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A Man of Passion: Alexandre Gabriel

Interview with Alexandre Gabriel
by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)
Published September 14, 2012

Alexandre Gabriel (Cognac Ferrand)

Allow me to welcome Alexandre Gabriel, President and Owner, of Cognac Ferrand to my website.

Alexandre Gabriel was born in France, on a farm in southern Burgundy near the medieval town of Cluny, where his grandfather taught him how to make wine and distill spirits. He went to university in Lyon, and then in the U.S. as an exchange student, before returning to Paris to attend business school. More than 20 years ago, Alexandre came upon an ancient and almost defunct Cognac house. Through his passion and his vision, Alexandre Gabriel turned this small Cognac House into a specialized house of artisan spirits before the term was even coined. He re-built what is known today as Cognac Ferrand, in the heart of the Grande Champagne district of Cognac.

Mr. Gabriel believes in making spirits for people who enjoy the epicurean life and for the bartenders that make these epicurean libations possible.

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I was given the opportunity to conduct an email interview with Alexandre Gabriel here on my website, and to my delight, Mr. Gabriel exceeded all of my expectations sharing his energy and passion for Craft Spirits. Mr. Gabriel shares how he “fell into a barrel of Cognac” when he was “only 2 years into drinking age by American standards”. He explains why craft spirits are so important to Cognac Ferrand, and whether or not he is he is leading the spirits world into the realms of madness.

We discuss not only Cognac, but also Gin, Vodka and Rum, and then Mr. Gabriel shares not only two of his favourite cocktails with me, but also (after a certain amount of wailing and gnashing of the teeth), his favourite or most treasured spirit which he would wish for if he were to be stranded on a deserted island…

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1)   It is a pleasure to welcome you to my website Mr. Gabriel. I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your press biography, and I cannot help but wonder how it happened to be that you “came upon an ancient almost defunct Cognac House”? Were you looking for exactly this sort of opportunity from which to launch your vision? Or did your vision grow alongside the development of the Cognac Ferrand Brand?

Thank you Chip for having me on your website. It is a very personal question. Here it is:

I grew up on a family farm. We grew most of the food we ate and made wine. My mother who was supposed to take over turned out to be an artist (a painter and a sculpture) and, to my grand-father’s dismay she married a business man who did not even know how to put a nail without hurting himself. Luckily I was very handy, so I guess my grand-father saw a bit of future in me, and he made sure I knew all the things of the land. Even on a Sunday with no work to do he would ask me to come with him, and we would visit the fields. He was someone who did not talk much more than one sentence an hour so the afternoons were rather “meditative”.

Later on, at school and in different jobs I had as a student, I discovered that I was someone who did not take “blind” authority well at all, I often got in trouble. I felt somewhat like a misfit. So I realized that I had to do my own thing; even if it was very small, I had to run it. I knew that. Some people I grew up with chose wine-making as a job. I liked the idea; but I knew that if I did not have the perfect boss I would always be in trouble. I decided to study business thinking that it was the best way for the independence I needed. I started to work hard.

After 2 years in business school – which took place in Paris, NY and Tokyo (big trips for a Burgundy boy) – I met a small Cognac producer who needed help selling his products to finish off his stock. This was Cognac Ferrand. I fell in love with the product and with the region. It all reminded me of what I grew up around. So when I was invited to become a partner and told that no one was going to continue if I didn’t, I just said….yes.

Cognac Landscape

I did not even think about it. I was 23 years old, and I had no clue what I was getting myself into. A run down business with no distribution network, with no real sales, good stocks but no organized production. It was a mess. I decided to talk to my father about it who only confirmed it was a mistake. I did it anyway because my gut told me I should. Because I felt that I could make a difference doing this. 

I felt that so much had been done with the quality of wine; yet at that time, spirits were still an industrial product. We (Cognac Ferrand) could offer more, we could offer great taste in a bottle. It took a while to convince the local bankers. They finally agreed. I was not even finished with business school, I had a big loan and 8 employees and was just 2 years into drinking age by American standards.

I rounded up a small board of directors with older people I knew well and who luckily believed in me. I called them the wise guys. Close to retirement, big responsibility, huge experience and a lot sympathy for our endeavor. They never asked me for anything. They saw my passion and shared it with me. They are all 23 years older now, and I still speak with them on the phone once a month. For the 10 first years I did not pay myself more than minimum wage (nothing the 2 first years). To this date, I have never taken any dividends. It all has been plunged back into Cognac Ferrand to improve our production facility.

