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Haiti's iconic rum maker is back in business after earthquake

By Moni Basu, CNN
  • Dictatorships, trade embargoes didn't stop Rhum Barbancourt, but earthquake brought it to halt
  • Conveyor belts again humming with bottles of rum four months after devastating earthquake
  • Thierry Gardere is fourth generation in his family to run Haiti's iconic rum distillery
  • Gardere says, "I've survived a lot of things. Why should I abandon Haiti now?"

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- The heady smell wafts through the air at the distillery just north of the Haitian capital. Inside, almost four months of unwelcome silence ended recently when conveyor belts began rolling again, churning out thousands of bottles of pure sugar-cane rum.

It was an especially sweet moment for Thierry Gardere, the general director and fourth generation in his family to run Rhum Barbancourt.

In the 35 seconds that the earth jolted on January 12, Barbancourt lost $4 million, about a third of its annual profit.

Bottles crashed. Wood cracked. Liquid gold spilled onto the floors of the distillery.

Gardere, 58, whose house in upscale Pétionville tumbled, survived the earthquake with a few scrapes and bruises. But the business loss was stunning.

Not since the founding of Barbancourt in 1862 had Haiti's iconic rum maker come to such a startling halt. Haiti's best-known national brand had continued production through dictatorships and brutal repression. And weathered tough times during an early 1990s U.S. trade embargo.

Against all odds, Gardere had kept the distillery going. Until the earthquake.

"For months, we were not able to sell," Gardere said. "It will take awhile to get back into the pipeline."

The company was producing more than 330,000 cases of rum every year, exporting about 20 percent to the United States. After the quake, its 250 workers who lost loved ones and homes were also left without salaries. Now, most have returned to meet steep demand and recoup losses, which optimistically, Gardere said, will take three years.

He wondered how his great-great uncle Dupre Barbancourt might have reacted to the widespread earthquake destruction in Port-au-Prince.

Barbancourt arrived on these shores from France, bringing with him the carefully honed techniques employed to make the world's finest cognac. Unlike other popular Caribbean rums, Barbancourt boasts that it uses only sugar cane -- no molasses -- and distills the sweet stuff twice like cognac before aging it in fine French oak.

Gardere strolled through the distillery, reporter in tow, proudly explaining the rum-making process. Outside, a giant machine chewed up raw sugar cane plucked from nearby fields and spit out fresh juice ready for fermentation.

The company's trusted fans, the fine rum drinkers who savor each sip, included the writer Graham Greene, who decades ago was often spotted with a glass of Barbancourt at Port-au-Prince's famed Oloffson Hotel.

It's a source of great national pride, said Gardere, who is content he stayed in Haiti to run the family business.

The current Barbancourt distillery was constructed in the 1950s, around the time Gardere was born. He grew up with the intoxicating scent of sugar cane, learning the craft of fermentation, distillation and the perfect marriage of air, wood and liquid.

His parents sent him to safety in France after dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier rose to power. Fourteen years later, Gardere returned. It was 1976 and business was booming in Haiti. Barbancourt increased production by as much as 50 percent a year.

In 1990, when his father died, Gardere took over the rum distillery. It was in his blood, in Haiti's blood and now, perhaps, in his daughter's, too. His British-educated daughter has expressed interest in helping run the business.

After the quake, people asked Gardere if he intended to start life again somewhere else. But he isn't leaving.

"I've survived a lot of things," he said. "Why should I abandon Haiti now?"

After a noticeable hiatus, Barbancourt rum is back in local bars and restaurants.

At the Port-au-Prince airport, departing visitors clutch yellow duty-free shopping bags. In them they carry bottles of Haitian pride.