Rum may be as common as orange juice in Florida, but all rum is not created equal.
Haiti’s Rhum Barbancourt is a unique hybrid, occupying a niche between the commercial, molasses-based Caribbean rums and the rhum agricole of Martinique and Guadaloupe. It was founded in 1862 by Dupré Barbancourt, who emigrated to Haiti from the Cognac-producing region of France. Barbancourt established his own distillery and also married Nathalie Gardère, who survived him and managed the family business until her death in 1928.
Several things account for Barbancourt’s uniqueness. It is made exclusively from the juice of freshly pressed sugar cane, sourced from local farmers. Like Cognac, it is also distilled twice before aging in French Limousin oak casks. Earlier this year, control of Rhum Barbancourt passed to Delphine Nathalie Gardère, the fifth generation and second woman to guide the family firm. Gardère grew up in Haiti; after attending business school in France and working in the perfume industry, she came home to make rum.
“I wanted to refocus on something I felt passionate about,” she explained recently. “Because I come from a fragrance background, where you do extractions of essential oils, I see the distillation process as very similar. I tend to concentrate on the aromatics, isolating both the top notes and the bottom notes.”
Any changes she introduces will be both subtle and gradual. “It’s humbling to have such a long legacy,” she says. While she wants to reintroduce the use of pot stills to create the higher-end expressions, and is exploring the possibility of making overproof rum, she is insistent that any changes “have to spring directly from the Barbancourt DNA.”
The 15-year-old Estate Reserve ($50) has a floral nose intensely perfumed with citrus. On the palate, flavors of lime and baked pear are balanced by honey, cinnamon and pepper, followed by a reverberating finish. While complex enough to drink neat, this is also lean and flavorful enough to take the place of Scotch in a Rob Roy; like the VSOP Cognacs it resembles, it mixes very well into a range of premium cocktails. Gardère was in charge of exports before taking the helm of the company and developed a special interest in bartender outreach, bringing teams of mixologists to Haiti to experience how the rum is produced.
She is heavily involved in social issues, continuing the work of the foundation started by her parents in the 1990s. The organization puts an emphasis on education, sponsoring scholarship for local students in the community. In addition, Gardère offers full medical insurance for employees and funds mobile medical clinics for workers and their families; she pegs their salaries to the U.S. dollar, rather than Haitian currency, so buying power isn’t eroded during currency fluctuations.
“I’m integrating more women into the workforce,” she says, “because I feel strongly about equal opportunity in a male-dominated industry. In this way I feel that I’m honoring my ancestor Nathalie, who was the first woman to lead a distillery in the 20th century.”
Mark Spivak specializes in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He is the author of several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first two novels, Friend of the Devil and The American Crusade, are available on Amazon; his third novel, Impeachment, will be released on October 15.