Chateau de Bonbonnet Ferrand HQ

Now the life I lead is pretty much the way I grew up. In a big house in the middle of the vineyards, lunch with all the team at the house at a huge table. With a fire in the fireplace in the winter and in the garden in the summer. I live in the main house where the offices are. More than a job, it’s a way of life I feel is natural for me. This is how I fell in a barrel of Cognac and loved it.

2)   My understanding is that the movement towards hand crafted spirits is very important to Cognac Ferrand. I am thinking that this is more than just small distilleries making limited edition batch products. What does the term “craft spirit” mean to you, and what is the appeal of craft spirits for Cognac Ferrand?

Cognac Ferrand Charentais Pot Still

Craft Spirits is now a category, and for some (craft spirits) is just a marketing strategy. For us (Cognac Ferrand), since day one, it is our DNA. Even before the term was coined, this is what and who we are. This is the heart and the reason why I have done what I have done!

To me fine Cognac, fine Gin, and fine Rum are not for the alcohol, they are for the taste experience for the emotion. I feel that fine spirits is what separates the Man from the beast. It is our humanity. No one ever saw a dog or a cow taking the time to enjoy a good Cognac. It is like fine art; it is an emotion that you share with others. When I taste a spirit I like, it gives me goose bumps. This is what I try to create for others. You can’t do this with regular booze. For this you need a great Rum, a great Cognac, a great Cocktail, something that is special. This is our reason of being.

For instance try a Pierre Ferrand Cognac Selection des Anges. Take your time. Open the bottle, pour yourself a glass, sniff it, taste it a bit. Put down the glass. Do it again and again. Haaaaaa…. Your mind and your body should then tell you, “It’s a good life after all Chip, it IS a good life!” At Cognac Ferrand, it is our mission to make this happen. Some people have coined me a Spirit Master saying I was the first one to see it all. Really, this is just what I live and love to do. The fact that I was one of the very first one to do it is just coincidental. Considering how (very) hard it was at the beginning, I feel I was probably born 10 years too early.

3)  One of Cognac Ferrand’s recent projects has been the launching of PIERRE FERRAND 1840 Original Formula Cognac. If I am correct, you actually are encouraging your customers to serve this cognac in cocktails. To be honest, when I mentioned this concept to a few of my Brandy loving friends, they acted like such a Cognac represented the end of civilization as they knew it. Is Cognac Ferrand truly leading the spirits world into the realms of madness? Or are you perhaps just bringing everyone back to the real world?

Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula

I love this question because, in a way, this is the story of my life. Controversial at the beginning, then a Classic…

20 years ago when I started to do research about fine Gin with Citadelle, distilling in a small cooper pot still on an open fire. Most people (everyone actually) thought I was nuts. Now, 20 years later Citadelle is considered a Classic by most gin lovers. I am also proud to say that we win many contests and medals with Citadelle. To me this is what I was working on since day one, THE GIN.

When we launched it, it was not simple, there was nothing like craft Gins in the market. Let alone a French craft Gin. We were the first one, which means we were the only one. For a small company this is not easy. An up and coming spirit critic of the time Paul Pacult (famous now) wrote a great piece where he said that Citadelle was “what gin was meant to be…”. He had it right, this was exactly what we were working hard to achieve. This was our goal. It gave me the faith to continue (thank you Paul). Now Citadelle is doing very well and people don’t think twice when they order it and enjoy it.

For PIERRE FERRAND 1840 Original Formula, it’s a bit of the same story. FERRAND is a name that has been around in Cognac since at least the early 1700’s. It is Cognac Classic and Authentic as much as you can think. So we are interested in History. I think that we learn a lot from history. This is also true with production techniques and ways of drinking from the past. History is not only what was going on in the 1970’s it’s also (what was going on in) the past centuries. Cognac is a product with 450 full years of history.

If you only work from human memory, that takes you back to the second part of the 20th century. I don’t know if you noticed; but people think that “Classic” is what was happening when they were in their early twenties. My mother has basically the same hair cut that she had when she was in her twenties. She is 77, she thinks it’s “classic”. Well, I love her anyways, but the haircut…..

