Rhum Barbancourt Distillery Visit

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Barbancourt is an interesting distillery. Calling the House of Barbanourt eccentric would be a stretch, but it is definitely an anomaly in the rum world. Standing out as it does from the pack, Barbancourt attracts more than its share of controversy. While few deny that Barbancourt produces delicious and quality rums, some question the raw materials used.

The marketing blurb goes that Barbancourt distills exclusively from fermented fresh sugar cane juice, following the seasonal rhythms of the sugar cane harvest to produce a Haitian version of Martinique’s famous agricole rums. However, some say Barbancourt takes a less discriminating approach, feeding its fermenting vessels and stills with sugar syrup and molasses during the seasons when fresh sugar cane juice is unavailable, producing a delicious but odd hybrid that is quite unlike the rums of Martinique. Through visiting the distillery I hoped to learn about how Barbancourt is made, what makes it unique, and where it fits in comparison to other rums.

The Barbancourt distillery is located on the northern outskirts of Port au Prince, on the edge of the Plaine du Cul de Sac. Skirting the west side of the airport you head north on a road leading out of town. As you draw closer to your destination, the industrial estates around the airport give way to a more typically Hatian array of ramshackle roadside business, in particular the ubiquitous wooden shacks housing lotto shops. Eventually you turn left into a potholed lane. This lane takes you through sugar cane fields, and then along a tree-lined avenue that leads to the gate of the distillery itself.

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You cannot casually turn up at Barbancourt and expect to get inside. An appointment is necessary. I arrived nearly an hour late for mine. My first driver failed to show up on time, and his replacement took time to arrive and then got me where I needed to be only very slowly. First he had to stop and retrieve a piece of his car (those potholes again), then he got lost. Fortunately my late arrival did not cause undue problems. The gatekeeper made some phone calls, and after a little waiting around, a supervisor of some sort, Mr. Denis, arrived to let me in.

Mr. Denis’s English was not great, which meant I never found out exactly what he supervised. He seemed slightly bemused to have a visitor, and unsure of quite what to do with me. As we walked into the complex one thing became immediately clear; the sugar mill that sat to the left of the main gate was completely idle. Not only that, the fermenting vats were empty, the still was as cold as could be expected on a sweltering Haitian afternoon, and none of the workers looked particularly busy. Mr. Denis apologized for having nothing much to show me, saying that things were quiet until the sugar cane ripened in November. While the bottling plant operates year round, actual rum production shuts down for the four months from July to November.

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The distiller, Mr. LaFortune, showed me the still. Mr. LaFortune spoke better English than Mr. Denis, and with him acting as translator I was able to learn a fair bit about how the rum is made.

The base material for the fermentation is primarily fresh sugar cane, sourced from within a roughly 15km radius of the distillery. Roughly a quarter of the sugar cane used comes from estates owned by Barbancourt. The remainder is purchased from various local suppliers. As a supplementary base material, small quantities of concentrated sugar cane syrup are sometimes sourced from further away. The sugar cane juice is extracted on site using the cane mill. After pressing, the fresh juice is adjusted to 14.1 brix using water, or a combination of water and sugar cane syrup. The liquid thus yielded is called vesou. The vesou undergoes a three day fermentation with a house yeast.

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The sugar cane mill sits idle. . .

Given the controversy regarding the base materials used by Barbancourt, I was interested in what proportion of concentrated sugar cane syrup was used to supplement the fresh cane juice. Mr. LaFortune was coy on this point, saying that he could not answer because it was not a fixed figure. However, he maintained that the practice of adding sugar cane syrup was limited to certain production months, and only done in small quantities. He stressed that the fermentation was always primarily of fresh juice, and sometimes exclusively so.

