Rhum and the Haitian Spirit

By Anonymous on Thursday, February 1, 2007.
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Last Saturday morning, the sun shone through my apartment window and fell upon a bookcase where I keep a bottle of Barbancourt Rhum. The bottle is tagged with classic Hispaniola price tags, florescent orange stickers--prices both in Haitian Dollars and in Dominican Pesos, 60 and 350 respectively. Although empty, it is a cherished keepsake reminiscent of better days spent swilling rhum ak koka at the rattan-adorned Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince.  I drew the sun soaked bottle from its shelf and loosed its cap with a crack; sugar had crystallized around the bottle’s rim. The sweet scent that emanated forthwith was deep, velvety vanilla, with coconut and honeysuckle highlights. Even the dregs (even at nine A.M.) of this full-bodied rum enticed my senses.

I share this with you as I’ve recently come upon a wonderful exposé of the Barbancourt legacy in a 2000 issue of Cigar Aficionado. I have reproduced in part its contents below (without permission) and encourage all to visit the full article here. [link]

Barbancourt "While Barbancourt has as many medals as a Haitian general, perhaps its biggest accolade is that it is--by default, if not "by appointment"--the libation demanded in rituals by the Voodoo spirits, who get famously upset if they don't have their way. (The star on the rum's label is said to be a symbol of a Voodoo god.) Thierry Gardère, the fourth-generation head of the family business, is almost equally as upset at the idea that people would want to drink his rum with mixers. "Some makers don't like people to drink their rum without a mixer­ and I'm not surprised," he sniffs. "[Barbancourt] has a particularity, like a fine Cognac, but you can smell the sugarcane." His disdain for mixing applies to the eight-year-old Five Star as well, although he's prepared to consider the possibility with the four-year-old Three Star."

Haitian Rum Production Swirls Back to Life (5/13/2010)

By Lisa Paravisini
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Last Christmas Eve, after we had enjoyed our traditional Puerto Rican dinner, we opened the bottle of 15-year-old Barbancourt rum that my co-blogger, Ivette Romero, had brought for us. It has now, alas, disappeared from the shelves of our local liquor store. Agence France Press reports on the earthquake's impact on Haiti's rum production.
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It has been a long slow slog since Haiti was jolted to its core by a deadly earthquake four months ago. Now at the fabled Barbancourt rum plant, the sweet waft of production is back in the air. On January 12, in 30 seconds, one of Haiti's best-known companies lost about four million dollars to quake damage. That is a third of the annual turnover for this rum blender founded back in 1862 which sells 90-95 per cent of the classic Caribbean liquor in this country, the poorest in the Americas even before the quake. The same 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed between 250,000 and 300,000 people also flipped and crushed oak barrels that smashed into each other in cellars in the capital.
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Hundreds of liters of rum - many of them aging for 15 years - gushed onto the factory floor, even though amazingly Barbancourt's building and facilities did not sustain massive damage. With much of the capital in ruins and many workers left homeless, production of Haiti's signature rum ground to a complete halt. Glaring examples of the major losses sustained here are the mountains of shattered casks that now await their fate outside the mill that grinds the sugar cane and the stills for the rum-making process. 'Some are irreplaceable,' says Barbancourt chief executive Thierry Gardere.
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Casting a disapproving eye over more barrels that have lost their rings or sustained other damage, he says: 'Those are a mess; they probably will have to be thrown out, or maybe we can try to use some pieces of them to repair other ones.' Indeed, the company has put in a big order for barrels from Limousin in France, a region known for its abundant oak. Aging in these oaken casks is what actually gives rum the golden color for which it is famous.
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In the weeks following the devastating quake, Barbancourt had to start selling off its reserve supplies to feed the local and international markets, until reserves ran out. For weeks, more and more restaurants and bars in Port-au-Prince had to tell patrons: 'Sorry, but we can't serve you our national drink. We're all out.'
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Then a black market quickly started to surge into action. 'Some bottles at retailers were priced at twice the normal price,' says Gardere. So getting production back online looked increasingly urgent.
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Some of the factory's 250 workers briefly lost their jobs after the quake. But now they are scrambling to keep up with a lot of sweet demand. 'There are still some who have not come back to work yet. But three quarters are here working now,' sighed bottling supervisor Henry Jerome Olier. Bottling had resumed in early May and exports were rolling out. The local market should be receiving deliveries by mid-May, according to Gardere. With a huge global Haitian diaspora, Barbancourt does half its business abroad.

