#08 ... Aikan, a tropical whisky

[ 08.07.2022 ]

Philippe de Pompignan and Marika de Pompignan. Welcome to our little tête-à-tête, Benoit!

Benoit Albanel. Thank you both!

PDP. So, first question. Could you tell us about what you were doing before you decided to establish your own whisky brand?

BA. Well, before that, I have to say that I’ve always had a passion for gastronomy, for wine. I was born in Paris and then raised in Dijon, Burgundy, for most of my life, and I knew from an early age that I wanted to see the world. I then spent lots of time travelling whenever I had a chance and got to explore the world of gastronomy, especially anything that could be drank, wines of Burgundy, of course, but also Japanese spirits, rums, and so forth. So, at the beginning, it was really all about enjoying life to the fullest, whether that was going to new places or trying new things to eat.

MDP. So, we’re talking to a bona fide epicurean!

BA. I would have liked to have kept going, but I think that at some point you have to know when to stop [laughs]!

Benoit Albanel © La Compagnie du Rhum

PDP. Was there a particular event that spurred you to drop everything and take a leap of faith to launch your whisky idea?

BA. No, it was a slow burner. At the very start, for example, I worked as a chef and bursar at the French embassy in Jordan. This gave me the opportunity to travel, to explore the country, but also allowed me to express myself through food and drink. I then moved into hotels and restaurants – and all the constraints that come with it. I couldn’t see myself continuing along that path; I wanted my day-to-day to be focused on one product – a passion project if you will – and I wanted to learn more about spirits. I took a course on wines and spirits back in Dijon, which sowed the seeds of a project, in particular the notion of ageing. The ageing stage is tremendously important in terms of the structure and the aromas of the liquid. So, if you focus your attention on this aspect, you’re already more than halfway there.

PDP. It’s clear that the backbone of your project is tropical ageing, which is quite revolutionary, since as far as I know there hasn’t been much experience in this area, and not just in whisky. What drew you towards tropical ageing which is essentially the heart of your concept?

BA. Generally speaking, ageing is linked to three factors: temperature, humidity and the type of barrel you use. You soon realise that by regulating these parameters, you can usher the whisky, rum or even cognac towards an aromatic profile that also changes. And so, by toying around with extremes – like the tropical climate, for example – it’s interesting to see what happens. The advantage of tropical ageing for rums already speaks for itself. Some producers have experimented, for example, with splitting a batch of white rum, then ageing one portion in the tropics and another portion in a continental climate. After three years, the rum aged in the Caribbean was way superior in terms of maturity.

For whisky, there was a previous attempt, slightly less intense since it was aged in a subtropical climate where the winters are cooler. There is actually a rather well-known distillery in Taiwan, Kavalan, which has picked up quite a few medals in this subtropical climate (including the prize for the world’s best single malt, aged for a few years) and shows just how important a factor the climate is for enhancing and determining the quality of its whiskies.

The barrels halls at the Kavalan distillery, in Taiwan © Kavalan Whisky

MDP. Was the Kavalan story ultimately a source of inspiration for you to bring your Aikan concept to fruition?

BA. Yes, it did inspire me. I thought, yep, that works. Another inspiration was Amrut, made in India, aged in quite a warm climate, tropical with a gentle altitude (900 m). You could tell that they also swore to the benefits of ageing in this climate. They spoke about the high evaporation rate with particularly thirsty angels, and different characteristics in the barrel hall in terms of the extraction and oxygenation of their whiskies. So, why not do that by taking things to the extreme, in a climate that is entirely tropical, in the Caribbean, where the conditions are exceptional, you have the breeze from the tradewinds, the sea air, searing temperatures and humidity all year round? I thought it would be interesting. There you have the tropical climate that is really important in terms of the technical aspects and the aromatic structure, and it was exciting to explore this hybridity with rum barrels.

Barrel hall at Habitation La Salle, Martinique © Aikan Whisky

PDP. It’s true that in a tropical climate the alcohol ages more quickly and lots of rum distilleries are now putting great store in tropical ageing. In fact, Luca Gargano, at Vélier, insists on this type of ageing for producing spectacular results fast.

BA. Indeed, the evaporation factor is important. Some say that ageing is two, three or even four times faster. It’s hard to really understand what causes the acceleration, all we know is that something different happens. In concrete terms, we lose four to five times more liquid a year. So, rather than oxygenation, we talk about evaporation and consequently aromatic concentration. By rapidly removing, every year, the water and other elements we don’t want to keep in the eau-de-vie, we achieve a superb concentration of flavours.

