RIP Thierry Gardère keeper of Barbancourt’s spirit

I will add more to this later, but here is the sad announcement from Miami Herald, and the section from my Rum book on him and Barbancourt.

It was evening that I made my attempt along the traffic-clogged Route Nationale Une. To the usual dust, potholes and chaotic traffic were added another problem. Towards sunset is funeral time. Three separate corteges held up the traffic. One hearse had broken down, and was being pushed. Another was creaking along just behind, while at the economy funeral bringing up the rear the pink painted coffin was being born on the heads of the mourners who did not seem to mind that the shroud was poking out from the ill-secured lid. It did not bode well for the Haitian concept of quality control.

However, down a side road, past the goats grazing at the roadside and the pigs wallowing in the ditch, suddenly I hit the best paved piece of road in Haiti. It is for the heavy trucks that bring in 200 tons of sugar cane a day to the home of Rhum Barbancourt, as well as for the ox carts that bring in some of the small-holders’ crop. The cane has to be milled within twenty four hours and a ton of it gives about 70 bottles of rum – anything up to fifteen years after it is ground.

There, surrounded by the cane fields that supply it, the plant distills, ages and bottles what many people consider the best rum in the world. Barbancourt Estate Réserve, aged in oak for fifteen years to give it what its maker Thierry Gardère calls a “particularity,” that makes it comparable to an old cognac or single malt. Almost as good, and more easily available, is the mere Five Star eight year old.

Among its dedicated consumers are the Voodoo gods of Haiti, whose more upper class priests spray a mouthful into the air, before pouring a libation on the ground. And then the priests drink the stuff themselves – straight of course. Even those who only provide clairin will disguise it in a Barbancourt bottle, often decorated with gaudy beadwork as if to hide from the visiting spirits that the spirit is not the top quality.

Connoisseurs would like to think that anyone who put coke in this rum would suffer the terrible wrath of the whole Voodoo pantheon. The mere three star, aged four years could at a pinch be mixed without sacrilege but not the eight or fifteen year old.

M Gardère sniffed when I made at comparisons with a better known rum “Bacardi is very clever: they do not want you to drink their rums without a mixer to hide the taste.” Barbancourt, a premium rhum agricole, has picked up gold medals galore for its qualities, since the company was outward looking enough to send its products to the fairs and expositions of the world, especially in Paris. It goes without saying that Barbancourt is un rhum agricole.

Gardère also explains that the star on the label was, coincidentally, red, the color associated with the war god, Ogou. M. Gardère is not a devotee of Voodoo, but it is little short of a daily miracle that his factory survives and at all in a country with a two hundred year old history of political upheavals, where the telephones and power lines work only occasionally. Barbancourt can sell everything it produces – if it can actually receive the orders.
When I contacted its American importer before setting off he sighed that the only way they could maintain supplies was by keeping a big inventory. The telephones did not usually work.

Dupré Barbancourt started the company when he opened his distillery in 1862. The former slaves of Haiti had voted with their feet and machetes against attempts to restart the sugar plantations that fed the former French distilleries. The Barbancourts had come from the cognac producing areas of France. They moved to Haiti in the eighteenth century, and local legend has it that it was the quality of the rum the family made that preserved them from the massacres that accompanied the various slave uprising, invasions and civil wars in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

When Dupré Barbancourt died without children his widow, Nathalie Gardère Barbancourt, brought in her nephew, Paul Gardère to help her run the rhummerie. Now, the fourth generation keeper of the flame under the still is Thierry Gardère, the great-great-nephew of the original Barbancourt. The company is officially a partnership with five other family members, but they seem happy to leave him in charge to maintain the ancient traditions. Those are a rhum agricole, treble distilled and aged in white oak vats built with timber and carpenters both imported from the Limousin region of France that supplies the cognac industry. The oak is from standalone trees whose larger pores allow in more air to engender the mysterious alchemy of aging and maturation.
Many rum producers use barrels that have been pre-used for aging Bourbon. The Barbancourt 15 year old spends its last five years in old cognac barrels.

Of course, the families did come from France, so there have been Balzacian family feuds, as when a branch of the Barbancourt family tried to sell rum under their name. Gardère’s father sued, and Thierry chuckles reminiscently when he recounts the tale. When their advocate cited the relevant laws, the Judge declared that the law did not apply, since he declared “this is the Duvalierist revolution.” He asked for a bribe and when it was refused sent Gardère’s father and his lawyer to prison. Even Papa Doc thought this was little too much and ordered their release.

