Magnum, Velier's new project combining the art of distillation and photography
The Magnum project, which we first presented in this article, is based on the idea of bringing together great masters of rum with great masters of photography with the aim to harness both talents to create a complete work of art both in terms of product and label.
On September 26 our Magnum project was finally officially presented at the Whisky Live in Paris during an exclusive Masterclass attended by 50 guests – a unique opportunity to taste and learn more about this extraordinary collection
INTRODUCTION: THE GARGANO CLASSIFICATION AND THE RUM REVOLUTION
As recently as ten years ago, the world of rum in the Caribbean was surrounded by a thick fog. The only exception was agricultural rum, which in 1996 obtained AOC status and recognition thanks to Jean-Claude Benoit and Madame Neisson. The rest was chaos, just like there would be in the whisky world if Macallan, Lagavulin, Ballantine's and Private Labels had been lumped together without distinction. "Rum" was used as an umbrella term that covered products such as industrial grain whisky, which no doubt deserves a place on the market but is completely different from pot still rum.
This great confusion, combined with his awareness of the huge variety of rum production methods existing today, led Luca Gargano to come up with the idea of developing a classification method – something simple that would chiefly distinguish between craft rum distilled from double retort pot stills and agricultural rum, which is craft rum distilled from creole column stills.
Originally all distilleries used pot stills, but with the advent of the Coffey still most distilleries in the Antilles replaced their pot stills with Coffey column stills, creole column stills and multi-column stills. However, some remained convinced that a pot still is essential to make good rum and, especially on the islands that were colonized by the British, there are still distilleries that use both column and pot stills.
"The main purpose of my classification method is to distinguish between and clarify these differences," says Luca Gargano. “I started on an impulse for simplicity and honesty. I consider myself more of a merchant than a producer, in fact I am more of a talent scout. Of course we have our own distilleries, I love doing projects for distilleries and the first drop always gives me a huge thrill, but what I really love doing is scouting for talents in distilleries around the world."
"Many distillers need support with more sales- and marketing-related activities, maybe to do things they wouldn't otherwise be bold enough to do, such as bottling at a higher ABV or come out with single cask rums," continues Luca. "In Italy we had Pininfarina and Giugiaro, but just as Pininfarina is not Ferrari, I am not those producers. They're Ferrari. I can select barrels for them, recommend they bottle at a specific ABV, occasionally I may design their packaging, but I’m always careful to show great respect for the distilleries I work with."
Ten years later, we are witnessing a real revolution in the world of rum. That Whisky Auctioneer launched Rum Auctioneer and not, say, Cognac Auctioneer means that rum is finally asserting itself as one of the best spirits in the world.
It wasn't always an easy process. It wasn't easy to bottle rum at 60 ABV or add "tropical ageing" or "sugar free" on labels. Luca has been talking about congeners and esters, and promises to produce a label in the future that says "robot free", as an increasing number of distilleries today use automated processes.
THE PROJECT – MAGNUM PHOTOS
With the goal of making rum increasingly popular and helping it quickly make a name for itself alongside Single Malts, Luca drew inspiration from the natural wine movement – which he also created and aptly named "Agricoltori Artigiani Artisti" (Farmers Artisans Artists) or "Triple A" – and came up with the idea of bringing art and artists together.
Producers are essentially artisans. Sometimes when talking about a producer, for example Neisson, it may sound like they work with thousands of people, but that's not the case. They are all small-scale producers, as well as artists in the truest sense of the word – the Greek word for art is technos. Technos is the know-how of a trade.
Luca Gargano is also a photography enthusiast and has always been a huge fan of Magnum Photos, an agency that really brings together some of the best photographers in the world.
The idea of involving Magnum also made him think of the coincidence in the agency’s name: when a wine or champagne is bottled in magnum, it means it has achieved significant prestige. So why not include selected magnum bottles in a project with Magnum Photos?
This is how the idea came about.
