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Haitian Rums/Rhums and Clairin

Sugar Cane Fields are Often Burnt to Rid Snakes.
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This Practice has Been Banned in Many Countries.

Haiti

The country of Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic in the northern Carbbean. It is the second largest island after Cuba in the Greater Antilles. One side is a former French colony, Haiti, in the west, and the other side in the east is a former Spanish colony, the Dominican Republic. Trying to compare either country would be near impossible, it is like trying to compare chalk and cheese.

Haiti is known for being the first former slave colony to gain independence, way back in 1804. Today, however, it is also known as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and is amongst the thirty poorest countries in the world. Haiti has suffered generations of dictators, natural disasters and environmental mismanagement and as a result over 75% of the population live below the absolute poverty line, and 50% are illiterate. Half of the country's wealth is controlled by only 1% of the population. This has caused mass migration to other Caribbean countries or to the mainland of North America.

It is no wonder that when one thinks of planning your next Caribbean vacation and lying on a beach with a rum punch in your hand, Haiti is not one of the locations that springs to mind. Fortunately, like nearly all other Caribbean countries it does have a rum culture. This rum culture however does have a distinctively French flavour. The majority of rum in Haiti is made from fresh sugar cane juice and therefore known as rhum. The majority of Haitians cannot afford a bottle of Haiti's most famous export, Barbancourt, and as a result they will drink the very popular Clairin or moonshine. Only Haiti's upper and middle classes can afford to buy a bottle of Barbancourt. Clairin is usually sold in small used bottles, that once held some rum from the neighbouring Domincan Republic. Another method of buying this rum is to visit the local still with your own bottle and get a fill up for approximately 100 Gourdes a gallon.

Travelling to work the fields in Haiti.
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Sugar Cane Fields Abound in parts of Haiti.

In years passed Haiti was one of the major sugar producing countries in the world. Today however, it now imports more sugar than it produces. Most of the sugar cane grown is used for rhum or clairin production. Coffee has become the main cash crop for the country, with rice also being grown in many areas.

When the French colonists arrived in St. Dominique (as Haiti was known) in the 1600's they destroyed vast areas of virgin rain-forest to plant the money making sugar cane. This was made worse when more trees were cut down to produce fuel for the sugar mills. In the 1920's over 60% of the country was forested compared with only 2% today. This has caused accelerated soil erosion combined with depleted fertility, reduced water retention and silting of the country's waterways. It has been estimated that Haiti loses around 10 - 15,000 hectares of fertile land to erosion every year. All this has been made worse by the population's dependency on charcoal as their main source of fuel. Many small farmers or petit planteurs have even given up their other cash crops in favour of cutting trees down for charcoal.

In recent years the deforestation has caused many mudslides and flooding around the country, especially during hurricane season. This has not been the case in the neighbouring lush countryside of the Dominican Republic. Even minor tropical storms can cause major problems in a country with very limited resources and communications.

It is no surprise then that a country that faces so many problems, turns to an alcoholic drink to sooth away the problems and pains of life. In Haiti the drinks of choice are rhum and clairin.

The World Famous Barbancourt Reserve Box.
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Barbancourt Uses Large Limousin Oak Vats.
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Thanks to Seamus for this Photograph. http://bunnyhugs.org/

Barbancourt Rhum
Barbancourt Rhum is probably Haiti's most famous export. It has a reputation as one of the world's finest rums and has often been compared to the best French cognacs. Like many other old distilleries in the region, Barbancourt was established by a European immigrant who bought with them their distilling knowledge from their homland.
It was a Frenchman from Charente, called Dupre Barbancourt who opened a rhum distillery in 1862 that became the famous rhum that we know and love today. This date is also the same time Don Facundo Bacardi was establishing his distillery in Santiago, Cuba. When Barbancourt came from France to the Caribbean he bought with him the same methods of distilling fine cognacs used in France. This method is called The Charentaise and is a double distillation method, firstly in a stainless steel column still, then repeated in a copper column still.
When the Maison Barbancourt was established in 1862 it did not produce its own sugar cane. Instead, it distilled its rhum from clairin and sugar cane juice purchased from other suppliers who met Barbancourt's rigorous selection criteria.
Today Domaine Barbancourt grows about 30 to 40% of its own sugar cane on its 600 hectare estate. For this they employ over 250 people, who still cut the sugar cane by hand, which helps create jobs in a country where unemployment runs at about 70%. Indirect employment can account for as many as 20,000 jobs in the region, as they also buy cane from over 200 large and small growers from the Plaine du Cul de Sac.

Four Varieites of Barbancourt Rhum.
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Specially Marked Boxes for the "Turcs and Caicos".