However, as one of the few legitimately profitable businesses in Haiti, the company again attracted the attention of Papa Doc who wanted to nationalize it. It was saved when Duvalier’s advisors suggested how much damage Haitian civil servants could do to a product that depended on rigorous quality control.

In fact, it was around that time that the company became a near monopoly anyway, not as a result of voodoo politics or anything else. “It was ice,” explains Gardère. “When you put water in some spirits, it brings out the fusel oil taste. You don’t smell it at higher proofs, so when they put ice in the other rums, it gave them a bad taste.” he explains.

Before 1949 the company bought the local hooch and then re-refined it to eliminate the more noxious hangover inducing alcohols. Then it began to make its own fresh from the vesous, the fermented sugar cane juice. Indeed the original copper column still is still bubbling away, siphoning off the less drinkable condensate. As a measure of its potency, they donated it to local hospitals for surgical spirit after a recent hurricane.

Now the rum is distilled in three columns, and the final product comes out as a highly volatile 90% alcohol, to which some 50% water is added before aging in oak vats. Gardère says, “We’ve modernized a lot, but we are trying not to do so too quickly. We want to go step by step so we do not lose too much of the original product. We want to go with the evolution of people’s taste.”

Although they add yeast, the slightly thinner than usual local cane has its own natural ferments, and the company is taking steps to buy more land to safeguard its supply, threatened by the spreading slums and sprawl of Port au Prince. However, they cannot totally protect themselves from the infrastructural chaos of the poorest country in the hemisphere. Jean-Mark Ewald, an engineer at the plant, comments sadly about this struggle against disentrepreneurial entropy, “There’s no way we can go ‘Just In Time’ when it comes to equipment and material that we need. We never know how much time it will take.” Recently they received a batch of chemicals for the labs that they had ordered a year before, most of which were stuck in the customs for a year. “Some of them were already out of date.”

Commenting on the difficulty of running a modern business without a telephone, Gardère smiles, “People keep stealing the lines. But thank God you don’t need a telephone for distillation.” However you do need to tie up a lot of capital if you are going to keep spirits aging and unsold. For example, four years of embargo by the United Nations cut off the 40% sales that would normally go to export between 1991 and 1995, but Gardère is philosophical. “We are not so desperate, because it meant that we have more aged rum to sell! So in the end we can have better sales.”

The secret of Barbancourt’s success over more artisan spirits is the dedication to quality control. Just the other side of the wall from the neighborhood’s grazing goats are its labs, with gas and liquid chromatography facilities. They have recently installed a cold filtration plant to anticipate another problem they had discovered. When the rum moves from its tropical home to colder northern markets, the tannins in the rum precipitate out. “No one’s complained about it yet, but we don’t like it,” says Ewald. In a country where even safe drinking water is rare, the plant uses osmosis and ozonization to ensure that they have soft, bacteria free water, both for the fermentation and dilution of the heady firewater that comes off the stills.

Gardère hoped that his 16-year-old daughter would one day become involved in the business but he senses a need for changes. “We want to expand the export market, which is why we need more aged rum and so we need more capital. We have another problem, what I call a positive problem; more people want to buy than we can sell. I’m not sure that the family will put so much in it, so we may have to look for new partners for finance.”

Meanwhile, as Barbancourt markets itself worldwide, taking advantage of globalization, the local clairin has been suffering. Christian preachers may well have inveighed against demon rum, but the local spirits like their local spirits. Voodoo and Santeria, Obeah, all the ancestral African deities acquired a taste for rum on their way across the Atlantic. Rum is a sacramental drink, a libation to the spirits and an inspiration to the worshippers. While Barbancourt is preferred, the cheaper sort of houngans use clairin to summon the Gods of the Voodoo pantheon, and the ordinary sort of Haitians use it for escaping this world in other ways.

In fact, in the archaeology of alcohol, you can probably recreate the taste of the old kill-devil by taking a drink of clairin. You can get some sense of its subtlety from the protests by Haitian peasant farmers a few years ago about the competition from imported medical ethanol, a flask of which they symbolically buried next to the Route Nationale.

Unscrupulous importers had been bringing in to the country to make faux clairin, under the banner of free trade and globalization. Like the native Zombies, one cannot but suspect that its time interred would be short! It is probably significant that one of the traditional uses of clairin is washing down the dead.

There is as yet no export market for it and one could not be sure that the FDA would favor its import into the USA.

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