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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”