PORT-AU-PRINCE — It has survived 19 coups, military rule, hurricanes, and even a three-year embargo.
But in the Jan. 12 earthquake, Haiti’s best-known export and one of its oldest businesses, Rhum Barbancourt, suffered a $4 million setback. Amber bottles and white oak vats — some containing rum as old as 15 years — crashed to the distillery floor.
It could take up to four years for production of one of the world’s top rums to return to its pre-quake capacity, though the owner is hoping to resume bottling and shipping by late April or early May — an emphatic sigh of relief, to be certain, to rum connoisseurs the world over.
“We are ready to recover,” said Thierry Gardère, general director and fourth generation in the family to run the business.
As distillery workers make repairs to pipes, vats, and the aging room, Barbancourt soldiers on, yielding a cognac-like spirit that fans say maintains its cachet in spite of Haiti’s challenges. The rum is savored among niche drinkers in large part because it’s made with hand-cut, locally grown sugar cane juice and not molasses.
“It’s pretty spectacular that Barbancourt is still here, is still great, and is still setting a high standard that other companies have to match — especially at their luxury level,” said Robert Burr, the Coral Gables publisher of the Gifted Rums Guide.
In the earthquake that claimed at least 200,000 lives and left more than a million homeless, not even the seemingly bullet-proof Barbancourt eluded damage. Heavily hit was Barbancourt’s aging room where 30 percent of the vats were banged up.
The company also lost two employees, who died when their homes flattened. More than 25 percent of the employees saw their homes collapse, including Gardère’s near the quake-destroyed Hotel Montana. Some homeless employees camped in a nearby soccer field along with 300 others.
“It was an interruption but not a devastating interruption,” said Jim Nikola, senior vice president for Crillon Importers, a New Jersey company that ships Barbancourt. “I don’t think the consumer in the North American market will even know there was an interruption.”
The company sells about $12 million a year, Gardère said — modest compared to Bacardi, which earned $805 million in the 2009 fiscal year. The Haitian rum’s biggest overseas market is the United States.
Despite the relatively small sales, Barbancourt has its circle of devoted fans, some of whom called for Haiti supporters to purchase the rum as a gesture of post-quake solidarity. The brand even has its own Facebook page.
“It’s really popular with people who care what their drink tastes like,” Nikola said.
Before the quake suspended exporting, Burr and other Barbancourt aficionados were easy to spot at Miami International and John F. Kennedy airports. The travelers carried suitcase-like boxes that contained several rum bottles. Haiti was marked on the side in bold letters.
The company was founded in 1862 by Dupré Barbancourt, a Frenchman who moved to Haiti from the cognac-producing region of Charente. That year, the United States recognized Haiti, an international pariah because of the slave revolt that secured independence from France in 1804.