The supplementing of fresh cane juice with sugar cane syrup seems to be one point where Barbancourt differs from the Martinique agricole rums. I have heard that some distillers on Martinique dehydrate their ‘fresh cane juice’ to enable it to be stored while waiting for the still. When does ‘dehydrated fresh cane juice’ become ‘sugar cane syrup’? I should have asked Mr. LaFortune the brix of the sugar cane syrup. However, the syrup Barbancourt uses is presumably fairly concentrated (to enable it to travel significant distances), and may be more concentrated that the ‘dehydrated fresh cane juice’ allegedly used by some Martinique producers. So far as I know the Martinique distillers who engage in this practice do the dehydration on site, while Barbancourt’s syrup comes from some distance away. Therefore, if ‘dehydrated fresh cane juice’ really is used to produce rum in Martinique, the material used is probably fresher and less concentrated, and possibly more flavorsome, than the sugar cane syrup used by Barbancourt.

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Mr. LaFortune and his still

Since I am no expert on stills, the following information may contain errors.

The Barbancourt still is a double column still, of the type used in France to produce Cognac. The spirit is distilled twice (duh!), to around 70 degrees in the first column, then to 96 degrees in the second column. This produces a highly rectified spirit. I believe this double distillation to high purity is another important point of difference between Barbancourt and the Martinique agricoles, which are pot still rums and distilled to a lower purity.

The first column of the still is stainless steel, while the second is copper. The copper second column is new, and represents a recent refinement. Barbancourt switched from copper to stainless steel in 1999, a change that negatively influenced the quality of the spirit. It has taken them nearly a decade to switch back to copper (as I found for myself things happen slowly in Haiti). However, they have finally done it. Sadly I guess there is a decade worth of less-than-perfect Barbancourt to be drunk.

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Barbancourt’s enormous French limousin oak aging vats.  You could go for a swim in these things.

Following distillation the spirit is cut with water to 50% alcohol by volume before beginning the aging process. Aging is done primarily in enormous vats made of French limousin oak. Alongside these large vats, some smaller barrels are also used. Supposedly the Domaine du Reserve is aged exclusively in the small barrels. All of the aging vessels are sourced from France. The aging vessels are purchased both new and second hand, with the second hand ones coming from cognac houses.

I found the statement that the Domaine du Reserve was aged exclusively in the smaller sized barrels a little surprising. Comparing the Domaine de Reserve to the Five Star, the former is nearly twice as old as the latter and yet the differences in taste are fairly subtle. It seems hard to reconcile this subtle taste difference with the Domaine du Reserve being aged twice as long and in far smaller aging vessels – smaller aging vessels would mean more contact between the rum and the wood and hence the introduction of more flavors during aging. In any case, that is what Mr. Denis said.

The final stop on my tour was the bottling room. The contrast with Brugal was striking. Brugal runs a highly automated operation that appears never to pause for breath, housed in a hall that could probably accommodate a 747. Barbancourt looks positively sleepy in comparison. All the bottling paraphernalia you would expect to see are there, but the scale is small and work progresses at a leisurely pace.

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Mr. Denis (left) and my driver (right)

After the bottling room it was time to say goodbye. My parting question concerned the famous ‘woman with trident’ trademark. It was rumored to be a mysterious voodoo symbol. Were the rumors true? Everybody laughed. Nobody had a clue about the origin of the trademark. Disappointed, I consoled myself with the possibility that a powerful voodoo symbol would surely be a closely guarded secret. Yes, that must be it!

I felt I had learned a fair bit. In future I will be placing Barbancourt firmly within the family of cane juice rums. My hosts were certainly keen to distance themselves from the molasses-based rum producers on the other side of the island in the Dominican Republic. Barbancourt’s production methods make it unique among cane juice rums though.

I would say Barbancourt aims for a light, refined, and delicate flavor, through practices such as distilling to a high purity, diluting the spirit considerably before aging, aging in large vessels that limit the influence of wood on the flavor, and perhaps also through adding cane syrup to the vesou and muting the fresh cane flavors. For Martinique agricole rum purists there is plenty to criticize. The results speak for themselves though. Barbancourt make fine rums with a unique and sophisticated taste. There are plenty of smoother or bigger flavored rums out there, but Barbancourt offers an exceptional balance of fire, flavor, and finesse.

