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Haiti's Iconic Rum Maker Back in Production

Barbabcourt Rum
Barbabcourt Rum

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Jeff Swicord

One of Haiti's most well known exports and a symbol of national pride is back in business.  Barbancourt's rum was first distilled in Port-au-Prince in the 1860s by Dupre Barbancourt, a French cognac maker.  The company maintained production through Haiti's turmoil of the last century-and-a-half, but January's earthquake was devastating. The factory sustained extensive damage.  After several months of repairs, Haiti's prized rum is back in production.  

Thierry Gardere is the fourth generation owner and manager of the Rhum Barbancourt factory in Port-au-Prince.  Barbancourt is considered one of the finest rums in the world.  The company has survived dictators and hurricanes.  But, it was the earthquake last January that brought production to a halt.

The earthquake sent large fermenting vats and 100-gallon casks of rum, some aged 15 years, crashing to the floor.

"The top of them fell down," recalled Gardere.  "That is one that was outside that we are trying to recuperate, to repair also.  And now there are almost four so, things are coming back, slowly but things are coming back."

Rum spilled everywhere.

"The rum is alcohol, it killed the grass," he added.

Gardere estimates losses at close to $4 million, about a third of his yearly sales.  

"We have about 400 small farms; small farms who sell sugar cane," he noted.

Barbancourt rum is made solely from sugarcane, not molasses.  In 1862, Founder Dupre Barbancourt developed a recipe using a distillation process similar to cognac. He then aged his rum in fine oak casks from France.  

Gardere ordered new casks from Europe to replace those damaged by the earthquake.

"We are preparing them and testing them with water.  Then we are going to put them back on the shelf again and fill them with rum," he said.

Barbancourt produces more than 300,000 cases of rum a year.  About 20 percent is exported to the U.S.  

Gardere says it will take at least four years to recoup his losses, but he is quick to point out that Barbancourt lost more than just business in the earthquake.

"We lost two or more employees who died in their houses.  And a lot have lost families, sons, children or parents.  And I must say that 40 percent of our employees lost their house," he said.

The Barbancourt Foundation, which funds non-profit groups, has also suffered.  The foundation has worked in the Croix des Missions neighborhood that surrounds the factory.  

The foundation put in this basketball court and solar array for electricity.  And a well for water.  After the quake, neighbors took over the company soccer field.  Jean-Marc Clairemont oversees the sports facility. He called Gardere.

"The field belonged to the Barbancourt Foundation," said Clairemont.  "And after the quake, I was the one who went to him and told him that people were taking over the field.  He didn't do anything.  He called some friends to ask for help in finding them some tents."

There are now 2,000 people living here.  The foundation pays for 24-hour security.  Mauril Desir, who lost her home, is grateful.

"Mr. Gardere did a lot of good things for us.  He allowed us to stay here and provided security for us so that we can sleep in peace without worry," she said.

Gardere says it may take four years for production to get back to pre-earthquake levels.

"Some of them are very aged rum.  It will take time to be back with them.  Some are 15 years old and three years old," Gardere explained.

Barbancourt is small compared to large rum manufacturers like Bacardi, but the award-winning spirit has an international circle of loyal fans.

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