Harvesting the sugar cane by hand takes place between the months of November and June, depending on the conditions. Much of Haiti has been deforested over the years, due to the country's dependency on charcoal as its main source of fuel. This has caused vast amounts of soil erosion and many villages have been destroyed by mudslides during the annual hurricane seasons. Many Haitians depend on subsistence farming to survive and have given up growing commercial crops. An aerial view of Hispaniola displays the contrast between the lush, green Dominican Republic and the barren mountains of Haiti.
The bagasse or waste from crushing the sugar cane is recycled and used as a fuel for the mills. Steam recovered from the boilers is used to heat the column stills. Bagasse is also often used to make charcoal in Haiti. (See photo below)
Once the cane is cut with the courlin (cutlass/machete), its leaves and top are removed and the cane is cut into small logs and bundled together for transport to the distillery. This must be achieved quickly while the sugar content is at its highest.
Once at the distillery, the cane is cut into smaller pieces and water is added for the crushing and juice extraction stage. Twenty thousand tonnes of cane are milled every year at the plant.
The sugar cane juice obtained by the crushing is called vesou. Once the juice has been extracted, a secret yeast formula is added to the vesou for the fermentation stage. Fermentation takes about 72 hours to complete. Once finished the cane wine mix is called a moult, and is about 7% alcohol.

Bagasse Waiting to be Turned into Charcoal, Haiti.
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Societie du Rhum Barbancourt uses a distillation method that was originally used in the Cognac region of France for distilling Cognacs. This method is called The Charentaise and it utilises a double distillation method.

The first distillation column separates the cane wine from the water through heating and evaporation. The end product of this first column is called clairin and is about 70% alcohol by volume. The clairin is then transferred to the second column where only select rhums are retained for aging. Here the final product is about 90% alcohol by volume.

For aging the rhum is then diluted with water to 50% and aged in French Limousin Oak barrels or large vats. French Oak is supposed to have large pores which allow the rhum to easily breathe through the oak. The oak barrels are supplied by French company Sequin Moreau and are stored in a warehouse called a chais.

The Entrance to the Barbancourt Estate.
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Thanks to Seamus for this Photograph. http://bunnyhugs.org/

Currently Barbancourt produces five different types of rum:-

1) Barbancourt 3 Star. This is a rhum that is aged for a minimum of four years.

2) Barbancourt 5 Star. This rhum is aged for eight years and is known as "Reserve Speciale".

3) Reserve du Domaine. This rhum is aged for fifteen years and was originally reserved for the Barbancourt family and friends. It was first released to the general public in the mid 1960's. This is a limited issue rhum with each bottle being individually numbered and comes in a colourful box reminiscent of a Haitian painting. For export to non-tropical weather countries this rhum is called Estate Reserve, as it is chill filtered before bottling.

4) White Rhum. This is the latest addition to the Barbancourt range. This is a young rhum that was not initially available in Haiti.

5) Pango Rhum. This is a flavoured rhum that is combined with pineapple, mango and a secret Haitian spice.

The hard to find Barbancourt 1Star Bottle.
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The comapny Societe du Rhum Barbancourt originated by Dupre Barbancourt was passed on to his wife Natalie Gardere upon his death. The couple did not have any children and she in turn left the company in the hands of her nephew Paul Gardere, who managed the company until 1946. Since that day many years ago the Barbancourt family have not been involved in the company. At Paul's death, his son Jean Gardere took control of the company until 1990.

In 1949 Jean Gardere decided to modernise the company and to relocate the distillery to the Plaine du Cul-de-Sac on l'Habitation Mouline, near Damien, where it is still located today. Work began on the new distillery in 1949 and was opened for rhum production in 1960, when sugar cane juice from the Domaine Barbancourt was first distilled into the now world famous rhum.

In 1990 Jean Gardere passed away and the company was passed into the hand's of his son Thierry, who still manages the company today.

 

The Scene at Barbancourt after the Earthquake.
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Much rhum was lost due to large size of the storage tanks.

On January 12th 2010 Haiti suffered a catastrophiccategory 7 earthquake centered 16 miles west of the capital city Port-au-Prince. It is estimated that around 230,000 lost their lives and up to 250,000 homes were destroyed.

The close proximity to the center of the earthquake meant that the Barbancourt Rhum Distillery was heavily effected. Years of rhum production was lost. So much rhum was lost that it killed all the coconut trees outside the distillery. Many of the workers who lost their homes used the soccer field to seek shelter and live in tents.

Exports have begun to flow again recently, but it will take years for the company to rebuild its stocks of aged rhums.

