I must admit I hesitated before starting that interview for I’m rather nervous at discussing the rum category as I always have the impression that I am not told the whole truth. So if you accept, I will not only like to discuss about you and your journey in the category but also about transparency.
That’s true. it can be an obscure category but I guess that’s because it is the category of pirates. There are indeed many ways to circumvent the law.
Let me tell you a little about myself, my family has been in the wine business in Burgundy for many decades. My father also bought an absinthe distillery in Pontarlier a few years ago. I grew up in that field but after studying wine and spirits business in Dijon I realised that I was more into spirits than wine. I feel I went to the dark side of the force, as in France it is very prestigious to be in the wine industry, much more than in the spirits industry where you quickly risk being labelled of being an alcoholic!
After my Master Degree, I went to the US to work for a rum brand and I fell in love with that category. To this day if I am still fascinated by all spirits, I have to admit I’m best at the rum category. I trained myself a lot into all kind of spirits, distilling techniques etc.
One of the reasons I wanted to meet you is that not only are you alone at the head of this company, meaning that the choice of rums is the choice of an individual, a taste, a will, but also because you are extremely diverse within the category. Your offer resembles a rum library, it has an encyclopaedic perspective.
Yes, this was indeed one of the main reasons. It’s a way for me to break down preconceived beliefs about the rum world. And it drives me to remain on the lookout for the rarest gems. But let’s be honest, this is also interesting commercially.
How do you work and discover new rums? I thought you imported rums only from three importers, in the UK and in the Netherlands. So aren’t your discoveries more their discoveries?
That’s a way to say it. At the beginning it was the case. But today I buy more and more directly from the producers, as they know me and trust me. I still use the importers but only as supply chain partners, I take care of choosing and blending, maturing the rums myself.
How do you control the finished products? Rum is plagued with extra sugar and other additives.
You need to know that most of the additives are added during the bottling process, it’s rarely done while the rums are in the casks. When you import the casks, it is still pure. For each rum cask we are provided with its analysis which allows us to know the DNA of the product. The only thing that is sometimes added to the cask is molasses (the barrel is burned with molasses, leaving a caramel-like coating that will blend in with the rum). These analysis allow us to realise this as the sugar density is not the same as the alcohol density, so it does appear in the analysis.
I remember the first fair I attended and how everyone was surprised at me indicating how much sugar had been added. Most of the time the question was « why are you adding sugar? » whereas the question really should have been about the quantity. Most of the producers are adding sugar but I was the only one saying it. I think things are changing but slowly. Also thanks to Facebook groups such as La Confrérie du Rhum. Some people started to get better informed via websites from companies that have state monopoly, like Suede or Norway. They are actually publishing the analysis. And that’s how the information went out and when people started to discuss openly in France about sugar addition or other colouring agents in those Facebook groups. That helped small transparent producers like me a lot. I’m not laying the blame on larger producers because they did the whole work of communicating about the category. And I’m not bothered by the addition of sugar as long as it is clearly stated so the consumers know. So it’s honest.
Here in Berlin we consider transparency as part of what craft is about. Would you claim the word craft for what you do?
Yes, especially since I’m not simply putting my label on a bottle. I created the brand but I didn’t stop there, I also do the heavy lifting on a daily basis. I’m very involved in all stages, my co-workers and I, we work the casks, we filter, we dilute, thus we do have an added value. If I do share the maturing cellar and bottling facilities with a whisky producer, I don’t subcontract everything and focus my work solely on marketing. I’m not an armchair bottler, I’m hands-on. If I were to make a comparison, I feel that my line of work has many common traits with the work of a cheese affineur, the person who oversees the aging (some like to say “maturing”) of the cheese.
What do you find fascinating these days?
The world of rum is getting bigger, you have always more small independent producers contacting me, from many countries “new” to making rum thus bringing a whole new palette of flavours. And I find that there are more and more authentic rums and beautiful brands and I think that we should join forces even more so that the consumer understands and tastes the difference.
I feel we should make our work better known even though we are often considered as colonialists. Which I do not think we are. We have to become better educators.
But it’s true that by calling yourself La Companies des Indes, you give yourself a bit of a stick with which to be beaten. It’s still referring to a most detestable colonialist imaginary, no?
This is unfortunately true and I actually didn’t realise this until quite later on. The fact is that when I started, I worked for a rum producer who had bottles with a minimalist label design, similar to vodka labels really. As it turned out, deprived of the usual rum imagery (pirates, treasures, travel, boats, beaches, etc.), customers lost their bearings and failed to recognise this brand as part of the rum category. So when it came to my own bottles, I chose to refer to this imagery, it just made sense from a marketing point of view. As for the name itself, it kept coming up during my research about rum and the rum world, I guess it kind of stuck with me. When I found out it was free, I seized the opportunity. Things happened so quickly, I mean the simple fact of having a French name in itself isn’t ideal, it makes it quite hard to pronounce for an international brand. Looking back now, I realise what the name may stand for in some people’s mind and it is problematic as obviously it is very different from what I had in mind when I named my brand. I hope my actions, values and philosophy speak for themselves and that despite what the name may convey, people realise that I’m really all about searching, discovering gems from all over the globe and sharing them with the world.