It’s funny how simply talking with people can unintentionally make you reminisce.
This happened to me the other day when I was exchanging messages with a friend based in Singapore, and the conversation brought me back to 2017. I went there to experience their new and already-notable spirits and cocktail scenes at the time. The memories brought me back to simpler, less-knowledgeable times.
While I’m someone who prefers to know as much as I can, ignorance is sometimes bliss. Knowing less can also mean less drama; as such, early 2017 was a time when the Barbados GI – geographical indication – wasn’t a divisive issue in the rum world yet. If memory serves, the GI issue blew up some time in 2018, despite being proposed in 2016. Maison Ferrand (MF), Plantation rum’s parent company, had just acquired the West Indies Rum Distillery (WIRD) earlier that year.
MF does a great job of giving themselves a small family-owned underdog image. Before the GI issue they were better liked, as they give a lot of training and merchandise support to the bar community. This type of branding easily grabs the interest of drinkers who can be weary of the big brands; I am often one of these folks. At that point, Plantation and MF’s Cognac brand, Pierre Ferrand (PF), were brands I’d only heard of and hadn’t tried. Hence, a giddy curiosity got ahold of me. To my surprise, they were available in Singapore. I quickly got acquainted with the brand’s products since they were in every bar I visited.
I am both an avid cocktail enthusiast and a spirits geek. When trying cocktails made with a liquor that is new to me, I often ask to sample the base spirit before or after ordering. Over time, I started losing my sweet tooth, which led me to not enjoy the Plantation rums as much as I hoped. I believe brands should leave the sweetening of SKUs intended for cocktails to the bartenders. Additionally, products marketed as “premium” shouldn’t be adulterated, unless only the packaging and marketing are thus. Because plenty of Plantation rums are sweetened, I found myself gravitating more toward Velier Rum, which La Maison Du Singapore are selling. Due to most Plantation rum being sweetened, it’s safe to assume that PF’s cognacs are also. Hopefully they don’t add boisé (extract from boiled wood chips to add color and flavor) as well.
Maison Ferrand’s owner, Alexander Gabriel, likes to use the term “dosage,” despite the term only being officially used in Champagne. I learned this when met with confusion after asking a few French brandy producers, via Zoom tastings, if they add “dosage.” At that time, it didn’t matter to me, as trying any cognac that weren’t from the big four (Remi Martin, Hennesy, Martell and Courvoisier) was already a win. My assessment of them would be that PF’s basic SKU, the 1840, does great in cocktails. Meanwhile, more premium bottles like the 10 Gen and Renegade Barrel are targeted toward cognac drinkers not looking for hogo. There was a sense of fun in getting lost and just trying what I could, as I had very little experience with rum and cognac back then.
A few months later, this K&L interview with Alexander Gabriel, with their intention to change the then up-and-coming Barbados GI to their favor therein, sparked issues. Fast forward to 2021, and the Barbados’ GI is still not finalized. Maison Ferrand also wants to change the Jamaica GI, which currently doesn’t allow sweetening of rum. In case you don’t know, they own one third of National Rums of Jamaica (NRJ), part of the acquisition agreement for WIRD. Long Pond Distillery and Clarendon Distillery are under NRJ.
With their intentions towards the GI, the perception of some towards the company have changed. It’s sad, as they can source and bottle good rum, sweetened or not. Because the acquisition of WIRD is fairly recent, I have yet to see if what they’re distilling, aging and blending in WIRD under the MF regime is actually good. (There are rumors that some of the Barbados rum bottled by Plantation are from Foursquare.) But a company’s actions, which can reflect on their philosophy or owner’s morals, may make someone not support them. Being an outsider to both Barbados and Jamaica, wanting to dictate and change an integral part of both countries’ rum culture raised some eyebrows. One of the common retorts I see online by Caribbean folks is that they see it as very colonial. (Europeans, AKA colonizers, telling Caribbean citizens, AKA the formerly colonized, what to do.) You don’t hear of foreign companies like Remi Cointreau (French) and Campari (Italian) telling Barbados (Mt. Gay) and Jamaica (Wray & Nephew) how to make their rum. This has made some of their customers – or rather, former customers – question if what they’re doing is acceptable.
Some have said that business is business. Others have said they’re doing a lot to push the boundaries of rum. That idea sounds too cutthroat for me, which is what I think has become wrong with the world. This way of thinking is why I think there will always be people who will only care about certain issues when they’re directly affected. I’ve always believed in more ethical business decisions. What’s that old saying? When in Rome do as the Romans do. How about, when in a Caribbean country, do what they do?
Another old saying is “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” This came to mind when I saw a recent Reddit thread about Plantation. Sometime in April, this one brought material substance to a rumor I’d only heard regarding Pierre Ferrand (PF). Over the years of dipping my toes into cognac, I would occasionally see a comment regarding PF along the lines of them “cheating” their distiller and business partner out of the company.
