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Rum Travel - Grays Distillery - Mauritius

This is a continuation of a story about a whirlwind trip to Mauritius and Reunion with Eric Kaye, owner of Holmes Cay rum. Part one can be found here.

Got up fairly early in the morning, which is normal for me. To my surprise I didn’t wake up a few times during the night from the jet lag. I didn’t seem to have one. Very strange, unless I was so tired that I slept right through it. At 6:30-7am it’s already 26 degrees Celsius and since we didn’t have to leave until 9am, I figured it would be a good moment to go for a swim. I was expecting to be nearly alone on the beach, but that wasn’t true whatsoever. Quite a lot of people (not super busy), seemingly all locals having a swim before it gets really hot. What a great start to the day! So calming and beautiful.

Met up for breakfast with Eric after and then went to Grays Distillery. They had sent us the same driver who picked us up from the airport. Super nice guy……and no sales talk. Eric said:”we need to have a look at what we’ll do in the afternoon, since we’ll likely be done in a couple of hours”. In the end, we spent two full days with them! And wonderful days they were.

Grays was founded in 1931. It’s part of Terra, a company that goes back to 1838, when the Harel family bought the Belle Vue sugar estate in the Pamplemousses district (lets add another estate with a similar name to the mix of confusion surrounding Bellevue in Guadeloupe). They now own 7000 hectares of land in the north of the island, of which 6000 has sugar cane growing on it. Their sugar factory, Terra Milling Ltd, can process 336 tonnes of cane per hour. They produce 93000 tonnes of sugar yearly. Grays distillery produces 6 million liters of alcohol per year. The brand name they use for their rums is New Grove. Terra is an umbrella for a lot of different business activities, which you can see in the chart below.

When we got close to the distillery, it looked like we were arriving at a very nice commercial/industrial area, with some ponds and beautifully manicured lawns. You immediately got a good vibe. Once inside, we were greeted by Didier Noel (Export Manager) and Melanie Pierrus (Export Logistics Coordinator). We rum chatted for a while before they decided to take us for a tour. Not the expected one, of the distillery, but to the cane fields, a sugar factory and their old colonial “great house”. What a nice surprise! Driving across the island is great, driving through the cane fields with the windows open is even better. Cane everywhere, as far as you could see! Very impressive. We finally stopped at the highest elevated point in the fields to enjoy the gorgeous views. What a treat.

Next up was the house. Oh my, what a house. So much character and beauty. Amazing woodworking. Really stepping into the past, it’s frozen in time. It had separate quarters and stairs for the staff and tons of rooms. You could get lost in it. The lawn was manicured again. The staff was super nice, a great place to be. I would have liked to stay there longer, but rum was on our minds.

First up was lunch though. There is an amazing restaurant across from the distillery. Mauritius’s population is very diverse. It’s the same here in Toronto and I love that. It showed in the food options. There is a strong Indian influence in the country, so there were quite a few Indian dishes. I had one of those and it was to die for.

Eric & Melanie. The food was excellent!

What an unexpected morning program it was. One with no alcohol, which was a rare thing compared to the rest of the trip. Once we got back to the distillery, we went to an office building and sat down for a tasting. Not just a tasting though. It was a TASTING. I can’t remember exactly, for obvious reasons, but we must have tried at least 15-20 expressions. Various New Grove releases, some single barrels, even decades old rum. Very impressive!

Their rums have a unique, slightly medicinal, flavour profile. Once you know it, you’ll recognize it easily. Two years ago I was a judge at the ISS Awards. This is a fully blind judging competition and they never tell you which rums you’ve tasted, not even after it’s done. I was sure there was a New Grove expression in there. I told Didier about this and he said:”Yes, we had a rum in that competition”. I’m no master at identifying flavours, so that shows you how unique they are. I liked the vast majority of the stuff we tasted at Grays. Some of the barrel finishes weren’t my favourite. The 5 and 10 year are great value. I can’t imagine how good they’d be at higher strength. The few cask strength rums were stellar. Such high quality. What a joy!

Didier and some of the rums we tasted

It was now nearing the end of the afternoon and we hadn’t seen the distillery or the barrel warehouse yet. They said:”The warehouse is too hot right now, you have to see it in the morning. So, you should come back tomorrow”. They really had to twist our arm to agree to that one! Of course we’ll be back tomorrow!

It wasn’t our driver that took us back to the hotel, it was Didier. He also didn’t take us to the hotel, but to a Grays liquor store first (20/Vin), so we could buy some delicious cask strength New Grove rum, and then to a rooftop bar overlooking the ocean! We had no clue this place existed, even though it was close to our hotel. I really didn’t need more alcohol, but what the heck! Beautiful view, beautiful people, gorgeous weather, good company and live music. What else do you need?!

