Haitian rum maker rebuilds business after quake

PORT-AU-PRINCE Wed Mar 24, 2010 5:51pm EDT

1 of 3. Thierry Gardere, Director General of the Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, speaks during an interview with Reuters in one of their factories in Port-au-Prince March 24, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Felix Evens

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - At Haiti's famous Barbancourt rum factory, patches of grass and shrubs around the warehouses are burned black from where the aging golden liquor spilled from oak casks split by the January 12 earthquake.

Hundreds of liters (gallons) of premier rum, some aged up to 15 years, seeped into the parched soil from the toppled casks, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of potential export revenue for the Caribbean country's oldest manufacturer evaporated into the humid tropical air.

"We never expected an earthquake," said Thierry Gardere, Director General of the Societe du Rhum Barbancourt, which produces what it probably Haiti's best-known export.

"We'd thought about floods, hurricanes, but nothing of this magnitude," added Gardere, who estimated his total losses from the catastrophic quake, between damaged equipment and lost rum stocks, at $4 million.

Now Gardere, the fourth generation of Haiti's rum making family, is painstakingly trying to rebuild his export business back to its previous pre-quake level.

Barbancourt's rum sales had doubled over the last five years to 3 million liters a year, carving out a niche brand name in the international liquor industry, with sales to the United States, Europe, the Caribbean and Latin America.

Gardere expected that with the losses to his aged stocks, sales this year would fall to around 2.5 million liters and it would take four to five years to fully rebuild the reserve.

"Unfortunately, we are not able to bottle at the moment, and we have to put our aging rooms back in order," said Gardere, standing among factory workers who were hammering and sawing to repair oak casks felled and splintered by the quake.

Other workers piped fresh batches of light-gold sugar cane alcohol into intact casks and the company was repairing pipes connecting the aging rooms and the bottling unit.

Gardere said that the factory, fed by sugar cane fields where this year's harvest was already underway, was producing rum again, and he hoped that bottling for a fresh round of exports could restart within the month. A few weeks after the quake, which damaged Haiti's main port, the company was able to fulfill some pending orders with already bottled stocks.

Fortunately, the factory's sugar cane milling equipment and the distillery suffered little damage.

"A RARE PRODUCT"

But at least two Barbancourt workers were killed and around 100, out of a total workforce of 250, were left homeless by the January 12 quake, which Haiti's government believes may have killed up to 300,000 people in total.

The homeless employees were living at a temporary camp set up on the company soccer field. "We're trying to help," said Gardere, adding they were being supplied with water every day, and had been given tents.

Haiti's already impoverished economy suffered a hammer blow from the earthquake, and a government report says the private sector absorbed 70 percent of the total damage and losses.

Estimates for the total national economic loss vary from close to $8 billion to $14 billion. Haiti's government has put its overall recovery and reconstruction needs at $11.5 billion, ahead of a March 31 donors' conference in New York.

Gardere said that one unforeseen byproduct of the earthquake was that it gave unprecedented publicity to Haiti and also to Haitian products like Barbancourt rum, which, coupled with the reduced stock, had boosted its market value.

"It could be good for the image ... like a rare product," Gardere said. But he was wary of complacency, saying that tight supplies after the quake allowed rums from the neighboring Dominican Republic to encroach on the local Haitian market.

Too long an absence from the international market could threaten the Haitian rum brand's position there. "We'll be giving priority to the export sector because if we're out too long, it could be difficult to get back," Gardere said.

Founded by French spirits maker Dupre Barbancourt in 1862, the company makes its rum from sugar cane juice through a similar double-distillation method as used for cognac making.

This makes it richer and heavier than many other Caribbean rums, said Gardere. The liquor is aged in special Limousin oak barrels supplied by French company Seguin Moreau.

Gardere, whose own home was destroyed in the January 12 quake, says he is looking at ways to protect his aging rooms, filled with racks of rum-filled oak casks, from future earthquakes.

"I need to look at California and Chile, to see how they are protecting their wines," he said.

(Editing by Stacey Joyce)

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