Impact / Feb. 1, 2004
By Larry Luxner
PORT-AU-PRINCE — Haiti's Rhum Barbancourt says 2003 was a good year, with a 15% jump in sales despite Haiti's worsening economic and political problems.
Thierry Gardere, director-general of Barbancourt, said volume is now over 2 million bottles a year worth a total of $13-14 million. About half that production is exported, mainly to the United States, Canada, Latin America and Western Europe.
"Our agents have done a lot of good work outside Haiti," said Gardere, interviewed at Barbancourt's distillery just outside Port-au-Prince. "Michel Roux [of New Jersey-based Crillon Importers] has worked hard to position Barbancourt better." Other distributors include Montreal-based Société des Alcools du Québec, Alpacific of Quito, Ecuador, and Silbros in Panama.
Barbancourt distills some of the Caribbean's most expensive rums. Its 15-year-old Estate Reserve sells in the States for up to $35 a bottle, while its Réserve Spécial, aged eight years, retails for $13-14. Three years ago, the company also began producing a white rum, Gardere said, "because everybody was asking for a white rum."
At the other end of the price spectrum, the company's cheapest product is three-star Barbancourt, aged four years, which sells for 100 gourdes ($2.50) in the local market.
"Most Haitians don't have money, so only the middle and upper class buy rum from us," he said. "The poor people drink clairin, which is sold in bulk for 100 gourdes a gallon. People come to local distilleries with their own bottles and fill it."
Barbancourt isn't the only exotic product manufactured in Haiti. In the northern port city of Cap-Haitien, oil is extracted from orange peels for use in Grand Marnier and Cointreaux liqueurs. And vetiver, an essential oil in perfumes, also comes from Haiti.
But Barbancourt is one of Haiti's best-known products, accounting for 90% of all rum officially sold in Haiti. Coincidentally, Barbancourt was established in 1862, the same year Don Facundo Bacardi founded his own rum distillery in Santiago de Cuba.
"Dupré Barbancourt was a Frenchman from Cognac. When he started distilling here, he tried to do it the same way cognac was done," said the 50-year-old Gardere, a fourth-generation Barbancourt executive whose father built the current distillery in 1949.
Unlike other rums, Rhum Barbancourt is aged in French white-oak barrels, using a double distillation process known as charentaise.
"We don't use molasses. We distill directly from freshly crushed sugar-cane juice, and have special yeast particular to this area that gives a particular taste to the rum," he said. "We have our own 200-hectare plantation of sugar cane, and 30% of the cane we crush is from our own plantation. Then the cane goes through a mill. From this mill, we extract the juice, and from there it goes to a fermentation tank where it stays about three days. Then the distillation process begins. From there, we age the rum in white oak barrels."
Barbancourt employs 200 people at a distillery near Port-au-Prince International Airport, and cultivates 40% of its own sugar cane; the rest is bought from nearby peasants or large plantations. Because of a recent increase in violence, the complex is now protected around-the-clock by guards armed with machine guns.
Indeed, Barbancourt has survived some tumultuous times. In October 1991, the Organization of American States declared a total economic embargo against the Haitian military government that had overthrown exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That prevented Barbancourt from exporting to its two most important markets — the United States and Canada.
In 1994, during the last four months of the embargo, Europe also joined in, so Barbancourt effectively lost the only remaining export market it had.
Today, Aristide is back in power, but the country remains paralyzed economically by bitter opposition to his rule, despite the fact that he was elected democratically. Violent demonstrations take place nearly every week in Port-au-Prince, and Haiti is still barred from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans it desperately needs to repair its crumbling roads, schools, hospitals and power lines.
Yet in 2004, as Haiti celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence as the world's first black republic, the international spotlight will shine on this Caribbean nation — possibly boosting sales of Barbancourt."
"Stability and security is our first priority, and the infrastructure must be improved," said Gardere. "For one year, we've had no electricity here because people are stealing the lines, so we operate our own generator. It doesn't cost me that much more, but I would prefer to have my mind somewhere else. Our factory is old and too small to produce our own electricity."
About 20% of Barbancourt's local sales, about 20,000 cases worth, is sold in the duty-free market, principally at Port-au-Prince International Airport. This rum is purchased mainly by Haitians about to board direct flights to Miami, Fort Lauderdale or New York, since a bottle of three-star Barbancourt costs $2.50 at the airport and $12-15 in the States.
Another 9,000 cases are sold in other Caribbean duty-free markets such as St. Thomas, St. Maarten, the Bahamas and Panama's Colón Free Zone. "Barbancourt is a very-known brand abroad," he said. "The problem is that it's the only Haitian brand known outside Haiti."
Gardere said that in the United States, Barbancourt's chief competitor is Mount Gay of Barbados, Jamaica's Appleton Estate and Bacardi Gold.
"France protects its own rums from Guadeloupe, Martinique and Reunion, but now that Haiti is part of the Lomé Convention, we're allowed to sell to Europe," he said.
Barbancourt has been available in France for the past three years, though Gardere said "Italy is still the best market for us in Europe. We have a very good reputation there."
Gardere said Barbancourt has been asked to join the Barbados-based West Indies Rum & Spirits Producers Association (WIRSPA), an organization lobbying the European Union hard to make rum an exclusively Caribbean product. All indications are that Barbancourt will join, throwing its weight behind the effort.
"The Lomé Convention will soon disappear, so now rum can be produced in Canada, Germany or anywhere," he said. "In order to have the Caribbean appelation, we'll need to have all the countries of the Caribbean in agreement on this, so it's very important for WIRSPA to have Haiti on their side."