An Insider’s Look at a Classic Rum: Barbancourt
Our columnist talked to Delphine Gardère, who was recently named CEO of Rhum Barbancourt in Haiti, about her family’s history of making rum and her plans for the brand.
Long before I was a rum distiller or even knew much about the spirit, I was intrigued by the Haitian Rhum Barbancourt and its classic logo design.
Even as I gained experience and opened my own distillery, I still had a lot of questions about Barbancourt and how it’s made. When I tried to research the brand I found conflicting accounts, hazy explanations and a lot of lore.
But there was only so much I could reverse engineer by sniffing, swirling and tasting the rum. So, I recently sat down with Delphine Gardère, who is the brand’s new CEO and the fifth generation of her family to be at the helm of the company. She cut her teeth working for some of the most iconic and family owned fragrance brands.
Gardère comes to the rum community with energy and vision to remain true to Haiti and Barbancourt’s core values, while also pushing to elevate the spirit and the brand.
Read on to find out about Barbancourt’s distilling process, the importance of terroir, Haitian rum identity and more.
Campbell: “Would you mind introducing yourself, your position and what your pronouns are?”
Gardère: “My name is Delphine Gardère. My middle name is Natalie. Natalie was the first female leader of Barbancourt. There are a lot of incredible stories about her. I am currently the CEO of Barbancourt. I am 36 and a mom of two girls.”
Campbell: “So, as I understand it you’re a direct descendant of the Barbancourt family. Is that correct?”
Gardère: “I am the fifth generation of the family. Dupré Barbancourt was the first owner and married to Natalie. They did not have kids together. So when he died, she took over the business with the help of her nephews of which one was Paul, who is my great grandfather.”
Campbell: “I’m a distiller of rum and I’m very new to it, so I can’t imagine what it was like growing up in a multi-generational family rum business. Growing up did it seem normal or were you aware of how special your family’s business is?”
Gardère: “There were parts where it was quite different because my father was also involved in the industrial aspect of developing Haiti. It was always something that was kind of discussed around the dinner table. Especially in Haiti where, you know, there’s so much contrast because of the poverty line. But then I think my parents also made me quite grounded. Especially my father, because when he started working at the business, he still had to work his way up. So everyone starts kind of at the bottom and then works their way up in the company. It’s not something where you’re parachuted into it.
For myself, I worked a lot before coming to work at the company. My first job was a stock analyst in London. And then one day I came back to the factory. I remember walking around, just saying hi to some people from the factory and ended up being like, actually, I don’t know what I’m doing on the stock market. I should be in consumer goods. So, I decided to do my masters in strategy and marketing. And I got hired right away at Dior, working on the fragrance section in the operational marketing department. So, I basically took care of all the marketing for the U.K. and Ireland. Then I moved on to working for a distributor of LVMH, still in the fragrance industry.
So, it was still alcohol related, but not the exact same. I spent a lot of years there working as a brand manager and then my husband and I decided we wanted to move back to Paris, and I worked at Hermès. So Hermès fragrances, which was my last big corporate position, but most of these companies are also family owned. It was interesting to see how you have all these multi-global companies that are still family owned, but developing on an international scale.”
Campbell: “You know, there are so many connections between perfume and spirits, distillation, aroma and the chemistry and experience of it all. And it is the alcohol business. I don’t know if many people are aware of how much rum goes to the perfume industry.”
Gardère: “You know, Haiti is also one of the biggest producers of vetiver.”
Campbell: “Yes, I did know that! It’s an essential oil aroma compound that’s really common in some perfumes, right?”
Gardère: “Absolutely. I did some vetiver launches and I went to visit some of the factories in Les Cayes where they extract all the essential oils. And it’s not actually that much different from a distillery.”
Campbell: “What would you call the house style of Barbancourt?”
Gardère: “I think we’re a classic brand, five generations, so there’s a lot of legacy and a lot of history behind it. Our motto here is Haitian since 1862. So, I think a lot of the terrain of Haiti—everything is harvested and made in Haiti from basically the cane to literally the bottling. This is something that we’re strongly attached to, the Haitian aspect of everything. We’ve been a very patriarchal system in the way things have been managed, and now we’re going from a male environment to a more female environment, which is a bit of a switch in the last couple of years. That’s also been another thing, bringing women into the industry because it’s been a male- dominated industry.”
Campbell: “Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the things that does make rum special is there are so many iconic women. As someone who came from whiskey and then Cognac traditions, I love seeing that in the rum world.
In Haiti you guys are the Haitian rum. I know from some of my Haitian friends, it’s a staple at their houses here in the U.S. and it’s also a staple in Haiti. We talk a lot in the U.S. press about the rum revival, but, of course, like a rum revival for who? Haitians have been drinking Barbancourt and rum forever. I know that in Haiti, there’s also some other small distilleries, including Moscoso Distillers and Distillery LaRue.”
Gardère: “Oh, you will find it funny, Moscoso is my mom’s first cousin.”
Campbell: “I love that. Truly a family business! There are also hundreds of clairin distilleries on the island.”
Campbell: “How do you feel you fit into rum’s current ‘revival’ in the export markets with everything changing?”
Gardère: “I’ve tasted some of the clairins and they are quite good. I’m not going to lie. I think it’s kind of like tequila versus mezcal, that’s the positioning. But you know, at Barbancourt, we’re still quite a craft brand. We’re not Bacardi, but we’re also not super small scale. We have about 500 employees. So it’s a big machine when you look at it compared to a smaller distillery, but we’re still craft. We’re going to have to choose a positioning going forward and the way the industry is developing, to pick where do we want to be. Craft? Luxury? Industrial?”
