A little more than 10 years ago, Elisa and Michel Gabrel arrived on Koh Samui from France searching, like most retirement-age foreign arrivals to this island in the Gulf of Thailand, for a piece of paradise. They found it on Koh Samui’s quiet south side, in a wedge of coconut palm-covered property where they built a modest home and settled in to savor island life. But it didn’t take long for the appeal of idleness to fade.
IN KOH SAMUI
Magic Alambic is open daily for tastings from noon to 6 p.m.
» Shots are 50 baht (about $1.62 U.S.) -- 75 baht (about $2.44 U.S.) for 6-year aged rhum.
» Bottles are available for purchase at 650 baht (about $21.17) -- 1,200 baht (about $39.08) for 6-year aged rhum.
Take a taxi or bring a designated driver.
44/5 Moo 3, Ban Thale, Koh Samui. 66-77/419-023. www.rhumdistillerie.com
“We’d visited Samui many times, and loved it. But if you live here you have to do something,” says Elisa, a tanned 61-year-old whose large, expressive eyes are capped by carefully penciled brows and framed by a mane of reddish flyaway hair. “Especially during three months of monsoon. If you only watch TV, believe me — it’s gonna be a hard life.”
Some retirees to Samui (most residents drop the “Koh,” which means “island”) fight boredom with frequent travel around Asia, or by taking up a sport or a hobby. Others open a bar or a café. But Elisa and Michel saw their salvation in liquor; they decided to make rhum agricole, or West Indies-style rum, distilled from pure sugarcane juice. (Ninety-nine percent of the world’s rum is rhum industriel, which is made from molasses, a by-product of sugar production.)
The Gabrel’s choice to make rhum agricole wasn’t entirely without foundation. They had enjoyed it in France, says Elisa, adding, “Rum is in my blood.” Her mother was Vietnamese and her father hailed from Martinique, where most of the world’s rhum agricole is made. Elise, who was born in Vietnam, moved to France with her parents when she was 4 years old.
Engaging the fruit of the land
The couple knew that Thailand, the world’s No. 1 exporter of sugarcane, could be counted on for a steady supply of raw material. And Samui, which is known to Thais as “Coconut Island,” provided further inspiration: The Gabrels decided to not only make natural rhum agricole but also flavor the liquor with coconut, the island’s biggest export, as well as other easily available island fruit. They named their venture Magic Alambic, (an alambic, or alembic, is a still) and became the first foreigners to distill liquor in Thailand.
Michel, who was a stonemason in Paris, had become interested in distilling during the years that the couple owned an orchard in Argent, France, where they decamped after a back injury forced him to quit his trade. Every year after harvest, Michel and Elisa would take plum, cherry and apricot juices to the local distiller, who would turn them into spirits. So, for their enterprise on Samui, they imported a still from Armagnac.
It took two months of experimentation to get the rhum process right. “We had the information from the factory, but it wasn’t enough. You have to distill with your heart, your feelings and your brain,” Elise told me one steamy afternoon, in thickly French-accented English, as we sat in Magic Alambic’s “tasting room,” a thatch-roofed open-air sala steps from her house. During those two months “Michel distilled, and I tasted.” Though she doesn’t drink often, she says, “I know rum.”
Michel passed away earlier this year at 70 years old, but not before witnessing the success of the unlikely enterprise he began with his wife. In the nine years since Michel and Elisa achieved their first drinkable batch of rhum agricole, Magic Alambic has attracted the attention of big names in the spirits world: Jamieson, Johnnie Walker, Pernod-Ricaux and Bacardi. The companies’ distillers come to Samui to taste Magic Alambic’s rhums and talk technique. Elisa’s happy to share. “There’s no secret,” she says. “We have exactly the same process as single malt whiskey.”
Simple hands-on operation for Thai rum
The Magic Alambic facility consists of little more than a cane presser, the single French still, and a small aging room. From January through June Elisa distills twice a day, starting at 4 a.m. She goes through 10 tons of sugarcane in a single season, capturing just 25 to 28 liters of rum from every 300 liters of cane juice. The juice is distilled after fermentation, and at this stage Magic Alambic’s flavored rums — coconut, orange, pineapple and lime — are infused with fruit. “Only fruit,” Elisa says. “No essence!” This ensures a natural taste.
The liquor is then aged in stainless steel (the company cannot obtain a license from Thailand to age liquor in wood) for at least one year at which point most of it is diluted to 40 proof to conform to Thai regulations. But some rhum is held back for further aging of up to six years. In the end, Magic Alambic produces less than 10,000 bottles annually, and it is sold by mail order or at the Samui facility.
Demand would support increased production, but “we don’t want to work more,” says Elisa, who relies on a team of four for help. “And when you distill, if you think about money first you won’t get the good quality.”
In the tasting room she opens bottle after bottle and waves each under the noses of visitors. The rhum smells exactly like its ingredients, the natural sweetness of sugar cane, the voluptuous milkiness of coconut, orange like the juice you’d drink for breakfast, and an oily essence of lime reminiscent of the scent that lingers in the air after a peel is twisted. (Elisa had already sold out of pineapple rhum when I visited). Swirling her rhum agricole in a glass, she shows its long legs and plump tears, similar to those of a fine wine. Then she pours shots. The liquor is slightly sweet and smooth, and goes down without a trace of burn. Elisa attributes its fine flavor to the cane. “We can take credit for the quality of the rum, but not for the taste,” she says. “That’s from the Thai soil.”
The rhums are especially delicious, and dangerously easy-drinking, mixed with Elisa’s homemade take on T’i punch sirop, which swaps brown cane sugar for the usual white and adds cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and lime juice. I ask for a recipe.
“No,” says Elise. “I don’t keep the rhum process a secret. The T’i punch, I do.”
Photo: T’i punch made with Magic Alambic rhum. Credit: David Hagerman