Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Scott Kraft (Los Angeles Times) speaks about Haiti’s leading rum, Rhum Barbancourt, calling it a national tradition that has survived “the tumult of the last century and a half.” Kraft writes:
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). 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.”
The article goes on to describe the considerable odds Rhum Barbancourt has faced—including the destruction caused by the recent earthquake—to remain a national institution. Besides the damage caused to the distillery itself, 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 its employees, who are now among the 1,400 other homeless residents now camped there. However, Kraft points out, Haiti’s best-known export, founded by Dupré Barbancourt in 1862 and controlled today by his heirs, is an institution that isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. Thierry Gardère explains that the company should be back in production in three or four months. Barbancourt’s survivors are hard at work to repair the damages.
Dupré 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 (producing a higher quality rhum agricole). He used a double distillation process, favored by cognac makers, and aged the rum in French oak barrels imported from Limousin.
The article stresses that the secret to Barbancourt’s survival in the face of Haiti’s tumultuous history, is its steadfast resistance to change as Gardère believes that their goal has always been “to keep the traditions going.” Another reason, says Kraft, “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.” To keep the tradition, the company must continue being a family enterprise; Gardère’s 26-year-old daughter will soon take the reins. “Keeping Barbancourt around for a fifth generation is not just a matter of family pride—it’s a national obligation.”
For full article, see http://www.latimes.com/news/nation-and-world/la-fg-haiti-rum9-2010feb09,0,4799177.story
More on Barbancourt at http://bunnyhugs.org/2008/10/16/barbancourt-rum-tasting/
Detail of Felix Jean’s artwork, which adorns the boxes of Barbancourt’s Reserve du Domaine, from http://projects.vassar.edu/haiti/art/jean_f.php