Samui Wining & Dining
IT’S A RUM DO
Exploring Thailand’s only rum distillery: ‘Magic Alambic’ in the deep south of Samui.


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Legendary alcohol – now there’s a thought! Single malt scotch springs to mind. Or the fabled Kentucky bourbons. Of course there are a thousand-and-one wines, but here we’re talking romance and legend, images of remote Scottish glens ringing with the clash of broadswords. Was there ever a treaty signed or a monarch invested, over a glass of Thunderbird? No, it was a premium whisky or a brandy of antiquity.

      So far it’s been all about damp and moody isles or forceful new worlds filled with the pioneering spirit. But let’s go where it’s hotter. If we head towards that vast belt of the tropics then the magic changes shape. From Madagascar to Martinique, the privateers, the corsairs and all the navies of Europe, traded, fought and chased each other across the seas of 18th century folklore. Pirate treasure. Buried gold. More magic, this time both in the telling and in the celebrations, too, as the sole and universal drink of these ages didn’t come from the grain of cooler climes, it came from sugar. Sugar cane to be exact, which grows like weeds throughout the tropics. And that meant rum.

        Thailand is a nation which is rightly proud of its history and culture. It’s one of the three countries in the world which has, remarkably, never been invaded and colonised. As a result, ‘foreign’ influences have had little effect overall. This is one reason that dairy products don’t figure in the nation’s diet. Or why wines are not native to Thailand. And also why traditional liquors are made from fermented rice. And this is also the reason why rum has never become an established beverage. In fact, in the whole of Thailand there is only one accredited rum distillery. And that’s here, on Koh Samui.

          The ‘Magic Alambic Rum Distillery’ was set up in 2003, as a family business, by the husband and wife team of Elisa and Michel Gabriel. Frenchman Michel, by career a master mason, decided to leave Paris after an injury and move to a quieter rural lifestyle in the South of France. And what began as a hobby took root and grew – he began to experiment with turning the local fruit into alcohol. But Elisa’s from Martinique, and The Caribbean has a long tradition of rum-making. So it didn’t take too long before the two of them had perfected the process. And then the question became what, exactly, to do about it. Access to sugarcane was a must, and that meant moving to the tropics. But another problem was that the whole region of the Caribbean was known for, and filled with, rum distilleries. Better by far to head for a place where the competition was minimal and the living was easy . . . hence the move to our little island. And so Michel and Elisa set up the partner company, Magic Alcohol, to take care of the sales and distribution, while ‘Magic Alambic’, the distillery, due to legalities, became managed on their behalf by the capable Khun Meesak Diewwanich.

          The world ‘alembic’ (sic) gives you several hints as to what’s going on behind the scenes. This word has ancient roots, coming from the old Arabic al-anbiq, and being also the apparatus used by alchemists to distil their essences – since which time it became a part of common medieval speech, to mean a ‘still’ or a distillation vat. This is the piece of equipment that’s at the very core of the operation. And this is where a liberal dose of culture and tradition combined with a large measure of technology – it’s extremely easy to make a still. But the French nation has deep connections with the Caribbean region, and the old traditional rum distillation vats were hand-engineered from imported steel, cast iron and copper. Stills of this design aren’t made anymore, but one was especially designed and built in France to the order of Michel and Elisa, and then shipped to Samui. And that, alone, makes it a ‘magic alambic’ in its own right!

          But, then, there’s the rum itself. There are two ways to make rum. One is by using sugar cane and the other by using a product of this – molasses. There are many differences between the two, but the main one is the reason that molasses was ‘invented’ in the first place; sugar cane has a limited growing season. Molasses contains preservatives and can be stored and used when sugar cane is out of season. It’s a difficult process to repeat each time with any consistency, and the quality of the rum made from this is equally variable, leading to the experienced French administration categorising this as ‘industrial rum’. The good stuff, the really magical and top-notch white rum made directly from cane sugar, will bear the proud certification of ‘rhum agricole’, as does every bottle that comes out of the Magic Alambic distillery.

          “There are no preservative or additives of any kind in our rum,” explained Elisa. “We use high-quality sugar cane that’s locally grown – one tonne of cane produces 700 litres of juice when crushed. And, after it has been made, it’s left to mature for one year before it goes on sale. We have several flavours; obviously the first one is the natural white rum. Then we have pineapple, lemon, orange and coconut. And all of the fruits are pure essences with no artificial flavourings added. It has a sweet smell because of the cane sugar but not a sweet or sticky taste. It’s high quality and very smooth, with no ‘throat burn’ at all. And,” Elisa added with a smile, “you won’t get a hangover in the morning.”

          Although you can often find this magical rum behind the bars of many of the better resorts and restaurants across the island, the only place you can be sure of buying a bottle for yourself is from the distillery. And it’s a delightful spot to visit, tucked away in a little peaceful world of its own, down in Ban Thale, in the southern part of Samui. It’s quiet and secluded, with a separate little thatched bar where you can relax and sample shots of all the different flavours – you can even take a break from your resort and stay in one of their lovely bungalows for a day or so (or if you suddenly find that your driving skills have become somewhat impaired from all those samples!).

          During the ‘making’ season, which matches the cane production between January and May, you can book a tour of the production process itself – which is utterly fascinating and has been previously enjoyed by such dignitaries as former Thai Prime Minister, Khun Abhisit Vejjajiva, amongst many others. The rest of the year you’ll have to be content with watching a video of the process. Which you’ll find to be no hardship at all – quite the opposite in fact, particularly if you smooth your passage with one or two samples as you go – it’s a magical experience in every way!

 

 Rob De Wet

 

 


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