La Part des Anges © Delaprod for Aikan Whisky

MDP. So, Benoit, in this tropical climate, you decided on the Martinique terroir when you could have chosen Guadeloupe or Marie-Galante, for instance. What made you opt for this terroir specifically? Was it by accident or design?

BA. Actually, this was part of the journey too. My wife is Venezuelan and grew up on the Caribbean coast, a few kilometres from Aruba, which lies just off the Paraguaná Peninsula, for those who really know their geography [laughs]. I really wanted a passion project for my family too, to take them far away, to set my sights far for this project that was driving us, so we settled on the Caribbean. Since Venezuela wasn’t really an option right now, we had to think of other destinations and I felt Martinique was one of the best. It has everything we could want: wind, sea air, extraordinary distilleries for ageing in freshly drained rum barrels, so Martinique was really a no-brainer. Other locations didn’t offer so many elements all in the same place and then, obviously, it’s part of France so practical for us in terms of doing trade, managing the logistics and the like.

PDP. Of course, and then, as you just said, you can also age your whisky in barrels that once contained rum, and not just any old rum: rums highly regarded all over the world, since Martinique is the only country to have its own AOC quality designation for rum. It makes perfect sense.

BA. Absolutely. That’s why it made total sense. The common language, the superior barrels and the very particular aroma of rhum agricole were all appealing factors. That’s what Aikan enthusiasts appreciate: the aromatic structure of fine rum married with the aromas and flavours of whisky. This creates a product that connects these two worlds in the glass and takes the consumer away to faraway climes in one sip.

Harvesting sugarcane, Martinique © Aikan Whisky

Entre Ecosse et Martinique © Delaprod for Aikan Whisky

MDP. You could say that Aikan combines the masculine and the feminine because everyone loves your whiskies – and we know a thing or two about those!

BA. Women have always drank whisky and we noticed that there are fewer barriers today, not so many stereotypes between the genders. We saw that around a table women and men appreciate spirits and, as you say, Aikan is quite a gourmand whisky, which women and men, whisky lovers who like rum and rum lovers who like whisky all seem to enjoy!

MDP. We’ve come full circle!

PDP. You mentioned that your wife is Venezuelan. Did your own relationship influence the name, since “aikan” means “marriage” and the choice of this moniker emphasises the union between two very different cultures?

BA. You’ve hit the nail on the head. I wanted the product to be coherent. I chose “Aikan” for the name because I deliberately wanted a word from the Arawak language, which is spoken in the Caribbean. The Arawak were a group of American Indian people who arrived in dugouts from Venezuela, so here again we’ve come full circle.

Venezuela supplied the first settlers on the islands, so in fact using this name is also to pay homage to these intrepid travellers who were the first people to inhabit the island. Too, it’s a way to celebrate my family’s Caribbean-European heritage and, on a final note, to highlight the philosophy behind the blend, the hybridity creating a marriage between two worlds, two cultures – European and tropical – and two climates – continental (Scotland) and tropical (Martinique).

This is all part and parcel of the Aikan philosophy: innovation, the blend of talents, team work and, above all, the sense of union, when we can reap the rewards.

MDP. The label on your bottles is especially decorative and you can spot lots of surprising details when you look closely. How did the graphic design process come about?

BA. It was my intention to create a beautiful bottle because you taste with your eyes too, so I wanted to take the time to design something appealing but also meaningful. Not to mention thought-provoking, a world that inspires people to travel, through the label, the name, the details. Initially, I thought about the Jouy Print – featuring little scenes of everyday life – which would have depicted the development of Aikan. And then, rightly or wrongly, the idea evolved and we wanted to show these rather more dense illustrations, that form a kind of jungle. It’s when you peer in that you notice the Caribbean and European details intermingled.

Label preliminary sketch no. 1 © Aikan Whisky

Label preliminary sketch no. 2 © Aikan Whisky

Final illustration © Aikan Whisky

Aikan labels © Aikan Whisky

Also, the logo features an Indian teepee contained within a European royal crown! And there are plenty of other elements that consumers can discover by looking closely at my bottles.

