In Haiti I was surprised to find all sorts of obscure products bearing the Barbancourt name. Besides the well known Barbancourt rums there was a comprehensive range of Barbancourt liqueurs, and a rum called Berling, also produced by Barbancourt. In fact, most of these ‘Barbancourt’ products have nothing to do with the internationally famous Rhum Barbancourt. Haiti has two rum and spirits producers, both legitimately using the Barbancourt name.
The famous Rhum Barbancourt is produced by Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, controlled by a firm called T. Gardere & Cie. The Maison Barbancourt was established by a Frenchman, Dupre Barbancourt, in 1862. On his death the company passed into the hands of his wife, Natalie Gardere. Since the couple had no children, Mrs. Gardere left the company to her nephew, Paul Gardere. The Barbancourt family thus ceased to be involved in the production of Rhum Barbancourt, though their name remained on the product. The Gardere family have retained control of the brand to this day.
Nobody could give me the precise details, but it seems that at some later date a Barbancourt family member decided to re-establish the family tradition of involvement in the spirits business. Thus the company Jean Barbancourt was born. Jean Barbancourt produces various liqueurs, as well as rums under the Berling label. The Jean Barbancourt products do not have the wide distribution of Rhum Barbancourt, but they are not hard to find.
I never got a chance to taste the Jean Barbancourt liqueurs, but I gave the rum a try. In fact, Berling rum was attracting some attention while I was in Haiti owing to having recently won a prize in a rum competition. Some bars were offering it as a higher quality alternative to Barbancourt. One place even talked of dropping Barbancourt and exclusively stocking Berling. What was all the fuss about?
So far as I can tell Berling currently offer just two rums, a white and a black label. Both are aged rums with a gold hue. I do not recall seeing any specific age statement on either, but the black label is older than the white. The two rums seem designed to compete with Barbancourt 3 and 5 star, respectively, and are priced to slightly undercut Barbancourt. I refer to them below as simply as ‘white label’ and ‘black label’. In fact they are both labeled something like ‘Vieux Labbe’, and further distinguished in the small print.
Berling White Label (aged rum at 43%)
Light golden colored rum with a fairly thin consistency. It has a light vegetal aroma. Assuming this is another cane juice rum, this vegetal aroma should be grassiness from the sugar cane. However, unlike in Barbancourt and the Martinique agricoles, this grassiness seems to have morphed from luscious sugar cane into something ill-defined and not obviously pleasant. There is a hint of caramel and vanilla. I had to strain to get it though. This rum has less bite and fireiness than Barbancourt. However, I would not call it smoother – there is just less going on. The predominant flavor is grassy, but it is a very ‘green’ grassy. I detect a faint smokiness that could be interesting but fails to really go anywhere. Unfortunately I cannot recommend this stuff. I find it a thin rum with a slightly odd flavor. After tasting I was thankful it came in a tiny bottle and only cost a dollar. This was another bottle that got snapped up by the hotel maid.
Berling Black Label (aged rum at 43%)
This is the prize winning Berling rum that recently got all the attention. While I tried it, I have to admit not giving it a fair try. I could not find it in a small bottle and did not want to fork out for a large bottle that was very likely going to get tossed.
My taste of this rum came when the manageress of a hotel I dropped into late one night to use the Internet very kindly gave me a glass. I had mentioned I was interested in rum and she basically said ‘try this’, telling me it was Haiti’s new prize winning rum. Sadly I cannot say I appreciated it much. Mind you, I was not really in a rum appreciating mood. It was late at night, the Internet in my hotel was not working and I had an urgent e-mail to send. The walk to her hotel had been slightly stressful, as I wandered the pitch black streets carrying a laptop and wondering if any of the friendly locals would do the obvious and rob me. In fact nothing happened except me getting blinded by a U.N. patrol that rumbled past in an armored personnel carrier and shone their powerful searchlight right in my face. I should also note that I drank the rum on ice rather than straight (unlike the White Label). The ice may have chilled and diluted the rum excessively and dulled the flavor.
In any case, I found the Black Label much like the indifferent White Label. The taste was still lightly vegetal rather than truly flavorsome; the faint smokiness still did not really go anywhere; the rum still tasted thin and uninteresting. On different occasion I gave it a try in a rum sour and it still failed to impress. I simply do not rate this stuff. Obviously somebody out there disagrees with me. Just possibly the rum entered for competition was a superior version of the same product. You never know what goes on.