"For 75 years, Magnum Photos photographers have been documenting the world's main events with a powerful narrative that breaks away from conventions, relating major global social, economic, political, and cultural transformations with shots that often become embedded in people's collective memory," explains Magnum Business Development Manager Ludovica Pellegatta. “In addition, ever since the agency was founded in 1947 many of Magnum's photographers have collaborated and continue to collaborate in special creative projects for companies, luxury brands, government institutions and NGOs. Our partnership with Velier, a brand that has earned global acclaim for its craft spirits and commitment to promoting responsible and sustainable drinking, is in line with the agency's founding principles – an essential prerequisite for Magnum when establishing long-term cooperations.
The partnership is also based on a shared belief in protecting the value of authorship and the pursuit of excellence.
Great rum, just like photography, needs time to achieve the highest standards of excellence and the ability to convey the essence of the moment."
Steffen Mayer, author of the book Caroni, involved in tasting
This is not the first project that sees the agency involved in the world of spirits. As Ludovica Pellegatta often points out, "Magnum has long-standing ties to the spirit industry. Elliott Erwitt, Paolo Pellegrin, Martin Parr, Carl de Keyzer, Alex Majoli, Bruce Gilden, Peter Marlow are just some of the many photographers who have worked with industry-leading brands like Dom Perignon, Bacardi, Hennessy, Havana Club, Lafite Rothschild, Pernod Ricard and more in the creation of advertising campaigns and corporate projects.
One of our most important projects is definitely the 2018 Magnum edition of Macallan's "Masters of Photography". At Macallan's invitation, six Magnum photographers spent three years documenting the building of an ambitious new distillery by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners in the beautiful Scottish countryside of Craigellachie, Moray. They captured the evolving landscape, the sustainable techniques applied in the construction, the people behind the ambitious project and its social and economic impact on the local community.
In addition, luxury brands including Ruinart, Laurent-Perrier and Belvedere participated as special partners in Magnum's iconic Fashion Magazine – a one-of-a-kind fashion magazine completely funded by selected fashion and luxury brands, which were invited to commission the photographer in charge of the editorial project to produce a special series or a unique and exclusive ad shot for the magazine."
The first photographer chosen for the Magnum project's first release was Elliott Erwitt, a true master of photographic art.
Born in Paris in 1928 to Russian parents, Erwitt spent his childhood in Milan, then moved to the United States in 1939. His interest in photography developed very early on and continued during his frequent trips to France and Italy. In 1953, Erwitt joined the Magnum agency, holding the office of president for three years and working as a freelancer for some of the most iconic magazines of the golden age of illustrated periodicals like Collier's, Look, LIFE, Holiday and many others. His elegant black and white shots are unmistakable and show a touch of satirical humor combined with a great sense of humanity so dear to Magnum's authentic spirit.
Another leading photographer was chosen for the second release, whose name was first announced during the masterclass at Whisky Live. It's Alex Webb, a member of Magnum Photos since 1979 who has worked with magazines the caliber of Life, The New York Times Magazine, Geo and National Geographic. Complex and rich in color, his photographs capture iconic moments and are often taken at times of social and political tension in many of the places where Webb has traveled – Haiti, Istanbul, the border between Mexico and the United States, Caribbean and Americans cities. Webb has published 17 photo books and his work is exhibited around the world, from the International Center of Photography in New York to the Banesto Foundation in Spain.
It was essential for Luca to establish specific criteria for selecting the rums to be used in the project.
"I looked for the world's top rums based on my personal ranking of distilleries, which I have never disclosed to avoid causing jealousy between my friends... but I will say that I have very few friends outside the top ten!"
The raw ingredients; what is used in the fermentation and distillation process; and how much stock is available – these are the parameters Luca adopted to assess the value of each distillery, without forgetting another all-important element, namely the tasting of the product.