When we got back to the hotel, I went for another quick swim. What a life. We then walked quite a bit out of the area to have dinner. Surprisingly great pizzas made for a good end to a fantastic day.

I was up early again the next. Not a great night of sleep this time. I finally felt the jet lag. Since breakfast wasn’t even being served yet, I figured I might as well go for a swim. I really felt I could get used to this routine. :) After breakfast we left quickly to go back to Grays. We had to get into that barrel warehouse before it got too hot.

I love ageing warehouses. Large or small, it doesn’t matter to me. Same with this one. Beautiful. You can feel and smell the angels. It’s fairly small, with about 1500 barrels. They have another warehouse (Beau Plan Cellars) with about 4000, which we didn’t visit. There was a table there with some of the standard expressions to taste, but we already passed that stage yesterday……we wanted the casks. To make a long story short, it wasn’t exactly like “you point at something and you can try it”…..but it wasn’t far from it! One amazing sample after the other. Until we tried a port finished rum. They said they weren’t happy with it. That made us even more intrigued. We had to try it! We ended up agreeing with them. :) When I thought we were about done with the tasting, the following magical sentence was spoken:”would you like to taste some of the 1999?”. Uhm…..yes?! Out came another straight from the cask sample and it was gorgeous. God did I feel lucky being there. They have some real gems in that warehouse.

Thanks to drinking a lot of water we were somewhat fresh and fruity for the next part of the tour, seeing the distillery. We were fortunate enough to meet up with Gray’s master distiller. Super nice and very knowledgeable man. We saw the lab, fermentation tanks and the stills up close. Here are some of the facts for geeks: closed fermentation for 33-35 hours. They use two different yeasts, one for rum and one for neutral. 94% abv off the column still for rum, 96-97% for their neutral alcohol. For pot, it makes three passes through the pot still. First 20-25%, second 35-50%, third 60-75%. They produce 2500 liters molasses rum and 2500 liters cane juice rum from the pot at 75% yearly, which takes 2 weeks each. The rest of the time they produce mainly neutral alcohol on the column, with a lot of it being exported.

The story of the pot still is one I need to share. It was installed 50 years ago but not used until about 10 years ago. It sat there collecting dust for 40 years! Naturally we asked why. He said:”when the column still was installed, they gave us the pot still for free at the same time”. It’s like the shopping channel. “Buy one of these useless products and you’ll get this plastic pan flute totally free! That’s a $500 value!!!”. “Buy this amazing TV and get a free rubber duck for in the bath!”. In this case they got a free pot still with their column still!

Column Still

After that we took a quick look at the sugar museum, called the “L’Aventure du Sucre”. We then had another amazing lunch at the same place as the day before. This time in the company of the great Florence de Coriolis (Assistant Brand Manager). Once we had filled our bellies with delicious food, Eric locked himself in an office to talk business with Alexis Harel (Managing Director), while I spent that same time sitting in the “tasting” office, chatting with their new assistant cellar master, Philippe Ackler. Not a punishment whatsoever. Super nice guy. We talked some rum, but mostly about what life in Mauritius is like and cultural differences between various countries. Was great.

Eric, Philippe and Didier

It was time to say goodbye and especially say thank you to the people at Grays, particularly Didier and Melanie. They went above and beyond to provide us with an unforgettable experience. Amazing! Thank you!

Next up, the driver took us to a touristy area where we did some shopping. Went to a couple of grocery stores for souvenirs and rum of course. The largest store had quite the collection of local rums and some foreign expressions. Once we were done buying stuff, we decided to walk back to the hotel. A good 40 minute walk while the sun was setting. The road we had to walk on didn’t have sidewalks everywhere and it was quite busy with traffic. No problem during the day, but at night we used the flashlights of our phones to alert drivers of our existence. Living on the edge! When we got back we both spent some time working, as the show back home had to go on. I then went for an evening swim in the dark. Had never experienced floating in the Indian ocean while looking at the stars. It’s highly recommended!

Afterwards I went to Eric’s room with the rums I had bought in the supermarket on the first day. I had already given him some amazing rum samples that I brought from home, so we ended up doing a little rum tasting. The white Labourdonnais was tasty cane juice rum, the Classic Gold not so much. The Goodwill Local Rum was like cane vodka. Can’t expect much though, it was super cheap. The name says it all. Will get you drunk. We shared some YouTube songs on our phones while sipping rum…..good times. It was getting late however and we hadn't had dinner yet. A few places around our hotel were closing pretty early. Luckily, an Indian restaurant was willing to give us some take out food. It was delicious.

Next day we had an appointment at Rhumerie Chamarel in the morning and nothing planned for the afternoon, with a possibility of some very needed sightseeing. That will be covered in the next chapter.

Here are some additional photos of this part of the trip.

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