Barbancourt in a coconut on the beach, an excellent reason to visit Haiti.
Strangely though, I only tried Barbancourt once before visiting Haiti*. I first tasted Barbancourt while in Cambodia, a trip on which I seem to have tried a lot of interesting products. For a small and poor country Cambodia has a surprisingly good selection of imported booze. This must say something about the type of foreigner Cambodia attracts. In any case, that Cambodian taste of Barbancourt made a big impression. I do not recall which of the Barbancourt products it was (probably the 5 Star), but it tasted unlike any other rum I had tried.
On my trip to Haiti I wanted to see what Barbancourt products were available there, which ones were popular, and how the locals drank their rum. I also wanted to visit the Barbancourt distillery and learn more about how Barbancourt rum is produced. I will write about the Barbancourt distillery later. For now lets just look at the rum.
The popular Barbancourt products in Haiti are Barbancourt 3 and 5 Star. Anything else is hard to find. Few Haitians know that Barbancourt produces a white rum, and those that do know do not much care for it.
Rum in Haiti is popularly drunk either straight, or mixed with energy drinks (Ragman being the popular local brand), or coke. Hotel bars tend to serve only the Barbancourt 5 Star, and can give it to you straight, in a rum sour, or in a rum punch. Every bar uses freshly squeezed juices. The rum sours are generally good, but the rum punches tend to be heavily diluted and sweetened long drinks with little character.
There has to be some Barbancourt in there somewhere! A roadside wine merchant in downtown Port-au-Prince.
The most unique local rum drink I encountered in Haiti did not have a name. It was something the manageress of the guesthouse where I stayed in Port-au-Prince claimed to have invented. She made a paste by very roughly mashing Spanish limes (otherwise known as quenepe, kenep or mamoncillo), sugar, and rum. The paste was then stored in the fridge to allow the flavors to develop. A dollop of this mix would be put in a glass and topped off with rum and ice. It made an interesting fruity drink with a spicy edge. It reminded me of Barbancourt Pango Rhum (reviewed below), but tasted better.
Colorful Haitian art adorns the box of the Reserve du Domaine
I review the full range of Barbancourt rums below:
Barbancourt Blanche (unaged rum at 43% alcohol): Light tasting sugar cane rum with the typical grassy sugar cane flavor. There is an obvious similarity to agricole rhums from Martinique, but the flavors are lighter and less intense. The difference presumably comes from the combination of relatively low proof (43% compared to 50% or more for a typical Martinique agricole) and distillation to a high purity. A nicely balanced rum that is free of off flavors. This is far better than any Haitian Clairin I tried. This rum mixed nicely with both coconut water and coke. Purists would object, but I also found it made a serviceable Ti Punch.
Barbancourt 1 Star (1 year old rum at 38% alcohol): I tasted this one after tasting the Barbancourt 5 star, but before tasting the Barbancourt Blanche (see above). My initial impression was that it tasted like a Martinique agricole rhum, and did not really have the flavors I expected to find in Barbancourt. Instead of having the refined and balanced ‘culinary’ type of taste I got from the more aged offerings, this rum came across as fresh, grassy and exuberant. I never actually saw this product in Haiti, instead tasting it in the Dominican Republic. It is the only Barbancourt rum to be bottled at below 43%.
Barbancourt 3 Star (3-4 year old rum at 43% alcohol): This rum starts to have what I consider the classic Barbancourt flavor – a culinary type of flavor that makes me think of baking tins and lightly burnt butter. The youngest of the well known Barbancourt rums, this is just about smooth enough to sip on. However, it is definitely lighter and rougher than the 8 year old 5 Star. The aftertaste lacks the complexity of the 8 year old, getting stuck on burnt butter. Adding ice destroys the structure and immediately turns it into a mixing rum. This rum almost works as a sipper, makes a great mixer with coke, and would be an exceptional cooking rum. I would love to use this stuff in a Rhum Baba.
Barbancourt 5 Star (8 year old rum at 43% alcohol): Fierce, intense, rich, dry, and very well poised. This rum has the full Barbancourt flavor, a culinary or ‘kitchen’ taste comprising caramelized raisins, butter, and vanilla. I like to call the flavor ‘buttered baking tin’ or ‘raisin studded rhum baba’. This stuff tastes like the browned fragments of cake and fruit that sometimes end up stuck to a baking tin. There is also a winey bite, and a hint of tongue burning cloves. A dry and fiery rum with bite, which is simultaneously straightforward and endlessly interesting. I love this stuff and have nothing bad to say about it.
A bottle of Haiti’s finest gets sold. . .
Barbancourt Reserve du Domaine (15 year old rum at 43% alcohol): The initial impression is remarkably similar to the 8 year old. I was slightly disappointed on my first taste. In fact the two rums are different, it is just that the differences are subtle. The 15 year old is a shade darker, a couple of shades smoother, and significantly richer and more aromatic. The vanilla notes are stronger in the 15 year old, and the aroma contains a suggestion of coffee I do not get from the 8 year old. Where the 8 year old reminds me of a delicious French dessert (probably a raisin studded Rhum Baba), the 15 year old reminds me of the same dessert accompanied by coffee and cream. The 15 year old is simply richer and more filled out. However, the fundamental character of the two rums is the same.
Basically, if you do not like the 8 year old, don’t fork out for the 15 year old expecting to enjoy it any more. Smoother as the 15 year old is, it does not take Barbancourt’s dry bite and transform it into a Pyrat or Ron Zacapa. The 15 year old is my favorite Barbancourt rum, but is not quite in a totally separate class to the 8 year old. That being the case, I would say the 8 year old is easily the better buy. The 8 year old offers a very similar experience to the 15 year old at less than half the price. Only the 15 year old comes in a colorful box decorated with Haitian art that just screams ‘good rum’ though.
Barbancourt Pango Rhum (flavored rum at 35% alcohol): Strongly flavored fruit and spice flavored rum that is not overly sweetened. The flavors seem to include pineapple, passion fruit, Spanish lime (also known as kenep or mamoncillo), ginger, and more. The Spanish lime provides an interesting and unique edge. The flavorings are heavy, and to make it drinkable it needs to be cut with something else, perhaps water, juice, or even more rum. Over ice it makes a nice ‘bottled rum punch’ type drink. A squeeze of lime adds zip and balances the sugar. Unlike the regular Barbancourt rums, this stuff seemed to give me a headache.
* On second thoughts I guess I also tried it in the Dominican Republic. However, since by that stage I was already en route to Haiti I am going to say it doesn’t count.