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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.