Rum locations

We visited your factory in 1974, spent a very pleasant afternoon, and, as you can see, have never forgotten. (We managed to make the rum we carried away last over 10 years)! We would like to purchase more - can you give us the name of any outlets in British Columbia, Canada? Failing that, Washington, or even Oregon or California, in that order?

Many thanks for a special memory.

They'll drink to that: Haitian rum maker endures

4/7/2010
Miami Herald
BY TRENTON DANIEL
tdaniel@MiamiHerald.com
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PORT-AU-PRINCE -- It has survived 19 coups, military rule, hurricanes, and even a three-year embargo. But in the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti's best-known export and one of its oldest businesses, Rhum Barbancourt, suffered a $4 million setback. Amber bottles and white oak vats -- some containing rum as old as 15 years -- crashed to the distillery floor. It could take up to four years for production of one of the world's top rums to return to its pre-quake capacity, though the owner is hoping to resume bottling and shipping by late April or early May -- an emphatic sigh of relief, to be certain, to rum connoisseurs the world over.
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``We are ready to recover,'' said Thierry Gardère, general director and fourth generation in the family to run the business. As distillery workers make repairs to pipes, vats, and the aging room, Barbancourt soldiers on, yielding a cognac-like spirit that fans say maintains its cachet in spite of Haiti's challenges. The rum is savored among niche drinkers in large part because it's made with hand-cut, locally grown sugar cane juice and not molasses.
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``It's pretty spectacular that Barbancourt is still here, is still great, and is still setting a high standard that other companies have to match -- especially at their luxury level,'' said Robert Burr, the Coral Gables publisher of the Gifted Rums Guide. In the earthquake that claimed at least 200,000 lives and left more than a million homeless, not even the seemingly bullet-proof Barbancourt eluded damage. Heavily hit was Barbancourt's aging room where 30 percent of the vats were banged up.
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The company also lost two employees, who died when their homes flattened. More than 25 percent of the employees saw their homes collapse, including Gardère's near the quake-destroyed Hotel Montana. Some homeless employees camped in a nearby soccer field along with 300 others. ``It was an interruption but not a devastating interruption,'' said Jim Nikola, senior vice president for Crillon Importers, a New Jersey company that ships Barbancourt. ``I don't think the consumer in the North American market will even know there was an interruption.''
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The company sells about $12 million a year, Gardère said -- modest compared to Bacardi, which earned $805 million in the 2009 fiscal year. The Haitian rum's biggest overseas market is the United States.
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Despite the relatively small sales, Barbancourt has its circle of devoted fans, some of whom called for Haiti supporters to purchase the rum as a gesture of post-quake solidarity. The brand even has its own Facebook page. ``It's really popular with people who care what their drink tastes like,'' Nikola said. Before the quake suspended exporting, Burr and other Barbancourt aficionados were easy to spot at Miami International and John F. Kennedy airports. The travelers carried suitcase-like boxes that contained several rum bottles. Haiti was marked on the side in bold letters.
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The company was founded in 1862 by Dupré Barbancourt, a Frenchman who moved to Haiti from the cognac-producing region of Charente. That year, the United States recognized Haiti, an international pariah because of the slave revolt that secured independence from France in 1804.
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The sugar cane-carrying woman on the beige label is something of a mystery. One story holds that she is a ``Vodou priestess;'' another is that she's an agricultural deity. But Gardère said she is Barbancourt's first wife, a blond actress from France. Gardère said he doesn't know her name.
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Barbancourt later remarried Nathalie Gardère but the couple didn't have children. After Barbancourt died, Nathalie Gardère took over and a nephew, Paul, after that. Under the Duvalier era in the 1950s, a rival company started marketing flavored rums under the name Jane Barbancourt. The old Barbancourt family won the trademark dispute, though Gardère's father and his attorney were jailed for four hours because they declined to pay the judge a bribe. François ``Papa Doc'' Duvalier released them.
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``It was a political thing more than anything else, against my father,'' Gardère said.During the 1991-94 embargo that sought to pressure military leaders to resign after they ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a 1991 coup, the distillery struggled to stay afloat. ``It was very tough for us to come back,'' Gardère said. ``It took us four years to reach the same level before'' the sanctions.
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Today, the rum is an unequivocal source of Haitian pride -- revered in the country and outside because of its smooth cognac-like flavor. And it is like Haiti itself: a magnet for adversity as much as it is a symbol of survival. ``I enjoy Barbancourt so much because of the feeling I get,'' said Patrick Chery, 29, a computer technician in Port-au-Prince. ``It feels like paradise.''
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Barbancourt has received heaps of praise through the years -- some of its medals displayed on the label. Just in December, a newspaper tasting panel sampled 20 bottles of rum that had been aged for at least seven years. Barbancourt's 15-year-old Estate Réserve came out on top, beating Bacardi. ``Balanced and elegant, with complex, lingering aromas and flavors of flowers, fruit, spices and beeswax,'' the reviewers wrote.
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There are three Rhum Barbancourt dark rums: the three star, aged four years; the five star Reserve Special, aged eight; and Estate Réserve, aged 15 years. The distillery also produces a white rum.
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That the drink is enjoyed by everybody from the French- and English-speaking business leader in the hills above Port-au-Prince to the Vodou priest in the temples in the crowded suburb of Carrefour underscores its ability to transcend class lines in a class-obsessed Haiti. On a recent Monday, Gardère led a brief tour of the distillery 10 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Machines jettisoned steam. Creamy cane juice spewed from a spigot. Fifty-gallon oak barrels -- recycled because they retain rum -- were set aside in need of repairs.
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``We still have a lot of damage in the bottling room, in the aging room,'' said Gardère, dressed in pressed white pants and a light blue Oxford. ``A lot of barrels fell down or were tilted.'' Shipping is expected to resume this month. Travelers can now purchase the rum at the Port-au-Prince airport -- though there's a three-bottle limit -- after an almost three-month hiatus.
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Having worked at Barbancourt for 25 years, the 57-year-old Gardère realizes he must ponder the question of succession. His only daughter, Delphine Nathalie Gardère, an Emory University alumna studying marketing in London, has expressed interest in joining the family business.
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``We never compromised the quality of our rum,'' said Delphine, 36. ``We just try to maintain our standards across time while still adapting to the situation.

Haitian rum maker rebuilds business after quake (3/25/2010)

Reuters
By Pascal Fletcher
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At Haiti's famous Barbancourt rum factory, patches of grass and shrubs around the warehouses are burned black from where the aging golden liquor spilled from oak casks split by the January 12 earthquake.
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Hundreds of liters (gallons) of premier rum, some aged up to 15 years, seeped into the parched soil from the toppled casks, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential export revenue for the Caribbean country's oldest manufacturer evaporated into the humid tropical air. "We never expected an earthquake," said Thierry Gardere, Director General of the Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, which produces what it probably Haiti's best-known export.
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"We'd thought about floods, hurricanes, but nothing of this magnitude," added Gardere, who estimated his total losses from the catastrophic quake, between damaged equipment and lost rum stocks, at $4 million.
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Now Gardere, the fourth generation of Haiti's rum making family, is painstakingly trying to rebuild his export business back to its previous pre-quake level. Barbancourt's rum sales had doubled over the last five years to 3 million liters a year, carving out a niche brand name in the international liquor industry, with sales to the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.
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Gardere expected that with the losses to his aged stocks, sales this year would fall to around 2.5 million liters and it would take four to five years to fully rebuild the reserve. "Unfortunately, we are not able to bottle at the moment, and we have to put our aging rooms back in order," said Gardere, standing among factory workers who were hammering and sawing to repair oak casks felled and splintered by the quake.
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Other workers piped fresh batches of light-gold sugar cane alcohol into intact casks and the company was repairing pipes connecting the aging rooms and the bottling unit. Gardere said that the factory, fed by sugar cane fields where this year's harvest was already underway, was producing rum again, and he hoped that bottling for a fresh round of exports could restart within the month. A few weeks after the quake, which damaged Haiti's main port, the company was able to fulfill some pending orders with already bottled stocks.
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Fortunately, the factory's sugar cane milling equipment and the distillery suffered little damage. But at least two Barbancourt workers were killed and around 100, out of a total workforce of 250, were left homeless by the January 12 quake, which Haiti's government believes may have killed up to 300,000 people in total. The homeless employees were living at a temporary camp set up on the company soccer field. "We're trying to help," said Gardere, adding they were being supplied with water every day, and had been given tents.
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Haiti's already impoverished economy suffered a hammer blow from the earthquake, and a government report says the private sector absorbed 70 percent of the total damage and losses. Estimates for the total national economic loss vary from close to $8 billion to $14 billion. Haiti's government has put its overall recovery and reconstruction needs at $11.5 billion, ahead of a March 31 donors' conference in New York. Gardere said that one unforeseen byproduct of the earthquake was that it gave unprecedented publicity to Haiti and also to Haitian products like Barbancourt rum, which, coupled with the reduced stock, had boosted its market value.
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"It could be good for the image ... like a rare product," Gardere said. But he was wary of complacency, saying that tight supplies after the quake allowed rums from the neighboring Dominican Republic to encroach on the local Haitian market.
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Too long an absence from the international market could threaten the Haitian rum brand's position there. "We'll be giving priority to the export sector because if we're out too long, it could be difficult to get back," Gardere said. Founded by French spirits maker Dupre Barbancourt in 1862, the company makes its rum from sugar cane juice through a similar double-distillation method as used for cognac making. This makes it richer and heavier than many other Caribbean rums, said Gardere. The liquor is aged in special Limousin oak barrels supplied by French company Seguin Moreau.
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Gardere, whose own home was destroyed in the January 12 quake, says he is looking at ways to protect his aging rooms, filled with racks of rum-filled oak casks, from future earthquakes. "I need to look at California and Chile, to see how they are protecting their wines," he said.

In Haiti, a rum everyone can agree on (2/9/2010)

The LA Times
By Scott Kraft
2/9/2010
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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. 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).
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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. "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."
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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.
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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.
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"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.
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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.
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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.
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"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.
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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.
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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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The largest part of the company's sales gains in the last five years have been in Haiti. "People have had a little bit more money, and now they're looking for the brand, looking for quality," Gardere said. "I'm not sure that will remain, though." Henry Kenol's luxury pickup bounced down narrow dirt roads, tunneling through thick, 10-foot-tall fields of sugar cane, on a mission to calm some of the 4,000 independent farmers who grow 80% of the cane that Barbancourt uses.
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Kenol, 43, Barbancourt's supply director, asked farmers to suspend the harvest until the plant could resume distilling operations. To guarantee the highest sugar content, the cane needs to be harvested sometime between eight and 12 months maturity.
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Much of the crop is approaching 10 months maturity, and the farmers are getting antsy. He stopped and rolled down the window to talk to Adilise Selistan, a 76-year-old in a floppy hat, eyes hidden behind sunglasses, who was sitting on an emaciated gray horse. "When can we cut again?" asked Selistan, the patriarch of a family that owns several dozen acres.
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"Real soon," Kenol promised. "We have a lot of work to do, and our engineers are putting the machinery back together. But don't worry. Two weeks or a month at most." Selistan seemed to be appeased, for now. After all, his contract with Barbancourt is lucrative -- it pays $20 a ton for sugar cane, higher than the price growers can get elsewhere. "All my cane is for Barbancourt," he said. "And, no matter what happens, Barbancourt will never be destroyed."
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"Just be patient," Kenol said.
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The secret to Barbancourt's survival in the face of Haiti's tumultuous history, Gardere believes, is its steadfast resistance to change. Back in the 1950s, the family sued a distant relative who had opened a tasting room, offering flavored rums, under the Barbancourt name. The Garderes won the suit.
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"Our goal has always been to keep the traditions going," Gardere said. Another reason is the sense of loyalty Haitians have for their national drink and the special place it holds in important rituals, from weddings and holidays to bringing forth the voodoo spirits that appease the dead and protect the living.
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Each of the spirits has a favorite beverage. For some it's moonshine, for others Champagne. But for several important spirits, it's five-star Barbancourt. Nothing else will do. Empty Barbancourt bottles litter the cemeteries of Port-au-Prince.
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The drinking habits of the dead are something "we have no control over, obviously," Eliacin, the finance director, said, smiling. "But you must understand that Barbancourt doesn't belong to us. It belongs to the Haitian people." Like many of his fellow Haitians, Gardere hopes the country will find a way to look to the future and build a better nation.
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"We hope," he said, "that we can. all start in a new place." As for Rhum Barbancourt's future, Gardere says a succession plan is already in the works. His 26-year-old daughter, Delphine, has been studying marketing in Britain. Keeping Barbancourt around for a fifth generation is not just a matter of family pride -- it's a national obligation.

A Look at Barbancourt Rum - What Makes it Special? (Rum Examiner

August 4, 4:17 PM · Robert A. & Robert V. Burr - Rum Examiner
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Among the finest aged rhums the 15 year old Barbancourt Réserve du Domaine is the signature spirit of a prominent Caribbean family. In 1862, Dupré Barbancourt, a native of Charente in France, developed a recipe for rhum that still bears his name today. Using the French double distillation method usually reserved for the very finest cognacs, he created a unique product that faithfully reflects the terroir of his region.
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Mr. Barbancourt married Nathalie Gardère and the company continues to be run by the Gardère family to this day. Entrepreneur and visionary, Jean Gardère
was the instigator of Rhum Barbancourt's modernization. In 1949, he decided to relocate the distillery to the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac on l'Habitation Mouline, near Damien, where it is located to this day.
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In addition to the legendary Réserve du Domain 15 year old rhum at 86 proof, the company also produces Estate Réserve 15 year old for the U.S. market,
Special Réserve (five star) eight year old, Rhum Barbancourt (three star) four year old, plus a white rhum. Rhum Barbancourt Reserve du Domain is considered by some experts to be the gold standard for rich, long-aged, cognac-like rhums. Distilled from cane juice, it is produced only during the cane harvest season, then aged in limousin oak vats.
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This exquisite rhum is at home in a snifter as well as neat or on the rocks, with a rich viscosity and deep amber color. Like its Rhum Agricole cousins from Martinique, this full-bodied and full-flavored rhum contains more cane flavor that many molasses-based spirits. The label contains a small figure of a woman dressed in a light blue dress holding a signum before a blue star, said by some to be a voodoo princess.
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Author: Robert A. & Robert V. Burr is an Examiner from the National Edition.

Barbancourt

I am actually drinking some of the five star right now. You might be able to procure a case in France. Also check out the book "and a bottle of rum" to learn more about Rum's history. It was the national drink of the United States for well over a hundred years before being supplanted by whiskey.

Rhum Barbancourt

Where I come from, I can only dream of getting my hands on some of that Barbancourt! I work for a hotel in Prague (www.castlesteps.com) and it would be great if our bar had that! All of a sudden I'm in island mode.... :)

Barbancourt

The amazing thing is how much cheaper the rum is in Haiti. By the time you find it in the United States, it is over twice as costly. The fifteen year is the smoothest rum I ever had. It is my favorite, although I also enjoy the rums of Venezuela. It is hard to find but there are Haitian companies which make flavored rums as well -coffee, chocolate, coconut, mint, orange, etc.

Barbancourt 8

This rum is quite good, and smooth. It has flavours of caramel and vanilla and the aftertaste has some coffee, creamy toffee and more vanilla. I found this rum to have some bitterness though but should you add a few small drops of water to weaken the bitterness. I should one day buy the 15 year old version, if only it wasn't so expensive.

Rhum Barbancourt

Having developed a taste for Barbancourt while living in Haiti, I have sampled a wide variety of rums on my return...just to see if any could compete. I have gone so far as to try rums that cost twice as much but none could compare to the five star, and certainly not to the fifteen star. Here in Washington DC, we are able to find it several stores. Look around and maybe you will be able to find it as well.

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