Old Postcard showing Barbancourt bottling line.
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A Homemade Wall Sign Advertising Clairin.
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Clairin
Clairin is unique to Haiti and plays an important role in the culture of Haiti. It is seen as an essential part of everyday Haitian life, from social functions to voodoo rituals. Clairin is considered the drink of the poor people (the vast majority) and Barbancourt is seen as the drink of the middle and upper classes.
While Barbancourt has won many international awards during its long history, clairin is virtually unheard of outside of Haiti. Most clairin is produced by small rum distilleries and bottled in small previously used rum bottles, with hand printed labels. It comes in various strengths and colours, from white, bright red and green to caramel brown. While additives are obviously added to change the colour and taste, it appears that clairin is rarely aged or filtered before bottling. Most bottlings will have clouds of unidentified floating objects resting at the bottom of the small bottles. This does not appear to alter the raw, harsh taste of these "rums".
No one is quite sure where the name clairin originated from, but one story suggests that it was the French colonists who first drank it would exclaim "C'est clair, hein?" A literal translation of this is "It is clear sorry/excuse". Another suggestion of the origins of the name are again French (for obvious reasons) for a refreshing pick-me-up drink.
A popular way to purchase clairin is to buy it straight from the still if you take your own bottle to the distillery for a fill-up. The Rumelier has received several bottles of clairin from the still from friends. Most come in old Barbancourt 3 Star bottles and one or two have come in plastic juice bottles. These are of the clear white variety and have aromas similar to the French agricole rhums from Martinique and obvious similarities to moonshine.
Many small bottlings of clairin, usually 175ml, are available sporadically in the Turks and Caicos Islands, usually imported on the old wooden sailboats that trade between the islands. Many of these boats can be found wrecked on local shorelines, abandoned after they have deposited their cargo of illegal aliens in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

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Most clairin appears to be bottled straight from the still at what are considered fairly low levels of alcohol when compared with commercially distilled major brands. Barbancourt is distilled up to 90%. Most clairin is bottled between 30% to 50%. The Bel Rose pictured below is bottled at 12%.
Clairin is everywhere in Haiti. You will it find at many roadside market stalls, being sold in a wide variety of colours. Some people call it the scurge of Haiti as it causes many social problems.
Clairin is a hard drink to describe in terms of taste, unless you are used to drinking moonshine, agricole rhum or ethanol. The aromas can be very strong. There has been some talk of aging some clairin for the local market, but this is an expensive process and defeats the main aim of clairin, an inexpensive drink for the masses.

Lakay Kleren.
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Bel Rose is a Red Coloured Clairin.
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Berling SA Rhums

Rhum Vieux Labbe from Berling S.A., Haiti.
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Berling Vieux Labbe 10 Ans D'age, from Haiti.
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This is an amazing, fine Cognac like French Rhum.

Berling SA  
Berling S.A. has been in operation for over sixty years. The company was set up like many other distilleries in the region, by a European who emigrated to the Caribbean. During the second World War a German named Siegfried Linge, whose family were farmers by trade and came from the Elsterwerda/Biehla area in Germany, where they had huge tracts of farmland.
Once in Haiti Siegfried Linge married a local Haitian lady called Jane Barbancourt and this name was given to the rum distillery they set up together. This can be confusing as many people think their rhum is made by the same company that makes the world famous Rhum Barbancourt of the Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, which is actually made by T.Gardere & Cie company, a seperate company.

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The Linge Castle in Haiti.
A Bottle of Jane Barbancourt Coconut Rhum.
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Today the Jane Barbancourt company is run by Mme. Linge's son, Herbert Barbancourt Linge and is called Berling S.A. The distillery is high up in the mountains above the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince in Jane Barbancourt's castle. Apparently there is a spectacular view of the city and the bay from the castle in a town called Boutiller, a few miles east of Port-au-Prince.
One of the latest rhums produced by the company today is the award winning rhum called Rhum Vieux Labbe. This rhum is named after Jane Barbancourt's grandfather Labbe Barbancourt and comes in four different labellings, white, (shown below) gold, red and black.
While the company does not mention what the source of their rhum is, it is believed that the rhum is a blend of sugar cane juice and molasses based rhums, which give it a distinctive flavour. The company produces nearly two dozen varieties of rhum, including many flavours like coffee, coconut, orange, anisette and hibiscus. They also produce a line of cream liqueurs called Cremas, and have three flavours, coconut, rum raisin and cocoa.

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Herbert Linge (President of Berling) and Ian "Rum Ambassador" Burrel.

*Special thanks to Helga Eschrich from Toronto, Canada for supplying the old photographs and correct information on the Linge family.*

Jane Barbancourt's Castle in Haiti.
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Siegfried Linge and his wife, Jane Barbancourt, in an old photograph.
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Inside the Linge's Castle, Haiti.

Other Haitian Rhums

The photographs shown below are of some old advertising materials displaying other probably long gone Haitian Rhums. They are added just for historical purposes. If anybody can provide any information on these rhums it would be very gratefully accepted and published here. 

 

Rhum "Champion" 

Distillerie de L'Aigle, Rhum Champion, Haiti.
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M.Fontaine Proprietor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Rhum "Champion" Price List.
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Rhum Sarthe Gold Seal

Rhum Sarthe Gold Seal Price List.
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Edmond Celcis, Distributor, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.