I've met Raphaël Grisoni, Managing Director of Mount Gay rum, on a few occasions and bugged him for an interview for some time. There are a couple of reasons why I asked him. First, because Mount Gay is a fascinating company that makes excellent rum in one of the greatest places on Earth. Second, because I've seen a lot of people writing things like "Why do we never hear from Mount Gay when it comes to the Barbados GI process?". Now you have.
Can you please provide a quick introduction of yourself?
I am Raphaël Grisoni, father of 4 children, French from Marseille living in Barbados for 12 years now. I worked in the wine and spirit industry since out of business school. From Scotch whisky to champagne, to the Remy Cointreau portfolio and Rum. I always worked in small or family companies where the vision of a man/woman and/or a family propelled the company forward. It is what I like in this industry: the people side. People with passion for their art (distilling or wine making is an art for me not only pure chemistry or purely scientifically done) and respect for nature, as wine and spirit remain agricultural products that depend on mother nature. It gives a sense of humility of what we are doing. It is also an industry that supplies pleasure and emotions to people and I like that too.
My other point of interest for this industry is the heritage and how research and development lead to better quality products. Think about the introduction of the double retort in pot still distilling in the Caribbean or the discovery of the second fermentation in the bottle in the case of champagne. For the last 5 years, fermentation and research with specialists and agronomists is what lead us to introduce our proprietary yeast coming from our direct environment of our plantation surrounding our distillery in St Lucy, Barbados.
How do you feel the rum industry has changed since you started working at Mount Gay?
I’ve joined Mount Gay Distillery in 2008 as its managing director based in Barbados. The industry changed thanks to consumers and some key players in the rum industry. First the consumption is evolving and as it happens with Single Malt, Bourbon/American Whiskey, Japanese Whisky etc.. the consumer is looking for more information and more quality on the product he drinks, how it is made, by who (literally the name of the person who makes it) etc. It pushes the industry, at least for some, to be much more transparent on those elements, as before it was never asked or very occasionally. What was a connoisseur speech became and is becoming more the norm.
This phenomena is also valid for food and everything that is touching our human bodies (cosmetic, perfumes etc..). On the other hand some rum makers, like us, were already starting to communicate on the process and the points of uniqueness of their products as well as how to drink it and enjoy it. What also changed is the scenery, with many more new rum brands and players from independent bottlers to “fabricated” brands.
There has been a lot of talk about a Geographical Indication for Barbados rum recently. Why is this GI so important for the people of Barbados and why for Mount Gay?
The Barbados Rum Geographical Indication is a good opportunity to set up rules reflecting the Barbados Rum tradition. Not all the trails that were experimented during more than 300 years by all distilleries, but by what, after those years, distillers in Barbados perfected and what Barbados rum is famous for. The GI leaves ample room for innovation and leaves room for total disruption in giving freedom to do so outside the GI. It is also important as it will give a legal framework that could be enforced in Europe leading to compliant rums and avoiding drift to products that are really far from Barbados quality standards.
Ultimately the GI will help in building a strong awareness and credibility the way it did for the brandy category Cognac, or for the whisky category Scotch and Irish or for the sparkling wine Champagne.
The Barbados government wants all four distilleries on the island to agree on a concept GI before they’ll take a decision. What are the chances of this happening?
The full alignment of all four distilleries is the dream scenario that we all want because in the end there is a common interest in the build up of a strong Barbados Rum GI and a strong Barbados rum industry that will deliver more jobs and more revenue for our small island. It will drive value because of its define process which is respecting the heritage of rum making in the birthplace of rum.
But some are not sharing this view and didn’t make any movement/concessions on the GI discussion. It is sad. Today the largest rum producer of the island, which is mainly (80%?) doing non aged bulk rum, is against what the 3 others distilleries see as the successful route for Barbados rum. In a country where there is no competitive advantage to produce rum today (high energy cost, importing 80/85% of molasses needs) the long term strategy is to develop, distill, age, produce high quality rums. It is common sense and it is aligned with the intrinsic value and heritage of Barbados rum.
What’s the next step if all four can’t agree?
I think, and it has been said by government officials, that government will take the final decision that could be to register a strong Barbados Rum GI as we are proposing, a weak one or drop the registration.
Artificially sweetened rums seem to sell very well. Why wouldn't you add a sweetened rum to your portfolio?
When you look back on more than 300 years of rum making our style remains dry, aged and tasteful rums. 20 years ago Mount Gay did an attempt with two flavored rums (Vanilla and Mango) that were requested by our distributor in the USA. It was a bad idea because it was not matching the DNA of Mount Gay and not respecting the consumers of Mount Gay. It was quickly dropped. It was our only attempt.
Your neighbour Foursquare has had a lot of success with their ECS series, using a myriad of casks for ageing. Are there any plans in that direction from Mount Gay?
We have a fantastic tool at the distillery that you visited. We have richness and diversity in our process. Starting with fermentation where we are using our wooden open fermenters for long fermentation (72 hours up to 1 month!) but also our stainless steel fermenters for shorter fermentation but in both case with our proprietary yeast, we have 4 different kind of stills : 2 sets of 2 double retort pot still (so 4 pot still) made by MacMillan in Scotland and Fraga sa in Spain, very different shape delivering, according to the cuts we are doing, a large diversity of rums (or marks); 2 different column stills: the traditional John Dore column designed by Webb and our recently recommissioned full copper Coffey Still (operated in batch). All that gives us a wide diversity of rums that we are aging in 3 core type of casks (American oak: ex Bourbon and ex American whiskey and French oak: ex Cognac for which we are well supplied).