It’s the same with Cognac drinking. When you research in history, you see that Cognac was drank in different ways in the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, if you go to some old bars in France you still see these pretty blue glass bottles with a handle. This was for seltzer water used with Cognac. It was the real classic of the mid 19 century. Cognac and seltzer water was huge at the time until the phylloxera went through the Cognac Vineyards and destroyed the vines.

 You have to remember that Cognac disappeared in the 1870’s until the very end of the 19th century because of the phylloxera. So when a product is not available, humans replace it with another. Whisky took over in the UK, Whiskey in USA, Absinthe in France. When Cognac was available again (beginning of the 20thcentury), the only place that was not really occupied was the after dinner drink category of drinking which also works great for cognac and is also a classic of course. So it (Cognac) got into this niche and stayed there.

Cognac Ferrand (In the Cellar)

A few years ago, when at the wedding celebration of Guillaume Lamy [VP Cognac Ferrand North America], in the Loire Valley, an older elegant man, a retired French Army general now a Senator came to me telling me, “Hello sir, I understand you are a Cognac producer. Well, I have a confession to make about a GREAT sin…I drink Cognac the way my Grand Father used to drink it, with fresh seltzer water. A 5 to 8 years Cognac I use. It’s absolutely delicious…”. I explained to him that this was a classic way of enjoying a younger Cognac in the 19th century, and that it was not a surprise that he got this from his grandfather. He understood.

The same thing happened in the USA. Thanks to the now famed cocktail historian, David Wondrich, we now know that American has been at the heart of Cocktail culture since the late 18th century. The US should be very proud about that. The rest of the world is learning eagerly and fast about this slice of gastronomy. We now know that the classic Mint Julep of the time was invented with Cognac. Same with the cocktail called the Sazerac invented in the mid 19th Century with a Cognac brand of the time called Sazerac-Desforges. This was forgotten for a long time.

Now we are rediscovering all of this thanks to “savants” like David. To me, this Cocktail renaissance is going back to the roots of liquid gastronomy. A great cocktail prepared by a great bartender is like a great dish prepared by a great chef. It’s a moment of pleasure. It makes time stop for a while. And you can’t make a great cocktail with bad ingredients. It’s like making a  beautiful Duck à l’Orange with a bad quality duck. Impossible. It’s got to be a good bird.

Cognac is one of the very best spirits in the world. It’s got everything. Taste intensity, finesse, complexity, great finish, incredible aromas…

The great bartenders of the past knew it. They used it beautifully to make wonderful tasting drinks for the pleasure of their patrons. This is what we are about at Cognac Ferrand. Make a very special Cognac for the enjoyment of life. This means a Selection des Anges PIERRE FERRAND in a tulip shape snifter that you spend the evening (and why not the night) is a memorable moment. And also a great classic cocktail prepared by Joaquin Simo [formerly with Death & Co in NYC, and now opening his own place in New York – Pouring Ribbons] or John Gertsen [from Drink in Boston] is a special moment as well. They both saw Cognac as a great spirit for cocktail. It is for great bartenders like them that we made the 1840 Original Formula. It’s a Cognac distilled, aged and blended using the same techniques of 3 stars Cognacs from the mid 1800s.

I collected old bottles of Cognac that were bottled at a younger age. Cognac does not age in a bottle so we actually can taste what it was like when it was bottled. I designed our Pierre Ferrand 1840 with these Cognacs in mind and based on a rare bottle of Cognac from 1840 [hence the name] that was not aged long, and was higher in proof. Our Pierre Ferrand 1840 is concentrated and higher in proof (90 proof) so it’s perfect for cocktails – classic cocktails like a Brandy Crusta or a julep or punch or contemporary cocktails created by today’s great bartenders.

4)   A recent product launch, Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao, is a traditional French Orange Curacao which is based on a 19th century recipe. What was the appeal of reaching so far back into time to create a new Orange Curacao? What will this product bring to the cocktail world that is new and exciting?

Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curacao

Well you know me…

I love history and I also love creativity. I am always doing some research with spirits. Tasting old and new techniques. At Cognac Ferrand we spend endless evenings testing and trying young and historic recipes. Orange Curacao is one of the most traditional cordials in history. It was everywhere in the 19th century. On every back bar in everybody’s cupboard. Then it went wild in the 1970s – it became blue, orange and green. Spirit historian David Wondrich saw the work I had done with orange distillates and laid the challenge to me. Go back to the roots of French Orange Curacao.

