The famous Haitian brand celebrates its 160th anniversary this year. And yet, it has all the makings of a young first. Since the arrival of Delphine Gardère at its head (following the death of her father Thierry) in 2017, the iconic Haitian rum has embarked on an all-out modernization: expansion of the cellars, creation of a research and development team experimentation with new barrels, international redeployment, revamped packaging and brand identity… and it’s far from over. So we decided to make a phone call to Port-au-Prince to find out more.
Barbancourt in history
Since its creation in 1862, Rhums Barbancourt has been known for its uniqueness. Originally from Charente, the founder Dupré Barbancourt explored the processes of double distillation inherited from cognac to create a unique rum in the image of Haiti. In order to guarantee an irreproachable and constant quality, the rums were from the beginning elaborated from pure sugar cane juice, and aged in oak barrels from Limousin. This is still the case today, even if, as we will see, experiments with other types of barrels have recently been conducted. When Dupré Barbancourt died, his wife Nathalie, and then his nephew Paul Gardère managed the distillery.
When Paul died in 1946, his son Jean took over. Under his direction, the distillery, then located at Chemin des Dalles, in Port-au-Prince, was transferred to the middle of the cane fields of Domaine Barbancourt in the Cul-de-Sac plain. The work lasted 3 years, during which time the decision was made to use the cane juice from the estate to produce the rums. From 1952, Barbancourt leaves the world of the craft industry to become a modernized industrial company. The quality of its rums is at the rendezvous and is now recognized internationally. In 1990, Thierry Gardère succeeded his father, then in 2017, upon his death, his daughter Delphine (the current director of Barbancourt) took over the reins.
Regularly rewarded in international competitions (gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition and the Beverage Tasting Institute.), the Barbancourt range available in France includes the blalnc Haitian Proof 55 rum, the 3 star 4 year old and the 5 star “Special Reserve” 8 year old, and the “Estate Reserve” 15 year old, available in limited quantities.
Haiti and the Barbancourt exception
To fully understand how exceptional Barbancourt is in the Haitian landscape, we need to take a brief look at the history of this Caribbean country.
It was in 1492 that Christopher Columbus landed on an island that he named Hispaniola. He thought he had discovered a new route to the Indies, but in fact he discovered the Caribbean. Native people (Arawak, Kalinago and Taino) populated the island.
They were exterminated while the Spaniards exploited this new territory, in particular for its gold. They abandoned the western part of the island (for the eastern part that would become the Dominican Republic), which was then taken over by pirates (Turtle Island), buccaneers, and then more officially by the French in the 1660’s.
The spiral of debt
From 1825 onwards, under Charles X, France imposed draconian sanctions on its former colony, in particular the obligation to pay huge sums of money in ‘reparation’ for its independence. Worse, it forced Haiti to borrow from French banks the money it did not have. This debt, impossible to repay, plunged the new republic into endemic financial difficulties and chronic political instability. To learn more, we advise you to read the New York Times investigation
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Americans gradually took control of the national bank. They took advantage of their financial ascendancy to take over the state’s revenues and occupied the island from 1915 to 1934. At the end of the occupation, the Duvallier dynasty took power and established a dictatorship. At the fall of the Duvallier dynasty in 1986, Haiti was once again forced to pay an astronomical debt contracted by its former leaders.
Since then, governments have come and gone, presidents have come and gone (Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in 2021), the state has lost its consistency, and armed gangs have gained ground. Haiti is now one of the least secure and poorest countries in the world. To make matters worse, the country is regularly hit by numerous disasters of biblical proportions, such as earthquakes and hurricanes.
A ray of sunshine called rum
Rum is one of the structuring elements of Haiti, which still produces (with endemic varieties and without synthetic pesticides), a lot of sugar cane. Considering the history of the country, the longevity of Barbancourt (160 years) and its stability (the same family has been at the head of the company since the beginning), is in a way miraculous. Moreover, thanks to the brand managed by the Gardère family, the country is also recognized internationally for an exceptional product: Barbancourt rum. And recently, for its clairin, which has been brought to the forefront by Luca Gargano (Velier) and La Maison du Whisky.
Participating in this interview:
For Barbancourt: Delphine Gardère (DG) the CEO, Francesca Eugene (FE) in charge of international development, Vladimir de Delva (VdD) the production manager and Nicolas Cauchois (NC) the founder of Distill Spirit, Barbancourt’s new distributor in France.
For Rumporter: Alexandre Vingtier (AV), editor in chief and Fabien Humbert, deputy editor in chief (FH).
FH: People sometimes confuse clairin with Haitian rum. How do you differentiate them?
