PHUKET: They started the production just nine months ago but they already have reasons to celebrate – their product achieved international recognition, winning the highest award for a white rum at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in Hong Kong. But what’s even more important, it feels like a part of Phuket’s DNA – natural, local, merging traditions and cultures. The Phuket Gazette’s Maciek Klimowicz talks to the producers of the island’s first locally produced spirit – Chalong Bay rum.
How long was the road from the idea to the first bottle?
Thibault Spithakis: We both come from families that were in the wine and spirit industry and the idea has been with us for a while but it was three years ago when we came to Thailand to do some market research and a feasibility study.
Marine Lucchini: In the beginning, it was a real challenge to find people to build and participate in this adventure, but we found people as crazy as us and here we are.
It does sound crazy… Making rum in Thailand?
ML: We’re a marriage of two traditions – French and Thai. We’re French and France has a long history of rum making, and Thailand is the fourth biggest producer of sugar cane in the world and is the base ingredient in rum. Our idea was to bring the tradition of rum making back to the origins of the produce used to make it. There is also another reason why we came to Thailand to do business.
I’ve been coming here for 12 years with my family for holidays. And I developed a special bond to Thailand during the tsunami. My family and I were in Khao Lak at that time and our hotel got completely destroyed. 75 per cent of the guests died and many people lost everything. Some people would have said: “I’m never coming back here again” but I was so impressed by the way locals reacted to the tragedy, how even people who had suffered so much still helped foreigners, and took care of them.
This was deeply impressive and I thought Thailand was a very special country.
But you surely chose a difficult product?
ML: Making alcohol presents difficulties in every country, as it’s very highly regulated.
Of course it is also very strict in Thailand, both in terms of communication and production, and we did have a lot challenges to take up on the way. But one of the main rules I live by is that to every problem, no matter how difficult it is, there is a solution, you just have to find it.
TS: Obstacles in front of entrepreneurs are present in every country. Thailand has its own complications as well as its own advantages. In fact, Thai people also have issues that are very similar to the ones we encounter.
Tell me more about your product.
ML: There are two kinds of rum in the world – industrial rum which makes up to 90% of the world’s production and natural rum – Chalong Bay is natural. The industrial rum is not made with fresh sugar cane but with the residues of sugar production called molasses. Natural rum is made with fresh sugar cane. Using sugar cane instead of molasses affects the taste in a great way – natural rums have high floral and fruity aromas, whereas industrial rums are much more neutral in flavors, as most sugar cane flavors have been damaged during the production of sugar.
We actually went for sugar cane trips, met many farmers and chose one variety which we considered the best among the 300 varieties available here. Indeed, the variety of sugarcane used will have an impact on the flavor of the rum. Once you try a Mojito with our natural rum, you’ll get addicted to that extra fruity tropical taste. It has more character.
How much rum do you make?
ML: We adjust to the demand. We started last October and adapted to the market. Currently we make around 30,000 bottles per year, and we have a lot of room for growth. But first we need to create it, we need to educate our customers.
ML: Most people here don’t believe that high quality alcohol can be made in Thailand and they prefer imported products and famous brands. Yet we have an award winning, high quality product made locally. And it attracts certain people, the early adopters who realize the quality and uniqueness. But we have to educate others about our product, how different it is from the Lao Khao which is the name given to all locally made white spirits.
TS: The culture of spirits and rum is not as wide spread and old here as in Europe for example. Little by little, by sharing our rum tradition and heritage, we bring and contribute to the development of a complementary spirit culture. There is a part of Thai society that moves towards more Western style of consumption and is also interested in the cultural aspect of it. When we look at this trend on the market we see a strong interest in local, and boutique products.
How do you educate people?
TS: We have different types of events. We partner with bars, hotels and restaurants where we promote the product and educate clients about it. We try to retain very close proximity with the consumers.
ML: We recently opened the distillery for visitors. Our clients and anyone interested can come here and learn about the product. It’s a unique opportunity for many people from the industry to see a distillery.
We organize food and beverage training, private events, cocktail workshops and so on. The distillery is also open for visits Monday to Saturday, from 4pm to 6pm.
Who is your target group and where can we buy your product?
ML: Our rum is a nice souvenir for tourists – it’s local, it’s high quality and it’s truly a mix of two heritages, the tradition of Thai sugarcane of Thailand, and the distillation heritage of France at the same time.
But our market is first of all Thailand, both Thais and foreigners. We’re happy to offer something that is a little different, yet goes well with the tropical spirit of the place. Chalong Bay Rum is available at the distillery and in a few outlets around the island, mostly wine shops. In most 5 star resorts and hotels, you can enjoy Chalong Bay cocktails.
What are your prospects for the future?
ML: The idea we have is to stay traditional. We merge traditions, history and heritage. We fill in the bottles by hands, we cap them by hands, seal them by hands and personally stick the labels on the bottles.
TS: We want to establish Chalong Bay as one of the main brands of natural rum. On a short run it’s not our goal to end up in supermarkets but in the long run we’ll have to be available wherever other products from the same category are available. It is a long term project and long term strategy of product introduction into the market. We just started nine months ago and we’re looking at a 5 to 10 year perspective. But it’s looking good.. We talk to people who are tasting our product and the feedback is very positive.
Sounds like a lot of work, how do you divide it?
TS: I take care of the engineering side of things. I grew up in a wine estate with pipes and tanks around me. It’s all liquid management and I know how to do it. But I’m also responsible for distribution, sales, promotion, and marketing. I’m involved in the production too, as it takes a lot of time so we have to divide the responsibilities.
ML: I’m passionate about biochemistry and spend my time here in the distillery, taking care of production, sourcing, legal aspects, among other things. But we both work on marketing together. We founded Chalong Bay together and we dedicate all of our souls, bodies, love and attention to this idea. It is the passion and faith in the project that keeps us going.
Keep checking the Gazette’s
— Maciek Klimowicz
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