Haiti’s rum production swirls back to life

Last Christmas Eve, after we had enjoyed our traditional Puerto Rican dinner, we opened the bottle of 15-year-old Barbancourt rum that my co-blogger, Ivette Romero, had brought for us. It has now, alas, disappeared from the shelves of our local liquor store. Agence France Press reports on the earthquake’s impact on Haiti’s rum production.

It has been a long slow slog since Haiti was jolted to its core by a deadly earthquake four months ago. Now at the fabled Barbancourt rum plant, the sweet waft of production is back in the air. On  January 12, in 30 seconds, one of Haiti’s best-known companies lost about four million dollars to quake damage. That is a third of the annual turnover for this rum blender founded back in 1862 which sells 90-95 per cent of the classic Caribbean liquor in this country, the poorest in the Americas even before the quake. The same 7.0-magnitude earthquake that killed between 250,000 and 300,000 people also flipped and crushed oak barrels that smashed into each other in cellars in the capital.

Hundreds of liters of rum – many of them aging for 15 years – gushed onto the factory floor, even though amazingly Barbancourt’s building and facilities did not sustain massive damage. With much of the capital in ruins and many workers left homeless, production of Haiti’s signature rum ground to a complete halt. Glaring examples of the major losses sustained here are the mountains of shattered casks that now await their fate outside the mill that grinds the sugar cane and the stills for the rum-making process. ‘Some are irreplaceable,’ says Barbancourt chief executive Thierry Gardere.

Casting a disapproving eye over more barrels that have lost their rings or sustained other damage, he says: ‘Those are a mess; they probably will have to be thrown out, or maybe we can try to use some pieces of them to repair other ones.’ Indeed, the company has put in a big order for barrels from Limousin in France, a region known for its abundant oak. Aging in these oaken casks is what actually gives rum the golden color for which it is famous.

In the weeks following the devastating quake, Barbancourt had to start selling off its reserve supplies to feed the local and international markets, until reserves ran out. For weeks, more and more restaurants and bars in Port-au-Prince had to tell patrons: ‘Sorry, but we can’t serve you our national drink. We’re all out.’

Then a black market quickly started to surge into action. ‘Some bottles at retailers were priced at twice the normal price,’ says Gardere. So getting production back online looked increasingly urgent.

Some of the factory’s 250 workers briefly lost their jobs after the quake. But now they are scrambling to keep up with a lot of sweet demand. ‘There are still some who have not come back to work yet. But three quarters are here working now,’ sighed bottling supervisor Henry Jerome Olier.

Bottling had resumed in early May and exports were rolling out. The local market should be receiving deliveries by mid-May, according to Gardere.

With a huge global Haitian diaspora, Barbancourt does half its business abroad.

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