Samui Wining & Dining
A Rum Business

Magic Alambic Rum Distillery produces the finest drinks in a simple garden setting.

16It looks intriguing. A flat-bed truck turns into a small private estate. It comes to a halt. The back’s loaded with long green sticks of sugar cane, freshly cut. Workers haul it off before shoving it into a machine that mashes it up. That’s it for the moment. Later, the broken and bruised sticks will be turned into compost.

And if you’d witnessed this strange scene you might just wonder what it all meant. It looks like some kind of rough-and-ready extraction process that’s getting underway. There’s certainly noting that indicates finesse. These workers, you’d think, were going to make something sugary of an agricultural nature, perhaps. Some kind of bulk additive that’ll be sold to a factory somewhere, maybe? But it would be anyone’s guess what’s next in the production process were it not for the small sign just outside the estate, which seems to mostly consist of garden, announcing that this is the Magic Alambic Rum Distillery.

The arrival of the truck is just the beginning of a long process, a very long one, of distilling rum from sugar cane. And if you want to see the final stages, you’ll be a year or more older because that’s when you can come back and taste the finished product.

Rum has always been associated with the Caribbean; a drink that goes hand-in-hand with tropical sunsets, white sand beaches and moody jungles. It has far too much history for its own good. Both piracy and slavery are wrapped up in its heady past and over the centuries thousands have died because of it 

Many people must have sighed with relief when American whiskey started to out-do rum in popularity and became a drink of the masses. But rum was never forgotten and in the last decades has been making quite a comeback. It’s also moved round the world and you’ll even find it now in parts of South-East Asia – and on Samui.

Magic Alambic is the brainchild of Elisa and Michel Gabrel, whose dream it was to open up a small-scale distillery here on the island. Initially, it was more of a hobby that came with a few let’s-wait-and-sees. Those hopes were quickly fulfilled and the fun pastime soon became more of a cottage industry.

Rum is an investment; at least the making of it, that is. Much like banking your money, you have to wait a while before you see the results. Patience is required and so are nerves of steel at times. One thing you know when you set up a high-grade rum distillery is that for the first year you won’t see any profits at all. In fact, you’ll see nothing except the vats in which your future is gradually maturing.

Many people want quick returns. Then they want quick and massive returns. In the meantime, the product suffers. Quality can get iffy whilst quantity soars. At Magic Alambic, they concentrate on producing a small output of the finest rum each year. There’s something old-time about this that's almost unheard of in today’s cut-throat world – a limited production where excellence is assured.

Elisa and Michel imported an original still from Armagnac, in France, and insisted on just pure cane juice for the process. As luck would have it, Thailand happens to produce even better sugar cane than the Caribbean does. Half a ton is used to produce just 25 litres of rum. But it’s exquisitely pure. After distillation it’s left in stainless steel containers for at least a year. And one of the great boons of the distillation process at Magic Alambic is the fact that there are very, very few impurities left in it. And it’s the impurities in alcohol that lead to hangovers. The rum both smells and tastes pure. And it comes in several varieties. It’s usual in most distilleries for colorants and various chemical additives to be used but, at Magic Alambic, they produce different flavoured rums (as well as the clear one) by adding local fruits – coconut, lemon, orange and pineapple. So, whatever your choice, you’ll be happy to learn that whatever’s in the bottle is entirely natural. 

Elisa is half-Martiniquais and grew up around rum. Hardly surprising, then, that she’s so good at making it. The property she lives on seems somehow imbued with the feel of the Caribbean. It’s very laid-back and if you visit the distillery – you can drop-in or just ring beforehand – you’ll be taken to a small thatched sala where you can taste the different rums. Elisa is usually there herself to explain how the rum is produced, and can do so in French, English and Russian. It’s very agreeable to sit here in the cool shade and look out into the gardens. And it’s impossible to imagine that anything at all is produced here. There are no stockpiles of produce, no fork lift trucks, no fleets of delivery vans. Nothing industrial-looking at all. If it weren’t for the sign at the gate of the property, you’d never guess there was a distillery here.

And at this point, I’d better tell you where it is. It’s located in one of the most unspoiled parts of Samui. It’s right down in the south of the island. And to get there, simply turn off the ring-road at Ban Thurian and head down highway 4173. Magic Alambic is situated at the junction with highway 4170 (you’ll find this part Samui quite beguiling and may want to make a half-day or full-day excursion down here).

Last year, Magic Alambic produced an incredible 5,000 litres of rum. Elisa and Michel sell it to visitors and you can also buy through their website at www.rhumdistillerie.com. Their reputation is largely by word-of-mouth and, since Samui attracts people from all over the world, they have people turning up from just about everywhere. Their visitors’ book is filled out in so many different languages that no single person would ever be able to understand all of them.

And you may have already sampled the rum without knowing it. Many of Samui’s hotels, restaurants and bars have realised that a superior beverage is being produced right here on the island. Some are using it blended into their cocktails. Others sell it straight. And many have the bottles, in their attractive presentation packs, on sale in the bar or gift shop. Names such as Taling Ngam Resort, Centara Grand Beach Resort Samui, Napasai Resort and Poppies spring to mind, plus dozens of others.

But Elisa and Michel have steadfastly refused to start producing larger quantities for wholesale export, despite pressure being put on them to do so. They feel the quality would be compromised and are wary of their small business being transformed into a soulless production line. So Magic Alambic will look no different next time you come back to Samui. You might just see that flat-bed truck arriving with its cargo of unpromising sticks. And be intrigued by the everlasting mystery of how they turn it into such wonderful drink? Well, it’s certainly a rum business.

 


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