I had done so much work with Orange distillation that it was a real pleasure to do this. I have studied more than 50 recipes of Curacao from the past. Our goal was to go back to the authentic roots of the product. Frankly, I thought that it was a small niche product for the “geeks having fun” like us at Cognac Ferrand. So I created Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. 

I was – happily! – surprised to see that we had barely launched it and it started a real buzz. I really saw the buzz when I was at the Savoy in London with bartender Erik Lorincz who showed me the original edition of the Savoy Cocktail book (from the 1930s). Basically one in every three or four cocktails called for Orange Curacao. The real thing. Well here it is now; Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao. Ellise Pierce the “cow girl chef” who published a great book about Texas cooking wrote an article with a chocolate cake using the Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao and makes an incredible margarita with it. I must confess. I love a simple great margarita with it.

I am so glad people are enjoying it as much. I receive incredible letters of appreciation about it. It really makes me feel good. At the end of the day, this is why we work so hard.

5)  Citadelle Gin is based upon a 200-year-old recipe from the first genever producing company in France. The Citadelle Reserve Gin was additionally aged for several months in oak casks prior to bottling. When I tasted the Citadelle Reserve, I was blown away by the subtle complexities which were apparent due to this small amount of oak aging. Are there plans to produce another aged gin, or perhaps even an aged Citadelle Vodka? Are spirits such as the Citadelle Reserve Gin truly new, or do this style of gin harken back to another era?

Citadelle Reserve Gin

Yes, Citadelle Gin is the fruit of a lot of research. We have 12 beautiful small copper pot stills working on an open flame. We use them for Cognac distillation from October till March. Cognac distillation is only legal till the end of March so the wine that is distilled is very fresh. So we use the other months to make great gin. In fact, it’s the only gin that I know off that is distilled on an open flame, like it was in the old days, in a Cognac pot still. It’s works so much better than steam distillation that is now the norm. It’s like cooking a great steak in a pan (if you use open flame distillation) or by boiling (if you use steam distillation). Which one would you rather eat?

About Citadelle Reserve: In the old days (pre 1900) spirits were always stored in wood. So naturally it always took up some age. This is something that struck me when reading an old manuscript from 1775 from the archives of Dunkerk in France that said that genièvre (Ancestor of Gin) was stored in Ankers (small casks). But of course! So the next day I was aging gin! When done the right way, it works wonders. We do a limited vintage release every year of CITADELLE RESERVE. The first time we did this I thought we were going to have to drink it all ourselves.

Well we sold it out in one week! It’s good to see that there are other fanatics like us out there!

6)   The Plantation Rum line-up features some very unique and interesting styles of rum from various parts of the Caribbean. Rum, it seems to me, is very far removed from Cognac, (at least with respect to the public’s perception of the two spirits). This leads me to ask, Why?  What was the inspiration that led to Plantation Rum. How does a Cognac man, also become a rum guru?

It’s actually simple. Twenty years ago or so I decided to sell our older (empty) cognac casks to the Caribbean to make a bit of money. I got to meet some VERY good rums distillers. Rum is one of the oldest spirits in the world. Like Cognac, it’s got a lot of heritage. On the other end, Rum aging in the Caribbean is a rather recent thing if you consider the amount of rum that was aged there in the 19th century for instance. You don’t make a barrel out (of a) coconut tree. On the other end, in Cognac we have a long history and know how about barrel aging. We are no geniuses; but we have been at it for so long so, we got to know certain things that are passed from one cellar master generation to the next.

So I saw it, staring at me, making great rum. We cherry pick the best rums from the Caribbean. They are distilled there and aged a few years in a bourbon cask there as well. The angel share is huge in the Caribbean. Then we bring them back to Cognac for a finish in Pierre Ferrand Casks. French oak with sweet elegant tannins. Plus they contained Pierre Ferrand before which does not hurt. This is called double aging. We also use our technique of “Elevage” which is our own proprietary method of aging. We don’t just put the Rum in a cask and wait. We progressively blend it, change a few staves in the cask if necessary, transfer from humid to dry cellar to adjust etc…we use 400 year old aging techniques and we think it works wonders with rum. This is what PLANTATION rums are about. Rum with Terroir!