DG: It’s totally different, clairin is more of a moonshine, a raw product made in the provinces by farmers who have guildives. Here, clairin is drunk by the glass in the street, there is no real regulatory framework for its production. Barbancourt rum is a very organized distillery with teams with well-defined roles: agriculture, distillation, aging, laboratory, marketing…
NC: There are some common points, for example, they are both pure cane juice spirits. However, most of the clairins are white, not aged, whereas most of the volumes produced by Barbancourt are aged rum.
VdD: Indeed, the base is the same, the cane juice. What really differentiates clairins from Barbancourt rum is the yeast used in the fermentation process. 90% of clairins are made with indigenous, self-produced yeasts, whereas we raise our own yeasts to control the final result and make it reproducible. This also gives a recognizable taste style to our rums. There is a great diversity in the clairins, there are exceptionally good things, and disasters too. After, the methods of distillation are also different. In the clairins we find a mixture of columns and pot still. In our country, as in Martinique and Guadeloupe, we use columns, but can go up to 94% alcohol. This gives very light rums but which keep the DNA of Barbancourt rums.
DG: Historically, we used pot stills and columns at Barbancourt, then only columns. Today we are thinking of reintroducing stills.
FH: What is the aromatic profile of Barbancourt rums?
VdD: When you taste it, you can smell the earth, the cane, vanilla, it’s light, fruity…
AV : Indeed, there is this vegetal side but less drying than the agricultural rums. There is a roundness, a cocoa dimension, a very greedy pastry, but also ginger. It’s a bit like Damoiseau in Guadeloupe, which also produces rum with a high alcohol content.
DG: I would add that aged rums have a pronounced spicy side.
FH: How are Barbancourt rums produced?
DG: It all starts in the field, with the sugar cane. We grow about 20% of the cane we need, the rest being bought from planters. Most of them grow ‘Madame Mevs’, a hybrid cane from Haiti that was originally made for the sugar industry. We do not have organic certification, but here the growers do not use synthetic pesticides because they are very expensive. Our agriculture team supervises the planters so that the cutting, which is done by hand, is done according to our specifications. We also have a social role with them. For example, we help them with the ploughing of the plots, with the cane cuttings and we make prepayments because the wait for the cane to be ready is sometimes long. When the cane arrives at the distillery, it is weighed, everything is crushed on the spot, and then put to ferment with our own yeast for 2 days. Then everything is distilled in columns.
FH: What about the aging process?
VdD: We use an aging system where we do not mix rums of different ages. It is the barrels that evolve from the newest to the most used. We start by putting the rums (of the same age) in new barrels, then in slightly used barrels, and so on until we reach the red barrels at the end of the aging process. So when it says 4 years on the bottle (our 3 stars), there is only 4 years old rum.
DG: The aging is done in French oak barrels from Limousin, but we are currently experimenting with new types of barrels, especially Armagnac. We have hired a former Janneau Armagnac producer, Philippe Sourbes, to join our research and development team. Note that we do not use any added sugar in our rums.
VdD : We are experimenting a lot at the moment, especially with finishes, in ex-Porto, Sherry PX and Moscatel casks. Not everything is intended to be commercialized, however.
AV: But are these experiments intended to be released to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the brand?
DG: There will be a limited collector’s edition for the end of the year but I can’t say more than that.
VdD : Yes, there is a vintage, which we are watching like a hawk. It is delicious, and Nicolas had the opportunity to taste it during his last visit to Haiti.
NC: Yes, I can confirm that, but I won’t say anything either… except that it is magnificent!
FH: So a new vintage for the 160th anniversary, and what else?
DG: First, I would like to highlight all the work that has been done since 2017. We have stabilized the shareholding, put in place new teams with well-defined roles: purchasing, marketing, especially with Francesca Eugène, a research and development team to test new products… We have built two new wineries, replenished and even exceeded our stocks from before the 2010 earthquake… And we are entering another phase, with new packaging, cork stoppers, and a revisited brand identity… At the product level too there are some changes. Our white becomes an overproof with a 55% alcohol content. While the 4 year old 3 star will be 43% like the rest of our aged rums.FE: We are also entering a phase of redeployment in Europe and elsewhere, after a period of absence, in countries such as Italy, Benelux, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, not to mention Latin America…
AV: In Haiti, on special occasions, people drink Barbancourt, not clairin. What does Barbancourt represent for Haiti in your opinion?
VdB: Rhum Barbancourt is a national heritage of Haiti. In any country where I travel, people know Haitian rum through Barbancourt. It is a national pride.