I will immediately say this for Haitai’s Rhum Barbancourt—it’s been quite a while since any rum review required me to do quite this much reading and research, before I started writing. This is an unusual, unique product, and the more one reads about it, the stranger and more distinct within the rum industry it becomes. It exists in a wholly separate little niche all its own, apart from both the molasses-based rums of the Caribbean and the cane juice-based rhum agricole of Martinique, Guadalupe and others. It takes time to wrap your head around this particular product, even if you’re already a rum geek.
Allow me to explain.
Rhum Barbancourt is the most famous rum producer in Haiti, although it’s hard to know if we should be spelling it “rum” or “rhum” in this case—more on that momentarily. On the island itself, however, the most commonly consumed spirit is known as clairin, which is essentially a DIY, unregulated and locally produced form of rum. Clairin is produced by small-time neighborhood distillers from fresh sugarcane juice instead of molasses, as in rhum agricole, but is allowed to ferment via wild yeast rather than commercial yeast strains. This results in a lot of variation and local terroir in clairin, along with the fact that local farmers are often using less common, heirloom sugar cane varietals to make their spirits. This is the spirit consumed on a daily basis by many Haitians—unaged, funky and individualistic.
Rhum Barbancourt, meanwhile, makes a more refined product for both local consumption and worldwide export, but their methods are unusual for the industry in several ways. They ferment pure sugar cane juice, as in rhum agricole, but do not fall under the French-style AOC certifications present in places like Martinique, and don’t use the word “agricole” as a result. They then age their rums in French Limousin oak casks, which they note is “a method similar to the finest cognacs.” These releases are available in a range of age statements, from an unaged white rum to a 15-year-old premium product.
However, there’s another aspect of production that is quite important to note, and that is the double distillation of Rhum Barbancourt to a very, very high proof. Unlike most rhum agricole, which is distilled only once to an initial proof of around 140 (70% ABV), Rhum Barbancourt is reportedly distilled all the way to 180 proof (90% ABV) before being cut with water. This results in a more “pure” spirit, but one that has had more of its terroir and innate, sugar cane-derived flavors stripped away, as this proof point is almost vodka-like … vodka must be distilled to 190 proof, actually. It suggests that the distillery is attempting to make light-bodied rums that are on the more subtle side, which will be perceived by the consumer as “smooth.” It’s almost like the rum equivalent of “light whiskey” in the whiskey industry, in fact.
Rhum Barbancourt has been in operation since 1862 and in 2020 transferred leadership to the fifth generation of the Gardère family to operate the distillery, Delphine Nathalie Gardère. As the distillery puts it: “Her father, Thierry Gardère, a staple in the spirit industry, managed the company for almost three decades until he passed away in March 2017. After succeeding him and managing the brand for the first year; Delphine has now come back at the helm of the company, representing the second female leader in the history of the distillery.”
With all that said, let’s finally turn our attention toward Rhum Barbancourt Reserve Speciale, also known simply as Rhum Barbancourt Five Star, which is aged 8 years. It carries an approachable price tag of only $25-30 in the U.S. for a 750 ml bottle, and I can only imagine that the relatively low price point is at least partially due to the efficiency of the operation in producing a spirit with such a high initial proof point, which means more rum per batch and more profitable margins. It’s bottled at a respectable, but approachable 43% ABV (86 proof).
Let’s get to tasting this odd beast of a rum.
On the nose, this rum immediately runs counter to some of my expectations, after reading the label. I had expected a big blast of grassy/earthy/funky agricole notes, as I’ve come to expect in sugar cane-juiced derived rhums from companies like Rhum Clement and Rhum JM, but the nose of Rhum Barbancourt is more subdued and less defined by freshness or funkiness than those comparisons. Instead, it actually feels a bit more like a molasses-based rum than a sugar cane juice-based one, with light notes of caramel apple and toasted sugar/toffee, and hints of stem ginger and white pepper. Certainly, this one doesn’t have the big earthy/mushroom intensity you find in a lot of agricoles, although I must note that there’s a pretty substantial ethanol presence for the relatively low proof, which gives it a noticeable acetaldehyde/green apple note.
On the palate, this is likewise unusual, and at times a person tasting blind might actually think they were sampling brandy or apple brandy. Citrus and white grape fruitiness is present, along with a slowly developing brown sugar/vanilla extract sweetness that pushes it into more familiar rum territory, but taken as a whole the effect isn’t particularly “rummy,” as it were. There’s a feeling here of smoothed-out artificiality that I suspect is due to the high distillation point, which has imparted a “neutral ethanol” note that peeks up from time to time. With that said, this spirit is quite easygoing for the most part, but unusual in its viniferous influences.
The obvious use here, as far as I’m concerned, would be mixing. I see references to Rhum Barbancourt for neat drinking, but in that case I’d be more interested in a fuller-flavored and textured spirit, regardless if it was made from molasses or sugar cane juice. Throw this in a Cuba Libre, though, or other lighter rum cocktails, and you’ll be doing just fine.
Distillery: Rhum Barbancourt
City: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
ABV: 43% (86 proof)
Availability: 750 ml bottles, $25-30 MSRP
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident brown liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.