On Meeting Alexandre Gabriel

It’s been over a week and I’ve finally decided to publish my thoughts on the terrific event last Thursday night at the Black Market in Indianapolis… An Evening With Alexandre Gabriel of Maison Ferrand.  Since the dinner my head has been full of thoughts that I have been trying  to organize and write, but that process has been taking too long in the world of Blogging, so it’s time to begin, and just let them organize themselves.

Black Market is one of the great rum bars and restaurants in the country… certainly in the midwest… and everyone there can pat themselves on the back for hosting such a memorable evening.  Chef Micah Frank’s entire meal was superb, but I really wanted to call out his first course.  The Accra , a Caribbean Fritter, was fabulous.  I could have noshed on nothing but them all night. But as good as the food was, I’d be thoughtless if I didn’t remark on the cocktails, specifically the Citadelle Gin Cocktail that Heather Tomory served as a pairing for the Accra.

I’m not a fan of Gin, and avoid it in all but the most special circumstance…  A bad experience over 40 years ago makes me turn my nose away whenever it’s near… but last Thursday night the circumstance was indeed special.  The  Cocktail was aromatic, tasty, refreshing, and the perfect complement to the Accra.  The balance of the juniper berry was perfect, and I even had a second.  Granted it isn’t going to make me switch from Rum to Gin… even Citadelle Gin… but the Combination was a fine opening for a beautiful evening.

 

Although the dinner and the drinks were truly memorable, it wasn’t the primary reason for being there. Alexandre Gabriel is one of two people in the world of Rum that I respect most and hoped to meet.  I’m grateful for the chance to listen to him talk about some of the things he loves, particularly Rum, to shake his hand, share a meal and in words hes’ used before, to TASTE.  To drink not to  get drunk or to look cool, but to drink with pleasure.  That was certainly the case on Thursday night.

During the first two courses we were treated to Mr. Gabriel speaking about his life and history with Maison Ferrand and how he came to be its owner and master blender.  Although I had heard some of the stories before, it was enlightening to hear the excitement and energy in his voice while speaking about his passions while  sharing a meal with around 40 people.  Knowing what he has done for the world of Rum over the past years, and anxious to hear his  thoughts on where things are going, his remarks gave me a lot to think about.

I suppose I went to the dinner with unacknowledged expectations of hearing specific arguments about the issue of rum classification. As it happened, I surprised myself by focusing on related but different aspects.  I hadn’t anticipated gaining insight to his perspective from experiences involving gin and cognac that he shared.  For instance, I know he is generally against over-regulation, and that like me, he values the diversity in Rum, but I found myself concentrating on the story of how Citadelle Gin came to be and concluding that his experience must certainly influence his feelings about the world of rum.  I anticipated asking a couple of thoughtful questions about his feelings about the Gargano Classification, but discarded the idea as I didn’t want to be the cause of any change to the flow of his talks, or to interrupt my chance to actually learn from him.  The end result was a most satisfying experience.

So, what did I learn?  Well first of all I learned that the next expression of Plantation Rum is going to be coming from Fiji!  Thrilled with something else to look forward to, my thoughts wandered through the maze of our Three Tier Liquor Distribution system in the US making me wonder how much of a challenge it will be to get a bottle whenever it’s released.  Those thoughts led me back to the frustrations of over-regulation in general.  How do you strike the balance between freedom and restraint… between chaos and forced order? Unfortunately I didn’t come to any meaningful revelation, but I did add some valuable perspective to the thoughts on classification and labeling  I’ve been stewing and pondering for so long.

Alexandre described the obstacles he had to overcome in getting permission from government bureaucrats to allow him to use his stills at Maison Ferrand for anything other than Cognac.  It makes me shake my head in wonderment, while nodding with the knowing resignation of one that works within National and International bureaucracies. Most often rules stifle imagination, creativity, innovation and efficiency, even when put in place with the most idealistic intentions.  It is really something to commend when men like  Alexandre Gabriel challenge those rules to produce something unique and enjoyable.  But the story about getting permission to break the rules in using his  stills wasn’t the only regulatory frustration he shared with us.

If you know him, either personally or by reputation, you know that Alexandre Gabriel is a creative and passionate man who appreciates history and heritage.  So it is easy to understand his frustrations over the myriad of rules and regulations he must follow to produce his Cognac Ferrand.  He mentioned that there are pages and pages of regulations for Cognac but only a scant couple of paragraphs that rule the production of Gin.