All four rums selected are official bottlings. The dry ingredients were selected together with the distillers and sent to Martinique and Barbados, and the rum was fully aged at the respective distilleries. The pandemic and the shipping crisis have significantly slowed down the project, but the work has never completely stopped and the second release is now in the home stretch.
SAINT JAMES 2006
“This is really a gift from the Cayard family,” says Luca in reference to the first independent bottling by this historic distillery, which dates back to 1765.
Saint James has always been one of Luca's personal top ten distilleries and was selected not just for its long history but for its broad product range. "A 15-year-old rum deserves respect," says Luca, "because it has probably lost 70% of its volume. This is something people should be aware of when drinking rum. That's why I introduced the concept of tropical ageing or, more accurately, distillery ageing."
“We are very proud to be associated with this project and to represent Saint James and Martinique,” said La Martiniquaise International Marketing Director Sylvia Bernard. "The relationship between Luca and Saint James is long-standing and rich in history. He selected this rum among all of our vintages, which he knows very well."
“This rum is Saint James's youngest vintage,” explained Saint James Production Manager Marc Sassier. "It’s very flavorful, rich in grilled and roasted notes, very powerful."
Another legendary distillery founded in 1753, the Hampden release is a 5-year-old rum produced with a unique fermentation process and technique. One of the specificities of rum is that it reaches peak maturity quite soon, after just 4 or 5 years.
“I'm excited to be a part of this project,” says Christelle Harris, Marketing Director, Hampden. "Thanks to Luca, my uncle Andrew Harris and I now understand the significant potential and true quality of our distillery. We're extremely happy about our partnership with him and Thierry Benitah because this project really takes the entire rum category to a new level. It's also an honor for me personally and a lucky break for Jamaican rum as a whole."
"It's traditionally believed we have 5 senses," says Luca, "but we actually have 12 in all, one of which is taste. We have 4 basic tastes, plus the recently added umami. I believe that after umami we should also add a sixth taste, namely Hampden."
MOUNT GAY 2007
There is not exact foundation date for Mount Gay, although it dates back to the eighteenth century. It's a very important distillery that has made the history of rum, with very large stocks and beautiful pot stills as well as column stills. This is why it was involved in the project. As Mount Gay rarely grants use of its name, the fact that the Managing Director approved our request has given even more significance to the project, which can boast three eighteenth-century distilleries.
This rum is aged 14 years, an extremely long time.
Founded in 1996, Foursquare is one of the youngest distilleries in the Caribbean. So why was it included in the project? "Because it's like David against Goliath," says Luca. “Foursquare has won several awards over the last 5 years and is really doing an amazing job. First and foremost a man of science, Richard Seale is an engineer with a big heart and deep respect for both the terroir and his products."
“Luca came to me a few years ago,” recalls Richard Seale, CEO and Master Distiller, Foursquare. "He told me that in his opinion pot still and blended rum was greatly underrated, and although I didn't share his vision, I realized he was right." That was the beginning of a real mission to raise rum to a higher level and introduce the idea of premium pot still rum.
"We've always had people come and buy our unaged rum for their own projects. It's always very much about money and very little about the idea behind what we do. With Luca, it was just the opposite. He insisted that the rum be aged in Barbados, that we bottle it ourselves and sent us the bottles and labels chosen for the project." It was a very different approach than Richard was used to, and it made a big difference.
The rum they presented is one of Foursquare's oldest, which again shows how each producer was keen to provide a great rum for the project. As Richard explained, "It's a blend of rum aged in ex-bourbon barrels for 10 years and then transferred into older barrels, also ex-bourbon, for another 6 years, and rum aged for 3 years in ex-bourbon barrels, then in ex-Sherry refill barrels. We left some rum in the these barrels, so it can continue ageing for a long time."
Four bottles, four very different rums of different ages, all of them top-level and among the best in the world. By the end of the year, four special boxes will be produced containing all four bottles plus an original photo signed by Elliott Erwitt. The boxes will all be auctioned for charity.