We also have a wide variety of experimental cask that are mainly used to make some limited editions. You remember the ex heavily peated Islay scotch whisky barrel that we used to finish our XO, we have some port cask (tawny) that we will release this year (you saw the TTB approval), we have some ex Sherry, ex wines (from French muscat to some Bordeaux) and then different wood like Acacia and others that I will keep quite for now. So yes our new master blender, Trudiann Branker, is very creative and is eager to innovate with the wide palate which is available to her. The plan to date is to have a limited edition per year. I wish to have more in the mid term.
The rum enthusiast crowd is a tiny percentage of your customer base, but they do make a lot of noise. A lot of them are asking for more cask strength options. Is this something Mt Gay is interested in and able to provide?
We heard you, as all our limited editions are cask strength and without additives (no caramel for coloring nor sugar)
Does having a new master distiller impact the style of some of the existing rums? Will it change the direction your company is going in?
Of course, the “creator” of our rums is very important. Trudiann is very respectful of the work of her predecessors who made great blends like Jerry Edward who created XO in 1991 and Allen Smith who created Black Barrel and 1703. Trudiann is also very creative and she can express her talents in the Master Blender Collection that Allen started with the XO Peat Smoke Expression (XO finished in heavily peated Islay Scotch whisky – our friends of Port Charlotte/Bruichladdich distillery). She started with the Pot Still with a desire to go to the roots of Mount Gay when we were a small plantation distillery solely distilling in Pot Still (till the 1920’s). Trudiann will release, as you know now (thanks to the TTB approval process), a port cask expression (a blend of rums rum aged and finished in port casks).
We also gave the opportunity to Trudiann to review our classic range with the brief to increase aromatic richness. She did review our Black Barrel blend by increasing its age, increasing the pot still component and increasing the finish period in deeply charred bourbon barrel. Concerning the XO, a classic that everybody loves, it was just an enrichment with the addition of pot still rums aged in ex cognac casks to bring a new layer of floral notes. When you think about it, it is a great opportunity to review the classics of a brand, I don’t think any master blender has reviewed the blends of Johnnie Walker Black or Red since inception…??
You've recently installed a "new" column still. Was there a specific necessity for this and what does this still add to the range of rums you can produce?
There wasn’t a necessity but an appetite for restoring our heritage and exploring new rum marks. The Coffey still was decommissioned in 1974 and dismantled after repairs that were considered too expensive back then. This is a John Dore full copper short double column. The story reported by some of our old staff members is that this still was making a beautiful medium body rum. So we decided to restore it with the help of David Pym from John Dore but also with the help of Reynold “Blues” Hinds (aka Blues) who operated the still from 1965 till the decommissioning and support of the old blue print of the still. This project took 2 years. We are still exploring all the possibilities of this still, it is exciting.
So far we’ve aged the first rum in various casks and are monitoring the potential for future limited editions. We are also proud to have brought back what is, according to David, the only remaining Coffey still with this design distilling rum while 2 are still in activity in Scotland to distill grain whisky.
Mount gay is currently going through a styling change of its products. Will this affect the blends as well as the packaging?
As said earlier, we gave the opportunity to Trudiann to bring a “touch” to the classic range (black Barrel and XO only). We took the opportunity to also review the packaging to work on the range harmony but also to give more information on the process and the taste/style of the rums. So you should be seeing that soon in favorite liquor store.
Are there any new products in the pipeline that will become a standard feature in the lineup?
We have new products but only as limited editions for now.
Do you think there will be a time when Mt gay can be self sufficient and won't need to import molasses?
To give you an idea, in order to be self sufficient we will have to get all molasses produced by Barbados and probably put some plantation back to sugar cane to supply Mount Gay! Our plantation is only 340 acres. There is not enough molasses in Barbados for the three distilleries that are using it, so we are importing like the others. But it is ok, as imported molasses (Mexico, DR, Guatemala, not Guyana anymore) bring a different profile in taste, in minerals content etc than the Barbadian ones, so it is bringing more complexity to our wash.
We use both local and Caribbean molasses because both carry unique differences. Our local Barbadian molasses tend to have a higher sugar content which is better for yields. Our soils are also alkaline which brings acidity to the cane and imparts flavour in the molasses. The Caribbean molasses tend to contain different minerals from the region. Combining the two gives us a good balance to work with. But we are very strict with how we put our molasses to work in the right way for Mount Gay. We use 100% Barbadian molasses for Pot distillation for example and a blend for column. The result of our efforts is a low level of sweetness, which is a good thing, and a persistence in flavour.
Over here in Canada we've been lucky to have regular access to your rum, which can't be said for a lot of other producers. What are some of the challenges you face with getting rum into Canadian stores?
The challenge is linked to a monopoly system (at least for Ontario, Quebec and Western provinces) where shelf space is limited per category. So far we have been lucky. We hope that monopolies will list more limited editions to give more choice to its clients. To keep a listing you also need a minimum turnover too, so you need to keep investing.
How have you been able to be so successful at this?
We kept investing as Canada has always been a key market for Mount Gay and even though we will have to go through the tender process to list our new Black Barrel and XO blends, we trust the LCBO will support us to give an opportunity to Mount Gay loyalists and other discerners to taste them.
When I spoke to you in Barbados about the special releases, you said it wouldn't be worth bringing them into Canada (lcbo in this case). Why is that?
As far as I know LCBO doesn’t contemplate small releases and the logistic to send a single pallet from Barbados to Toronto for example is very complex too. But I am sure as the consumer demand evolves more toward special limited releases, the LCBO will adapt its purchasing policy too. So it is a question of time and I encourage you to write to LCBO to make things evolve too.
Thank you Raphaël for your openness and willingness to answer all these questions with this amount of detail!