to instantly adopt decisive opinions on behalf of which we will vehemently argue, no matter how recent our exposure to them. Having an educated point of view about everything is very fashionable out west. We are the masters of shock and outrage when it comes to what we view as hot button issues in world news, current events, political developments, and especially food culture combined with modern health. If there’s even the slightest conversation happening anywhere concerning gluten, veganism, Crossfit, or worst of all sugar, you can bet we will pick up a torch, work up our blood pressure, and loudly insert ourselves into that discussion before we have any idea of what the gist even is. Combine that confident California conviction with the righteous splendor of a contemporary cocktail or spirits geek and you have almost an unlimited potential for indignation. If we find out someone is adulterating our booze, we will absolutely get into their virtual face(book) and tell them exactly what we think from the safety of our anonymous web handle, facts and congeniality be damned!

The funny thing about sugar—the enemy of all dietary fads—is that it tastes good, no matter how many evils it bestows upon our civilization. As a result, it can be used to take things that don’t taste very good on their own and make them taste “smooth.” It’s partially for that reason that modern spirits enthusiasts have moved towards the unadulterated and undiluted when it comes to their alcohol. If you’re paying a premium for something, you want to know that you’re getting the real thing. In the end, it’s more about transparency than anything else. A lot of the rage behind spirited neo-puritanism stems from the idea that large corporations are secretly trying to ruin the world by tricking everyone into buying their cheap caramelized hooch and its the internet’s job to expose them. So then what happens when spirit geeks get complete transparency from a renowned producer that knowingly and openly adds sugar to its products, one that not only provides a no-BS approach to its contents, but also adheres to historically-accurate and traditionally-tested methods of production, earning the support of the industry’s most respected writers and voices? I can tell you what happens: the anger resides, the tensions settle, and an actual conversation about what really constitutes quality begins. That’s exactly what’s happened with Maison Ferrand’s rum portfolio Plantation, quickly becoming one of the most engaging, exciting, and value-oriented line-ups in the world of spirits and a big hit with our California crowd here at K&L, despite the dosage. That's a pretty big achievement when you consider the level of geekiness in our stores.

“Dosage” is exactly the term Ferrand likes to use to talk about their sugar, as well. More like a Champagne, where a dose of sugar is added before bottling to round out the bristling acidity (yes, there is added sugar in your expensive French sparkling wine), Ferrand adds a carefully-maintained simple syrup to elevate and balance their extensive rum blends. They do this not only because they’re a Cognac house and therefore approach rum from a blender’s perspective, but also because for centuries that’s how rum was often produced—with sweetener. Much like single malts are a modern phenomenon in the history of Scotch whisky, the prevalence of unadulterated and additive-free rums today is more of a reaction to the demands of bartenders and tiki purists than some return to heritage. I met with Ferrand’s manager for California yesterday, Michael Goldman, and we talked about the difference between Plantation’s “dosage” versus “boisé” in a Cognac. “When I think of boisé, I think of oak chips. Whereas we’re actually putting cane syrup into French oak and aging it for up to seven years to create our dosage,” he explained. Hence, there’s a big difference between the sweetness I taste in the Plantation rums and the sticky film that’s left on my tongue after drinking a glass of big house VS. 

I’ve become enamored with blends again over the last year, having succumbed to my fear that the ultimate flavor of a great spirit is being overshadowed by the uniqueness of the experience. I think moving through components and single casks is an evolutionary experience that every serious drinker needs to undergo at some point, but for me the draw has always been to improve my understanding of spirits as a whole, or to find a better deal. I’ve never looked at pure, isolated, single cask spirits as inherently better because the best spirits I’ve ever had have always been marriages of some sort. While blends have been out of fashion over the last decade, companies that can provide an explanation and a well explained description of their intentions can still thrive, as we’ve learned over the years with John Glaser’s Compass Box portfolio. In the same vein, Alexandre Gabriel is opening up his maison to the world of rum geeks, giving them full exposure into how some of the rums are created. The brand’s O.F.T.D. blend was put together by a team of six rum industry veterans and the exact make-up of that cepage was put on display recently by blogger Matt Pietrek, who I will once again lean on to shine some light for readers here. His detailed breakdown is exactly the type of thing our customers want today before making a purchase and the access given to him by Ferrand is a blueprint for credibility that other companies may want to follow in the modern market.