Campbell: “I’ve definitely been watching closely as Mount Gay, which is sort of seen as established Barbados rum, offering some more dynamic higher-proof expressions. Do you see something like that in your vision for the future of Barbancourt? Or do you want to stay strictly classic?”
Gardère: “I think there’s always room for innovation, but we’ll still stick to the core DNA of the brand. We’re not going to go for something extreme, since that’s not part of what we represent. I think we’re more for authenticity and Haitian soil and sugar cane juice type of distillate. So in terms of that, I don’t think we would change. Maybe some casks finish or maybe some cask strength, but I wouldn’t say that we would change necessarily to something completely wildly different, if that makes sense.”
Campbell: “Yeah, absolutely. In the U.S. drinkers now want so much information about brands. And one of the things I found really interesting in preparing for this interview is everyone knows Barbancourt, but they also don’t know Barbancourt. A lot of people don’t know what kind of stills you use or how the rum is made. But everyone knows your rum. It’s just an amazing success, it’s iconic. So, if you don’t mind, can we talk a little bit about what kind of stills you use?”
Gardère: “Sure. So, now we use a column still, we used to have pot still, but it was changed. But we’re going to go back, I think. This is something that we’re actually looking into and maybe having another type of expression with pot still [rum]. So going back to the original method, which is the charentais method. We still use French oak, so this is really our staple. We won’t change at all to new oak. This is something we are really attached to.”
Campbell: “And all the sugar cane is still sourced fresh-pressed from Haiti?”
Gardère: “Absolutely. So what you have to know is that in Haiti, there are not really big land owners of fields. So we help [small farmers] grow the sugar cane. We tell them when to cut it and then we go and pick it up. We pay them twice a week for what they bring in. I think my father before he died was looking at different sugar cane varieties as well, because some have different flavors as you can see from the clairin. So, that would be an interesting thing to research into.”
Campbell: “I think there is a lot of excitement about possibly a return to charentais. I asked three of my most trusted rum compatriots what they would want to know about your company and they all were asking, ‘are they going to go back to charentais? Are they going to bottle at a higher proof?’ I think people are excited about what you’re doing.”
Gardère: “This is one of my biggest projects and we’re really excited about it. I think the teams are excited about it, too.”
Campbell: “Traditionally, you used a double pot charentais system. So, when did you switch to using a column still?”
Gardère: “Yeah, it changed to two columns in the mid-1990s, but what we used to do is we used to mix the charentais and the column still rum because we had both. So, the idea is to go back and add back the charentais. We would have to look at the architecture of the brand, obviously. I wouldn’t say that we would change it completely, but maybe add a few new expressions.”
Campbell: “If you walked into a bar ten years from now and you were talking about Haitian rum’s identity, do you see it evolving?”
Gardère: “Well, I would love for Haitian rum to be in its own category because we’re not Spanish in the way we do rum. We’re not French, because we’re not Martinique or Guadeloupe. And so we have our own identity. And I think this is what stands out with Haitian rum. And I would love for the rum to be an ambassador for Haiti, to be something positive about Haiti, because often in the media Haiti is not seen in a positive light. So, I would love to walk into a bar and people view Haitian rum as something so exotic and beautiful and different.”
Campbell: “Do you guys have a sustainability plan? Is that going to be an important part of your business? Is it already?”
Gardère: “Yes. We do have a sustainability plan. One of the first things that we have is a co-generator. In Haiti, there’s not a lot of electricity. We use the bagas, which is the leftovers of the sugar cane. And we have the co-generator that uses it to create energy. And part of the sustainability projects that we have been looking at mostly help farmers improve their ROI, you know, planting and helping them grow their crops better basically. Another thing that we’ve also been doing is the local currency has been devaluating, so we’ve been pegging it against the U.S. dollar. That way the employees don’t feel like their buying power is being downgraded.”
Campbell: “I loved when you discussed the sugar cane growers, it reminded me so much of Champagne and the individual plots of independently farmed land and everyone bringing it to the chateaux and that farm or producer relationship is so important.”
Gardère: “Yes, we have an entire department that works with them.”
Campbell: “May I ask what the star symbol on the bottle means?”
Gardère: “It was done after Dupré’s wife. So basically Natalie, but it also represents the goddess of agriculture. It also has a lot of symbolism in voodoo and Haiti, and the star is the name of the factory because it was called étoile before, so it is étoile and the goddess.”
Campbell: “Thank you. I always wondered about that. It’s such a beautiful symbol. It’s really iconic. You said there were really great stories about Natalie. Do you have a favorite?”
Gardère: “There was a war in Haiti between two groups and, um, she used to put the munitions under her dress and bring it to the side that she was on.”
Campbell: “Wow. She was definitely a firebrand. I like it.”
Gardère: “Exactly. That was the early 20th century. There were a lot of stories like that around the family about Natalie, which is why I have her name as my middle name.”
Campbell: “Folks are interested to know what’s next for the brand. Will you be releasing any higher proof expressions? Cask finishes?”
Gardère: “We are looking into a lot. I’m not going to make any promises.”
Campbell: “There’s so much history that affects making a decision. I like that you like to take your time and see how it sits with everything and what it will mean.”
Gardère: “I think that whatever we’re going to do, in all these projects, also needs to fit in with the DNA of the brand. At the end of the day, it’s basically not losing our self because the market is hot, and yes, you want to tap into it, but you don’t want to lose your core identity.”
Interview has been condensed and edited.