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12 Responses to “Rhum Barbancourt Distillery Visit”

  1. Tiare Says:

    Very interesting article and its a lucky thing they have gone back to use the copper still. This is definetily a rum that stands on its own. The final product is indeed a very good rum.

    What an incredibly interesting journey you`re on!

  2. Edward Hamilton Says:

    Thanks for the informative article and the clarification of the raw material used to make Barbancourt rum. As a point of differentiation, rhum agricole in the French islands is only made from fresh sugar cane juice. Some French distillers also make rum from molasses and call it rum industriel.

    None of the French distillers on Martinique use anything like a dehydrated sugar cane juice.

  3. seamus Says:

    Thanks for dropping by Ed!

    Hopefully I’ll make it to Martinique one of these days.

  4. Capn Jimbo Says:

    Nice stuff. With all due respect to Mr. Hamilton, St. James does at times use a similar process (concentrating small amounts of fresh cane juice to accomodate production schedules). This would seem to contradict the claim that all cane juice rum in Martinique is made from “fresh cane juice”.

    The claim is far more important to marketing than it is to quality, especially considering that Barbancourt’s products as a whole have been rated consistently higher than the cane juice products of Martinique.

    The term “rhum agricole” is a generic, French, for “cane juice rum” and preceeded the “AOC Martinique” designation by over a hundred years. Thus the AOC label is simply a subset of “rhum agricole”/”cane juice rum”, and in no way defines or specifies cane juice rum in any way.

    I consider the cane juice rums of Martinique as being rums by regulation, and a marketing device. OTOH I consider the cane juice rums of Barbancourt as rum by art, and as close to handmade as you are likely to find, costly and time consuming, that could only be economically accomplished in otherwise very, very poor country.

    Your speculations that the concentrated juices on Martinique must be fresher on the belief that this is done “on site” remain as such is a bit of a reach, don’t you think? Where the concentration is conceived is not related to when it is used. You can be sure that Barbancourt manages all their juice with considerable quality control, as evidenced by their superlative end product.

    How silly is all this? Consider that I’ve yet to see one distiller claim that their rums are made “from fresh molasses”, lol. Their are really only two basic categories of rum: those that emanate from cane juice, and those from molasses. Keep in mind too that water is removed and added repeatedly in the process of crushing, early production, fermentation, distillation, aging and finally bottling.

    Mr. Hamilton relies on a distinction without a difference, and the proof – as always – is in the pudding.

    I have covered these issues in great detail at The Rum Project:
    http://rumproject.com/rumforum/viewforum.php?f=4

  5. Review: Barbancourt 8 Yr Old Haitian Rhum « The Rum Howler Blog (and now Whisky too!) Says:

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  6. Capn Jimbo's Rum Project Says:

    Just revisted your wonderful tour report, and yes, we are jealous! Again, a great report. However, tours being what they are, I’d like to address a point I overlooked. In your report you stated:

    “The Barbancourt still is a double column still, of the type used in France to produce Cognac. The spirit is distilled twice (duh!), to around 70 degrees in the first column, then to 96 degrees in the second column. This produces a highly rectified spirit. I believe this double distillation to high purity is another important point of difference between Barbancourt and the Martinique agricoles, which are pot still rums and distilled to a lower purity.”

    A couple of important corrections. First is that Barbancourt uses the Charentais method (which he brought from the cognac region of France). Simply, this is a double distillation process using copper pot stills. In Barbancourt’s case the first rough concentration is achieved by batching through a single copper column still (very expensive) to concentratate the spirits to about 70% alcohol. The second distillation is performed in copper pot stills to about 90% (not 96% – this is a considerable difference.

    Your observation that Martinique cane juice rums are produced in pot stills is incorrect. All cane juice rums produced under their AOC scheme MUST be produced in column stills only, to no more than 75%.

