A reconstructed barge housing 1,500 barrels of fine spirits on the Seine, summoned all the problem-solving skills at Maison Ferrand’s disposal.
BARGE 166, the world’s first floating ageing cellar, masterminded by fine spirits producer Maison Ferrand, opened last month on the banks of the Seine. Home to 1,500 barrels of premium rum, whisky and Cognac, the project was an enormous undertaking, having been two years in the making – and came with more than its share of struggles.
The drinks business caught up with Margaux Lespinasse, private casks manager for the project, to learn more about the unique challenges involved in floating rare, extremely valuable spirits on water.
“As our project is the first of its kind, you can imagine what it was like to ask for an alcohol ageing cellar permit on a boat on the River Seine,” Lespinasse told db. “Researching and learning about the regulations specific to boats and then applying these to regulations related to the storage of alcohol was quite an undertaking.”
Having already witnessed the effects of sea transport on spirits for several years, since all Plantation Rums travel by boat from their countries of origin to France in wood casks, the team at Maison Ferrand were keen to discover if they could simulate the same effects without the travel.
They knew that the rolling motion of the spirit inside the barrel increased its interaction with the wood, and that continuous movement on the water would add a maturation phase all of its own. It would be fair to say that this technique, known as ‘dynamic ageing’, sounds simpler than the process of executing it.
“The floating line of the barge is always moving, plus we had to anticipate the total volume of barrels and their weight to be sure that the barge would not nosedive,” explains Lespinasse. “For all the tradesmen working for us, it has been difficult not having a ‘fixed’ level upon which to build.”
Located in a branch of the River Seine, near the town of Issy-Les-Moulineaux, the stretch of water on which the barge sits does not see much boat traffic – “mostly just fishermen”. The mooring point, not far from Paris, was a strategic choice, says Lespinasse, who along with the town’s mayor thought the barge could become “a showroom and meeting point for our network of friends who may not have time to head south to Cognac.”
All the furniture inside the barge needed to be tailor-made, representing “quite an investment for a small, family-owned business like ours,” says Lespinasse. “Our rack constructor, for example, worked with us for several months to find the perfect shape to hold our small 30L casks and at the same time, be secure enough to reduce the risk of a cask falling.”
Maison Ferrand reinvests everything that it makes back into the company so the team had to find solutions to bring the project to life without spending too much. “The barge itself, we found for a very reasonable price, due to it needing a full renovation. Then, our in-house team of seven tradesmen, who are dedicated to renovating all our estates, alongside many talented artisans, helped to create the barge that we have today,” explains Lespinasse.
From a technical point of view, the cellar continues to be a challenge as the team anticipates the evolution of the alcohol as it responds to the barge’s conditions. “Everything has been analysed and studied with our R&D department to anticipate humidity, temperature, movement, but all will be confirmed after a year of studies,” confirms Lespinasse.
Significant work was completed on the docks ahead of the launch, and there are “wonderful restaurants around us,” which Lespinasse and her co-workers hope will help to summon visitors; that, and the opportunity to create their own personalised barrel.