Talking Rum and Sugar with Alexandre Gabriel

Sweet Talk  

I’ve had the pleasure of attending a number of presentations given by Alexandre Gabriel (Master Blender of Plantation Rum) over the years; it’s wonderful to listen to someone whom is passionate about their craft and relishes the opportunity to speak about it.  It’s not an unusual situation to find Alexandre chatting away whilst the rest of the team are tapping their watches…
In the last six months or so, a thread of conversation has been bouncing around on the forums and social media channels about the addition of sugar to rum.  Views vary from the puritanical, modernistic*, militant ‘thou shalt not sweeten’ to the ‘sugar is part of the history and heritage of making rum’ to ‘hey I like my rum this way’ and if you’re planning on getting into a discussion on the subject then listening to all opinions is only polite.  I want to publish some of these and what better way to start than with some of Alexandre’s thoughts on the matter from a source I’ve been given permission to share here on
*When I put ‘modernistic’ here, I mean that the notion you can’t add anything to your spirit is (in relative terms) a modern thing, circa mid-last century I believe.  It’s a topic of research for me for the near future, but I know for sure that a few hundred years ago it wouldn’t have been considered unusual to buy your rum from a certain merchant, because you preferred that person’s formula of added spices and other flavourings.  Interestingly, Blackwell Rum makes reference to this on their packaging: “…taken from time-honoured and secret recipes”
Alexandre Gabriel, President and Master Blender of Plantation Rum
Anyway, for a topic of conversation that has as many viewpoints let’s start with Alexandre Gabriel’s:
Sugar has been used in artisanal spirits for centuries. It is part of the culture of spirits since they exist. It is the same for Champagne where the age old use of sugar is called “dosage”.
The quality of rums depends on the quality of Molasses/vesou it’s made from, how it is distilled, aged and blended. It’s all about ingredients and skills. Dosage is one of them and in this case it depends of which quality of sugar, how it is used and how much. With Plantation Rum as for Pierre Ferrand and Citadelle, we have researched many ancient techniques (mostly 19th century technics) and we are also constantly researching and learning (also doing academic research in Paris). One of these many ancient technics is dosage whereas pure sugar cane is blended with rum and preferably barrel aged for many years (aged 10 years minimum works best) in different type of oak casks and then blended in very small quantity as the rum ages, for seamless integration. 3 great Cellar Masters that I have been fortunate to work with have taught me their personal wood management technics (skills of the use of casks) and other skills such as dosage and choice of cane syrups. Keep in mind that, while it is less and less the case, some of the better rums are still made at sugar mills or not far from a sugar mill.
Interestingly but not surprisingly, these traditional technics have been scientifically validated showing that a small touch of quality sugar acts as a natural flavour enhancer “exhausteur de goût” much like salt in a great dish. It is all about skill and balance. It is like salt in a great dish, a touch makes the natural flavours shine (IF the taste is good), too much will “flatten” the dish.
As for Champagne, these 3 past decades have seen a few new producers making Champagne with no dosage (called Brut Nature). Some are good and some are….not so good. Does that make all the other Champagne produced for 200 years bad Champagne? The Grand Cru – Brut - 1998 Vintage – Part des Anges that I enjoyed at Christmas is another real life proof that Champagne can really be delicious. Little reminder, “Brut” stands for up to 12 grams of sugar per litre.  [Note: the French term Brut is a sweetness designation of a dry sparkling wine – it was the driest until Brut Nature, or Extra Brut came about]
I will always welcome anyone serious expressing partisan views as long as they don’t exclude other serious views. In fact this is what makes the beauty of our work as cellar masters and distillers.
There are endless other partisan views about rum. Here are a few that I get excited about as well: Most of my compatriots (the French) swear that real rum is made from sugar cane juice and consider molasses rum a second grade rum some call “rum industriel made from a by-product”. Most of you know what I think… Same thing about Rum distillation. Some “purists” only care about rum distilled in pot still or batch distilled saying that column distillation only makes a second grade industrial product. Guess what, BOTH can be GREAT and, what if we blend the two…Once you know what you are doing, taste buds sing.
Many other partisan fights come to mind, all so interesting: Tropical aging is sometimes explained as a “faster” aging because it usually generates a more important angel share….well…well... On the other end, continental aging offers temperature differences which allow a faster integration of the wood tannins from the barrel (an early 19th century technic called “tranchage”). Of course both partisans will swear that there way is the only good way…..Same deal about the partisans of American oak and their foes who will only consider French oak….you know what I think here as well…
Along with my passionate team, we have studied and practiced these methods as well as others for 25 full years. What I took away from all these years of distillation, aging and blending and what I would like the next generation to carry on is that most of these technics have something interesting to study and to learn from. Why oppose them when you can take what’s best in each in order to make great rum? This is why rum is a fantastic product that has nothing to envy from whisky or any other spirits. This is what makes rum such a rich product with fascinating diversity. This is why rum is now more and more the point of interest for so many that I meet when I travel. For rum, trying to mimic another spirit would be an irreparable mistake. It is a “one of a kind” spirit and, at PLANTATION, our mission is to showcase the beauty of it. We should fight fiercely for rum to retain its diversity because it is part of its fascinating nature. Yes, you guessed it, there are great rums with dosage and great rums without it. And there are so many more things about rum to discuss and to enjoy. In the end, it is for each of our palate to decide. And also the mood we are in which is another subject matter.

My humble opinion is that if you like a sweeter style then there is nothing in the world wrong with that.  I really don’t want to sound like I’m sitting on the fence, but I’d like to suggest that there are shades of grey in a black/white argument.  It’s true to say that my palate preference has dried out over the last few years, but I’m still sipping a wide variety of styles here at RumShack HQ and a masterclass I attended yesterday reminded me about some classics that are a little sweeter being really rather good.  

I guess my main concern is what excessive sugar use might be masking.  Sugar and other flavour enhancers could be used to mischievous purpose by less reputable companies with the aim of defrauding the consumer.  Making young or un-aged rum appear older and more complex than they are for example.  This is something I’m going to expand on in a future article and something I feel needs to be addressed as ‘fake’ cannot become the norm for the category.  All rum is not made equally and there are markers which can help decode this – again, we can consider this soon.
Your thoughts and opinions are always welcome – please get in contact through the social media via Facebook or Twitter.