    One of the advantages of column stilling is consistency and speed – the disadvantage is that subtle differences in congeners are ignored by what is a relatively industrial process. Barbancourt uses a column only to concentrate, not to divide – the division occurs in the second, pot distilling where the master distiller is in complete control and decides – drop by drop – where he will make his cuts. Heads and tails from the pot still phase are kept and can be added to subsequent pots to further concentrate and capture desireable congeners.

    This is comparison to the relatively restricted column process. Another big and very important difference is in aging. You mentioned that Barbancourt ages the new make at 50% – aging at lower percentages takes longer and is considerably more expensive, but this longer maturation produces a greatly improved, smoothly aged product.

    To us, the amazing thing is that Barbancourt has produced the most consistently highly rated cane juice rums that sell for far, far less than their inconsistent competitors. Sadly this is due to their third world, poverty status – only in this regard can they afford to produce what is as close to a handmade cane juice rum by art, not stifling regulation (which doesn’t work anyway).

    Just a thought. Keep up the good work!

  7. Linda Says:

    Hello!

    I don’t know if the Barbancourt distillery has always been in the same location, but I visited there in 1975 when Baby Doc was the President of Haiti. My impression of the country and this distillery is incredible and very memorable. It was a flawless, sunny day, and we were there for a tasting. On a balcony that overlooked a verdant hillside, white-uniformed male servers passed out samples of the various flavors of rum they produced. As I recall, my favorite was banana, and I tried them all several times.

    I will never forget my trip to Haiti, and I have many more stories, but I’m glad I got to visit when things were a bit more stable than they are now.

    Happy to have found your blog. Cheers!

  8. seamus Says:

    Thanks for the comments Linda!

    I think you may be thinking of the other Barbancourt distillery. There are two companies using the same name.

    See my post on the confusion at the following url:

    http://bunnyhugs.org/2008/10/21/barbancourt-rum-jean-barbancourt-liqueurs-and-berling-rum-sorting-out-a-haitian-confusion/

    I’ve seen photos of a place on a hillside (from memory it looks kind of like a castle) that I think was the second Barbancourt distillery. This one was focused more on liqueurs and flavored rums.

    Wish I could have visited Haiti in 1975! It would have been interesting.

  9. seamus Says:

    Also very belated thanks to Capn Jimbo for the educational comments.

    No doubt I got some details wrong in my report. It was kind of hard with the combination of a language barrier and my own lack of expertise.

  10. Capn Jimbo's Rum Project Says:

    Thanks, my pleasure. In your article you also compare Barbancourt’s use of “columns” to Martiniquean use of “pot stills”. Actually the AOC regulations require that Martiniquean AOC cane juice rums MUST be distilled in continuous column stills (while it is Barbancourt that uses pot stills in a more flavorful batch process). Here’s the AOC reg…

    “Distillation must be done in columns with continuous operation used traditionally in Martinique, whose principal characteristics are as follows: – heating by vapor injection; diameters in the exhaustion part: ranging between 0.7 and 2 meters; concentration: realized by 5 to 9 copper plates. The columns having 10 or 11 plates can be used until the harvest of the year 2001; exhaustion: realized by at least 15 copper or stainless plates; retrogradation: realized by one or more wine-heating stills or water-cooled condensers out of copper.”

    This is exactly why I call the AOC’s product “rum by regulation”, as compared to Barbancourt’s “rum by art”.

  11. CAPT. CHARLES PIERSALL Says:

    The finest I have ever had is Jane Barbancourt Coconut Rum.
    It has been years since I visited her refinery and I am desperately looking for this most magnificent “rum by art”. I have searched the carribean and the rest of the world in my quest to find this. I still have 1 bottle, but it is worth more than gold to me. Please help- Does Bering S.A , the follow to her greatest ever distillery, have this Jane arbancourt delight?

    Gracias
    Charles Piersall

  12. mary jo allen Says:

    I would like to personalize a bottle of 15 year old Barbancourt as a 40th wedding anniversary present. Do you know if and where it would be possible to purchase a bottle labeled for 2/2/1974 through 2/2/2014?

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