Aikan Whisky logo © Aikan Whisky  

MDP. There are indeed plenty of details to spot, not to mention the famous scene of...

PDP. No, we can’t give everything away! You’ll have to buy the bottle to find the messages hidden in the label as well as, looking through, on the back label. Let’s leave the joy of discovering these surprises to the consumers, which will transport them.

MDP. Absolutely!

PDP. Now, let’s talk about your whiskies, Benoit! Can you tell us about your collection today and what products you offer?

So, presently we have four permanent products. Thus far we’ve released one a year. This year is our fourth on the market. We kicked off with Fine Rhum Barrels, which is aged for three years in Scotland and then two in Martinique.

Fine Rhum Barrels © Aikan Whisky

In year two, we released the Extra Collection, aged for three years in Scotland and then two to four years in Martinique.

Extra Collection © Aikan Whisky

BA. In the third year, we added a whisky distilled in France to the line, French Malt Collection, a single malt “made in France” since it is distilled in France and fully aged in Martinique, so in a tropical climate, for at least three years: an outstanding whisky for lovers of luxury whisky.

French Malt Collection © Aikan Whisky

BA. And last year, in time for Christmas, the Intense, an incredibly original whisky. Our first whisky sold in 70 cl bottles as opposed to 50 cl for all the others. It was aged in barrels used to age Grand Arôme de Martinique rum. So it had this hybrid aspect, extremely tropical, distinctive, gourmand, with a strong patisserie aroma, and it’s the most popular product currently. Even though it’s totally original and unexpected, it’s been a huge hit since its launch.

Intense Rhum Barrels © Aikan Whisky

PDP. We know that in the past some old rums were “improved” with Grand Arôme rum. It’s what gave them an intensity, as the name you gave it reminds us. Specific to Martinique and, as its name suggests, particularly aromatic, we can easily guess that the whisky will have imbibed what remained of the Grand Arôme at the bottom of the barrel, lending it an original and typically Martinique signature.

BA. Exactly, we are bringing something different to the table. Grand Arôme is a rum made with molasses and we are the only ones to use these barrels, which is the first sign of distinction. The “Grand Arôme” aspect – which is in the High Esters appellation in Jamaica – brings this very complex, patisserie note. As you were saying, Philippe, these rums are so aromatic that they’ve often been used to enhance other rums, so putting whisky in barrels that held this type of rum allows us to have fun with tropical fruits, rum baba, banana flambé, citrus and other flavours.

PDP. Yes, and it’s proved a resounding success. Here you have an original spirit that expresses the union between continental whisky and ageing techniques from Martinique. Well done on creating this product and the magnificent result!

We also saw, more recently, a “Version Française”, a bottling of different spirits, for which Aikan was selected in the whisky range. Can you tell us a little bit about this?

BA. Of course. This was in partnership with La Maison du Whisky which launched its own range of bottlings of French spirits under the name Version Française. Here they wanted to have several barrels of Aikan to offer exceptional, original products with slightly higher strengths than usual, products for the “enlightened enthusiast” with two single casks: one high strength with the flavours of French oak and the other cask strength, aged in American oak barrels. Totally unique products!

Version Française 2017 © Aikan Whisky

PDP. Benoit, I’d love to hear something about your process. We can see that with everything you have going on – sourcing whiskies in France, in Scotland, transporting them, finding a barrel hall, finding the most suitable barrels – that you didn’t choose the easiest path, quite the opposite in fact. Each step is a real challenge to achieve each new product. Given that you don’t make any compromises – one might even say that you beset your own path with obstacles – can you tell us how you deal with these difficulties? How do you manage to take on all these challenges at the same time?

BA. I think that, as with any entrepreneurial project, if we knew about the mountain ahead of us, we wouldn’t even dare start [laughs]!

In the end you learn by doing. There are challenges that we take on; we do what we can to conquer these huge mountains facing us one by one, and it’s quite a satisfying feeling. Each time you think it’s one obstacle too many, you soon learn that you always have the capacity to find solutions. And you’re encouraged to lean on others, because at the end of the day it’s other people who will help you and guide you towards a solution. Proof again that collaborating and exchanging with others gets things done. In Martinique, I had support. People held my hand, helped me come up with solutions, and I think that’s really how things move forward. In a team, heads together.

PDP. Now you age your rums at Habitation La Salle – a former sugar refinery fallen into ruin that was recently restored (or maybe resuscitated is a better word) – in Sainte-Marie, not from the Saint-James distillery. Can you tell us more about this extraordinary location?