There are also stories or comments saying they currently don’t distill cognac, and merely source it. Not knowing much about the lore of cognac brands, I didn’t argue nor believe, but I remembered the comments. One of the links shared in the thread was this Le Parisien article from the year 2000. The article basically states that the distiller and brand’s namesake, Pierre Ferrand, was sued for infringement by his two then-business partners (one of which is Alexandre Gabriel) and lost. A few EU-based spirits geeks have told me MF aren’t well liked by other cognac producers. Based on what the links above say, it’s not hard to see why. Reasons to be careful of the business are starting to look more like a pattern than an isolated case.
Mr. Pierre Ferrand then started another cognac brand called Pierre de Segonzac. Segonzac is Pierre’s home village in the Cognac region; I’m assuming that’s where he took the name of his new cognac brand. Sadly, this article says he passed away in September of 2013.
It’s amazing how it takes a lifetime to build an image, yet it only takes an instant to destroy it. There was much more support for MF brands before they decided to take advantage of the growing Barbados rum name, but the Barbados GI argument has made me and others more wary of buying their products. Why patronize a company whose ethics we don’t support? Don’t get me wrong, I’ll still try their products at bars to refresh or gain new references, but that’s where I stop. After all, one has to try something before knocking it.
The Maison Ferrand and Pierre Ferrand websites didn’t have the information on the 1840 I was looking for, so I had to look elsewhere. According to Cognac.com, this Original Formula 1840 was aged for three years in French Limousin Oak. It’s old enough to be labeled as VS (“very special,” aged at least two years), but the newer bottles use the term Three Star instead.
Before you read my review, just take note that it seems like this cognac is being marketed for usage in cocktails. The marketing story of this has heavily emphasized the involvement of cocktail historian Dave Wondrich as well. A local importer used to handle MF products, but the marketing was done awkwardly. These went on sale a couple of years ago for $36 as the former MF importer was cleaning out their warehouse, and is available as of this writing at the Whisky Exchange for £45.95.
Pierre Ferrand 1840 – Review
On the nose: Initially hot, but I’m reminded more of a Mortlach kind of heat, probably due to the worm tubs in cognac stills. The heat is accompanied by medium and short-lasting aromas of burnt caramel, persimmon, candied lemon peels, canned peaches, pears and something floral that makes me think of white and purple flowers. At the end are rounder and lighter aromas of dried apricots, candied oranges, honey and toffee.
In the mouth: A lot less heat; gives off instant fruits. Up front are medium tastes of canned peaches, pears, melons and persimmon. In between are light bursts of burnt caramel, candied lemon peels, toffee, nectarines and candied oranges. At the end is a more rounded, cloying sweet taste with medium tastes of florality, floral honey, cinnamon sticks, kumquat and tea.
First thing I’ll say is that I applaud the 45% ABV. It’s smart of them not to bottle this at 40% if they want to be seen as different from usually-lacking young cognacs like Hennessy VS. The higher proof will also allow this cognac to be more expressive in cocktails, which is how they’re marketing it. Better in the mouth; nose is less expressive.
Because this is marketed as a cognac for cocktails, you might think it would just be standard. But it’s pretty good since it is not just a monotonous flavor profile. There are some layers. It’s pretty solid. I heavily suspect that the cloying, sweet taste is due to the sweetening Pierre Ferrand uses; they boast of the sugar syrup they put in casks, which they then add to their rum and cognac.
Sweetened or not, it’s sad that they can put out good products and show a good face while the way they conduct themselves behind the scenes turns me off from their brands. (There’s a joke here that’s writing itself.)
Second to be reviewed is their Renegade Barrel. The story on this is Pierre Ferrand’s attempt to age cognac in chestnut barrels. However, this can’t be called cognac today, as using chestnut wood for aging is not an acceptable practice by the AOC. Even so, according to PF, aging cognac in chestnut barrels is an old, lost practice that was dropped post-World War II. This makes me curious, as the Cognac AOC dates back to 1909. If it was acceptable before World War II, why is it no longer part of the AOC? Which is the reason this is labeled as an eau de vie de vin. The brandy is double-matured in a 350L PF cognac cask, then goes into a 225L chestnut barrel. Unfortunately, there is no mention of how long the brandy spent time in each barrel. I bought this bottle from the second release in Singapore for $175 SGD.
Pierre Ferrand Renegade Barrel – Review
47.1% ABV. Bottle # 1596/7000
On the nose: A lot of heat followed by a mild and really long but flat aroma of something oaky. In between those are light and random bursts of sarsaparilla, cherry syrup and something orange-y.
In the mouth: The heat is more sparse. The character here is just as flat on the nose though. There’s still this long, light and enveloping taste of something oaky. In between those are light bursts of cherry syrup, sarsaparilla, orange gummies and dried dates.
Flat, uninspiring and not worth the price. This bottle makes me feel like I threw away money. As you can see from the picture, the bottle has been barely touched. This is due to me not liking it much at first, and then forgetting about it. Freshly poured into the glass, it was just plain flat. I had to let it breathe for an hour before I started to notice a change.
Utterly disappointing. The most annoying thing is they had to double mature this in regular cognac casks. It’s partially my fault for not reading the label properly, but my brain doesn’t really function at its best when in Singapore since I heavily imbibe while there. If you’re going to brag about how much of a rebel you are, why not go all the way? Why dilute the chestnut wood influence? How is the curious buyer supposed to know what chestnut flavors are like?