Now that rum drinkers have had access to single distillery distillates, they’re better prepared to understand and appreciate how those ingredients fit together. We've brought in a number of Golden Devil casks over the years, along with our original Faultline barrels, as the UK and European markets continue to explode with new rare editions aimed at an elevated audience. Like these coveted independents, Ferrand has long been a negotiant bottler, purchasing stocks from distilleries all over the world, but last year they finally took the plunge and outright purchased the West Indies Distillery on Barbados, as well as a share in the now-resurrected Long Pond distillery on Jamaica, following the trend of Scottish blending houses who have begun to realize control of their supply is paramount to maintaining their future in the expanding global spirits game. The rums are blended and bottled at the Ferrand headquarters in Cognac, and matured there as well, often times double-aged in French oak (in addition to early American oak maturation on the island of origin). While it's great to have a few high end trophies on the top shelf of your home bar, the Plantation rums are the workhorse rums of your everyday existance and after tasting through the entire line-up again yesterday I'm even more enamored with their precision, harmony, and utter deliciousness.

Here's a rundown of the group, not including the Stiggin's Fancy and O.F.T.D. that we already carry:

Plantation Original Dark Rum $12.99 - Don't let the low price fool you, I thought the updated version of this classic rum was one of the best of the bunch, loaded with soft flavors of molasses with an easy-drinking profile. The official Plantation version is this: the essence of Plantation Rum Original Dark is the wealth of its palate and its technique of double aging. Plantation Original Dark comprises the elegant rums of Trinidad which are distilled then aged in their tropical climate in the Caribbean in American oak barrels under high heat before traveling to France. Once in Europe, the House cellar master decides on less "high esters" for the Trinidadian rum and blends in old rums from Jamaica (15 - 20 yrs.) This end result finishes like sweet nectar but also adapts beautifully to classic cocktails made with dark rum such as the Mai Tai or Daiquiri.

Plantation 5 Year Old Barbados Rum $17.99 - The roundness of this rum is off the charts. Michael mentioned it's what happens when you age Bajan rum in both American and French oak, then add in the French oak-aged dosage. I could mix cocktails with this and never get tired of using it. Plantations notes: Plantation Barbados 5 years is a blend of rum from Barbados, the birthplace of rum. This blend ages first in Bourbon casks in its native tropical setting before crossing the sea to Chateau Bonbonnet in France. There, in small oak barrels primarily used to age Pierre Ferrand cognac, the rum continues its journey of aging under the watchful eye of the House’s cellar master.

Plantation 20th Anniversary Edition Barbados Rum $39.99 - This rum knocked my socks off and I immediately bought a bottle for myself. More toasted coconut with waves of richness on the finish. Plantation's notes: This extraordinary vintage was introduced to mark the 20th anniversary of Maison Ferrand. An assemblage of fine rums 12 - 20 years old, all originating in Barbados, this is a wonderful reflexion of the island itself. As with the other rums in the Plantation range, this exotic spirit is aged first in its original country, Barbados, and then benefits with further aging and nurturing in Cognac. Resting in casks originally used for Pierre Ferrand cognac, and meticulously nurtured by Cellar Master of Maison Ferrand, a unique expression is achieved using traditional local methods.

2002 Plantation Vintage Jamaican Rum $46.99This 2002 vintage Jamaican is 100% pot distilled and is aged for ten years in Bourbon barrels on the island, before spending three years in French oak Cognac barrels at the maison. While I wish everyone enjoyed the high-ester intensity that is our 9 year old Hampden single cask, the truth is that audience isn't nearly as large as the one for this Plantation version. Here you get a hint of that over-ripe banana, mixed with just a touch of funk, but it quickly rounds out on the finish and ends with lovely tropical note that should please just about anyone. Plantation's notes: Distilled in alambic copper pot stills after a long fermentation, Plantation Jamaica represents vigor and intensity. In the cellars of Maison Ferrand in Charente, it is further eased, tamed and enriched. 

I can't say enough good things about the Plantation rums as just straight sippers, let alone their limitless cocktail uses. They're beautifully crafted, showcasing the inherent character of their components, while simultaneously building them into something even more delicious. Since I'm definitely on the blended bandwagon right now, and I'm still 100% committed to consuming both sugar and gluten, these bottles fall right in my wheelhouse of current interest. I'm hoping more passionate spirits drinkers of all kinds, not just rum fans, will give these a whirl. There is a lot to love about what Ferrand is doing. It would be a pity to let a little sugar get in your way. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll