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 early May. 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.
“We are ready to recover,” said Thierry Gardere, 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.
“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, Fla., 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 bulletproof Barbancourt eluded damage. Heavily hit was Barbancourt’s aging room, where 30% of the vats were banged up.
The company also lost two employees, who died when their homes flattened. More than 25% of the employees saw their homes collapse, including Gardere’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 Ltd., 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.”
The company sells about $12 million a year, Gardere said — modest compared with Bacardi, which earned $805 million in fiscal 2009. The Haitian rum’s biggest overseas market is the United States.
Despite the relatively small sales, Barbancourt has its circle of devoted fans, some of whom called for supporters of Haiti to buy the rum as a gesture of post-quake solidarity.
“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.
The company was founded in 1862 by Dupre Barbancourt, who moved to Haiti from France’s cognac-producing region of Charente. That year, the United States officially recognized Haiti, which had been an international pariah because of the slave revolt that secured its independence from France in 1804.
Speculation abounds about the sugar cane-carrying woman on the beige label. One story holds that she is a voodoo priestess; another is that she’s an agricultural deity. But Gardere said she is Barbancourt’s first wife, a blond actress from France. Gardere said he doesn’t know her name.
Barbancourt later remarried Nathalie Gardere, but the couple didn’t have children. After Barbancourt died, Nathalie Gardere took over and a nephew, Paul, after that.
In the 1950s, a rival company started marketing flavored rums under the name Jane Barbancourt. The old Barbancourt family won the trademark dispute, though Gardere’s father and his attorney were jailed for four hours because they declined to pay the judge a bribe. Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier released them.
“It was a political thing more than anything else, against my father,” Gardere 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,” Gardere said. “It took us four years to reach the same level” as before the sanctions.
Today the rum is a source of Haitian pride — revered in the country and outside because of its smooth cognac-like flavor.
On a recent Monday, Gardere 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.
“We still have a lot of damage in the bottling room, in the aging room,” Gardere said. “A lot of barrels fell down or were tilted.”
Having worked at Barbancourt for 25 years, the 57-year-old Gardere realizes he must ponder the question of succession. His only daughter, Delphine Nathalie Gardere, an Emory University alumna studying marketing in London, has expressed interest in joining the family business.
“We never compromised the quality of our rum,” said Delphine, 26. “We just try to maintain our standards across time while still adapting to the situation.”
Daniel writes for the Miami Herald / McClatchy.