BA. You’re right, it is an extraordinary location, and resuscitated, as you say. The sugar refinery was just standing there, amidst the sugarcane, a few hundred metres from the sea, and Saint-James had the idea of using the site as a new ageing facility. So it’s at this truly wonderful place that they age their old rums. So I feel extremely fortunate to be in this historic setting, which is unbelievably beautiful, perfectly tropical and right next to the sea.

Habitation La Salle, Sainte-Marie, Martinique © Gérard Graduel 

Habitation La Salle, Sainte-Marie, Martinique © Aikan Whisky

PDP. Business seems to be booming, Benoit. Your export sales are growing and you are getting demand from beyond the French borders. Where do you see Aikan in 10 years? What’s your ideal aspiration?

BA. Well, with Aikan, I know I want to continue to lead innovation in the barrel halls, and keep learning more every day about the benefits of tropical ageing by trying out different things. Constantly improving and offering ever more surprising products to consumers takes a lot of work.

And then perhaps the idea of embedding ourselves more in Martinique, becoming a more and more integrated point along the spirits route and a destination between two rum distilleries. As we’re the only whisky makers on the island, this would change things up for visitors who could discover a bottle of whisky in between bottles of rum – which would be a fascinating experience.

And then conquering the export market to try and make Aikan shine as brightly as possible wherever it can! The brand is currently sold at export in several countries and the hope is to continue and strengthen growth in the future by sharing Martinique’s extraordinary heritage to whisky lovers.

MDP. Benoit, I’d like to go back a little bit. We were just now talking about your range, but we didn’t mention a product that was made locally, with the artist Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine, a collaboration that is indicative of the local stamp you also wish to make. Can you tell us more about it?

BA. Sure, I can. The aim was to market the Caribbean brand, if we can say that, and promote this island, its lifestyle, its artists. It was fantastic to involve the talented Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine – an amazing artist from Martinique – with Aikan. We got to discuss what we wanted for this limited edition with its hand-drawn label. Over and above the success of this cuvée, it was a great experience working together, one I hope to repeat soon with other Caribbean artists.

Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine © Üart

Limited edition – Ricardo Ozier-Lafontaine © La Compagnie du Rhum

MDP. One last question. You mentioned a special edition that was selected by the Maison Joël Robuchon and is available to buy on the website. Can you talk to us briefly about this collaboration?

BA. As I was saying before, the people you meet are always stimulating. We were lucky enough to work with Maison Joël Robuchon for their range of products intended for their restaurants in France and on the Japanese market. So we came up with a special edition French single malt with strong characteristics of French barrels which lent a spicy, gourmand note. We produced a very small run and I was able to supply some bottles to the Compagnie du Rhum!

French Malt Collection – Joël Robuchon Sélection © Aikan Whisky - Portrait of Joël Robuchon © Stéphane de Bourgies

MDP. It was a pleasure to talk to you and I know our readers will love reading this interview. We also wanted to say how much Philippe and I admire what you’re doing because, even though you receive help from the people you told us about, it’s an endeavour that you are ultimately leading alone and doing all the thinking for alone. We are so impressed by your boundless energy and the success you’ve achieved in such a short time. Bravo!

BA. Thank you so much, Marika! I’d like to return the compliment. You’ve created a truly exclusive site that is a real destination for rum aficionados. And your entrepreneurial success is certainly one that far outstrips Aikan’s reputation today.

PDP. When we met in Martinique in 2016, I immediately fell in love with your concept, when it was still in the early stages. Back then, it was obviously rum we loved and worked with day in day out. We hadn’t even thought of listing whisky, but when we spoke to you, when the first bottles arrived and we had a chance to taste it, I didn’t need asking twice! Now Aikan is one of our flagship products: the first whisky we wanted to stock. Thank you for your trust and this fantastic collaboration. We know that we are only at the start of your whisky adventure and there’s plenty of great things in store ahead of you!

MDP. Now all that remains is tasting some Aikan whiskies together! The perfect thing to lead us into lunch!

BA. Yes, lots of glasses to taste, lots of things to do. I hope we hold up. And we have a long road to walk together – let’s hope the sun continues to shine on us!

L’abus d’alcool est dangereux pour la santé. À consommer avec modération.