In researching the history of Cognac production at Maison Ferrand, his imagination and creativity gave him the urge to try ageing Cognac in Chestnut barrels as it had been done in the 19th Century.  Looking to the history and heritage of Maison Ferrand it is an exciting idea, however , the bureaucrats only recognize history as far back as 1945 when the current regulations were promulgated specifying only French Oak Barrels be used… Not only French Barrels, but the oak must only be from either Limousin or Troncais.  So, if the brandy isn’t aged in French Oak, even though it is distilled the exact same way, from the same wine, it cannot be called Cognac.  Because the bureaucracy doesn’t recognize tradition and heritage, the Cognac Ferrand aged in barrels made of chestnut, loses its heritage and cannot be named Cognac.   Because of that Alexandre will instead call this cognac Eau de Vie…a fine, artisanal and historic cognac stripped of its heritage by a rule.

As frustrating as that must be to such a creative mind, to all outward appearances he manages it well.  I look at the situation and see the fingerprints of bureaucracy.  I see the fingerprints of a gaggle of people, all who know they are smarter than the others, all with their own ideas, their own priorities and their own agenda, wrestling to achieve consensus in order to produce a document that has some semblance of fidelity to the original idea of protecting a special product or idea.  While the motives were probably good, the finished product, as it  always always does, seem to make no sense. And so it is with portions of the Cognac rules.

Did the rules make the cognac?  Of course not.  The rules are simply an attempt to describe the making of a spirit that has been distilled for centuries.  Unfortunately the rule makers ignore history and while making the rules pretend there was no Cognac made before 1945.  It’s just another case of regulatory arrogance in which, in this instance, a few bureaucrats had convinced themselves they invented Cognac, while the real producers are forced to scramble to comply with the letter of the rules which are too often nonsensical.   So it is with most government regulation. It follows naturally that someone intimately affected by regulatory over-reach is wont to wade right into a different regulatory swamp, no matter how pure the intentions may be.

With both gin and with Cognac, Alexandre Gabriel is contending with long standing, confining, and stifling regulations which attempt to prescribe exactly how he must create his art. His commitment and passion,  together with time, familiarity and experience make it easier for him to manage, but it is no wonder that he speaks so strongly against regulating the worldwide production of rum.  Still, I did sense from him that although he is vehemently opposed to over-regulation, he recognizes that there are at least some common definitions that should be understood by all.  Serving as an example, his actions are speaking louder than words ever can.  His integrity in the labeling of his products and the pride he takes in his artisanship is a model for anyone in any industry, though I wish he would take on the added sugar issue more forthrightly. Regardless, with Alexandre, it goes without saying that value cannot be created by the packaging… and  THAT perspective deserves some more attention.

His perspective is that education is  important, maybe most important, and I agree.  But I think there is something short of global regulation that could address the actual problem of deceptive labeling.  There is a way short of international treaty that can recognize the utility of a labels describing the value in the bottle, instead of having the label creating a perceived value of the contents.

In future articles I intend to pay more attention to a wide variety of other aspects related to the Rum Classification/Truth in Labeling controversy.  I will consider topics like, Dosage (added sugar), Geographic Indicators, Terroir, Authentic Caribbean Rum Marque, Regulatory Bodies, “Regulation by consensus,”  Accurate Labeling (Gargano Classification), and who’s responsibility is it?  Certainly it is not a simple issue that has any simple answer, but I do believe that most agree the status quo is far from ideal and could use some degree of shake up.

Like Alexandre I relish the diversity of rum, even the chaos of the market.  As a Rum Geek, I love learning about differences in production methods and philosophies especially in tasting the results of those differences.  But as a Rum Enthusiast, I wish my the Rum Locker at home, wasn’t the only place to get unique, artisanal and delicious, rums.  As I’m certain it is with all rum enthusiasts, I have experienced the difficulty in communicating to bartenders, bar managers, and friends just what would be a nice rum to have on the shelves.  Too many professionals are lacking in their knowledge and experience of rum, and the popular culture doesn’t present rum as something cool.  I would like to see that  change.

But those are questions to address another time.  The occasion for this article was to report on one of the nicer evenings I’ve had in a long time.  Wonderful food, terrific cocktails and an accomplished, charming, informative, and influential guest.  The leadership at Black Market:  Ed Rudisell, Chris Coy, Heather and Micah, along with all of the Black Market servers, planned and hosted a truly first rate event. I’m thrilled I was lucky enough to attend.  Thank you to all of them and to Alexandre Gabriel for sharing some of his vacation time with us.  I will most definitely be looking forward to a February visit to West Indies Rum Distillery in Barbados.

 

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