7) Do you have a personal favourite from the Plantation Rum line-up? And do you have a favourite cocktail that you enjoy with that particular Plantation Rum? Could you share it with us? Any other cocktails featuring the Cognac Ferrand portfolio that you enjoy and would share with us?

I usually like to drink more than one spirit at a time. I guess it’s the way you become as a producer. You always enjoy having a few glasses in front of you. With PLANTATION rum, I like to drink 2 or 3 at the same time in a tulip shape snifter. My nose and lips go from one to the other. It’s a great journey in the Caribbean. For cocktails they are many that I like.

Here are just a few:

Plantation Mai Tai

Plantation Rum Mai Tai
(Source: Julie Reiner, proprietor and beverage director of Lani Kai and Clover Club, NY)

Ingredients:

1 oz Plantation Rum Grande Reserve 5 Year Old (Barbados)
1 oz Plantation Rum Jamaica Vintage 2000
¾ oz fresh lime juice
½ oz Pierre Ferrand Dry Curacao
¼ oz simple syrup
¼ oz orgeat syrup

Construction:

Add all ingredients into a shaker with ice
Shake and strain into a double old-fashioned glass filled with crushed ice
Garnish with mint, lime wheel and an orchid (if you have one)

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And a recipe with PIERRE FERRAND 1840 Original Formula Cognac:

Pierre Ferrand 1840 Chanticleer
(Source: New York Sunday Mercury via New Orleans Daily Picayune, 1843; adapted by David Wondrich)

Pierre Ferrand 1840 Chanticleer

Ingredients:

2 oz Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula Cognac
1 barspoon superfine or caster sugar
1 barspoon water
2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters or The Bitter Truth Creole Bitters
1 dash Absinthe
Lemon peel

Construction:

Add sugar and water in a small tumbler
Stir to dissolve sugar
Add 2 dashes Bitters and 1 dash absinthe
Add 2 ounces/60 ml Pierre Ferrand 1840 Original Formula
Fill glass with cracked ice and stir
Twist lemon peel over the top and serve.

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A Barrel of Cognac from 1974

8)If you were in the Canadian Arctic during our long winter, and happened upon just one bottle from Cognac Ferrand’s portfolio lying in the snow. Which bottle would you like it to be and why?

This is the desert island question that is always a torture for me because in essence you are asking me to choose one of my kids. What to say….

First of all I would not choose a bottle but a barrel. After all is said and done I would settle on PIERRE FERRAND SELECTION DES ANGES with a cry of joy when drinking it and such sadness for the other ones I would miss so much.

9)  Is there anything you would like to add, perhaps a tidbit of news letting us know what is next for Cognac Ferrand?

I love history, and I love the creative part of my job. I can’t stop doing this. It’s been 23 years of non stop research for me; I will do it as long as I feel this burning passion. Hopefully for a long time. We have some VERY exciting things we are working on. Stay tuned….

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I would like to thank Alexandre Gabriel for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions, and for sharing his obvious passion with my readers. I wish Cognac Ferrand every success in their continued efforts to create their brand of craft spirits.

4 Responses to “A Man of Passion: Alexandre Gabriel”

  1. Kevin said

    Thank you for the amazing interview, Chip! Mr.
    Gabriel’s passion and modus operendi are refreshing and inspirational. My love for the Plantation rums is further cemented and my desire to get Citadelle and Cognac Ferrand on my shelf has become a necessity.

    BTW is Mr. Gabriel hiring?

  2. I enjoyed that read Chip. He’s such an interesting character and the Plantation rums are amazing. I have the Guatemala 5 year Gran Anejo and XO 20th Anniversary. Really tasty rums. I have a bottle of the single cask Guatemala 74 on order. Only 450 bottles in existence. Keep up the good work. Your blog is a great read. I was inspired to start my own. The address is: http://stevo060377.wordpress.com/ if you get a spare minute.

  3. If I ever get around to sourcing any of the Plantation Rums to review, I may just lift a phrase or two from this interview. Good stuff, Chip, congrats on scoring the interview. Here’s a gent who loves his spirits, that’s for sure.

    • Thanks Lance

      I feel that this is my best Question and Answer to date. Of course it was not so much the questions I asked, but rather Mr. Gabriel’s passionate responses which elevate the interview. It’s no wonder I have not found a Cognac Ferrand spirit which I do not love. I think Alexandre’s care and passion make him incapable of putting forward a mediocre effort.

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