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In Haiti, a rum everyone can agree on

Rhum Barbancourt is a national tradition, surviving the tumult of the last century and a half. Whether it is weddings or holidays, or raising voodoo spirits, no other will do.

February 09, 2010|By Scott Kraft
  • Haitian sugar cane growers have been hit by the Jan. 12 earthquake, as have Barbancourt's own workers. One-fifth of the rum maker's employees were left homeless.
Haitian sugar cane growers have been hit by the Jan. 12 earthquake, as have… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Port-Au-Prince, Haiti — When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt arrived here in 1934 to mark the end of America's occupation of Haiti, he insisted on toasting the hand-over with local Barbancourt rum. Two decades later, the visiting Vice President Nixon personally mixed a Barbancourt rum collins for Haiti's president (who was, ahem, a whiskey drinker).

And every voodoo priest and priestess in Haiti knows that soaking the ground with the golden rum -- not the three-star version, mind you, but the five-star, aged twice as long -- can raise the spirits of the dead.

Haitian rum: A Feb. 9 article in Section A about Barbancourt rum said that white rum is made from the molasses byproduct of sugar production. It should have said that the vast majority of white rums are made that way. —

"It's what they drink," Markendy Jean Batiste, a voodoo priest, said with a shrug as if explaining the obvious. "You've got to keep the spirits happy."

Since Haiti's founding, its important institutions have had foreshortened lives: The presidential palace has been burned down twice and again lies in ruins. Thirty-two rulers have been toppled. One leader was thrown out, returned and was sent packing again. U.S. troops ran the country for nearly two decades, left, came back and left again.

Over the last century and a half, though, against considerable odds, one national institution has survived intact -- Rhum Barbancourt.

The earthquake that struck Haiti last month didn't pass over the venerable distillery, planted amid thick palms and bougainvillea north of Port-au-Prince. Walls collapsed, machinery was damaged, and the plant's 800 French oak vats, each holding 2,000 gallons of rum, swayed and tumbled into one another like dominoes. About a third of the rum splashed onto the ground.

But the maker of Haiti's best-known export, founded by Dupre Barbancourt in 1862 and controlled today by his heirs, is an institution that isn't likely to disappear any time soon.

"There's a lot of work to do, and we lost a lot of rum," said Thierry Gardere, the silver-haired 57-year-old who presides over the company founded by his great-great uncle. "But we should be back in production in three or four months" -- a small interruption, though one Gardere says is unprecedented in Barbancourt's history.

Beyond the distillery itself, the quake took a toll on the staff. Four of the plant's 250 employees died in their homes, and one-fifth of them are homeless. The company opened its soccer field to homeless residents of the neighborhood, and its employees are among the 1,400 now camped there. Gardere's own house, in a ritzy part of the capital's Petionville area, was destroyed. For days, rescue helicopters used his garden to evacuate the injured from the Hotel Montana across the street.

But Barbancourt's survivors were back on the job last week, rebuilding walls and moving rum out of damaged barrels. Gardere was leading a team of insurance adjusters, wearing orange vests and carrying cameras, through the plant. Export orders were being filled from Barbancourt's downtown warehouse, which didn't lose a single bottle.

On the wall of the air-conditioned reception area was a reminder of a glorious past, knocked askew by the quake's force: a framed oval display of medals from 19th century tastings in Paris, London, Rouen and Amsterdam.

"This has been a shock for Mr. Gardere and all of us here," said William Eliacin, the company's financial director.

Dupre Barbancourt, a native of the Cognac region of France, opened the distillery to make rum from the sugar cane introduced to the island by Christopher Columbus.

Unlike white rum, which is made from the molasses byproduct of sugar production, Barbancourt made his rum from the sugar cane juice itself. He used a double distillation process, favored by Cognac makers, and aged the rum in French oak barrels imported from Limousin. Three of those original deep mahogany-stained barrels are still on display in the plant's lobby.

Last year, Barbancourt produced 3 million liters -- nearly 800,000 gallons -- of rum, about half of which was sent abroad. During a trade embargo imposed in 1991 to pressure a junta to relinquish power, exports to the United States dried up. But after the U.S military arrived in 1994 to reinstall President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the embargo was lifted.

Rum exports to the United States quickly recovered and U.S. sales have nearly doubled over the last decade, to 20,000 cases a year, making it the company's largest foreign market.

Barbancourt has annual sales of $12 million, Gardere said. About 60% comes from the three-star rum, which is aged four years and sells locally for about $4.50 per liter bottle. A third comes from the five-star rum, which is aged eight years and costs about $13 locally. A small percentage, less than 2%, is from the $35 reserve rum, aged 15 years.

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