Thirty-six-year-old Delphine Nathalie Gardère is the fifth generation and newest CEO of Rhum Barbancourt, one of Haiti’s largest rum exporters. Delphine is the second woman in her family to attain the head position in the company’s history. Rhum Barbancourt is the oldest rum company in Haiti, founded by Dupré Barbancourt in 1862.
In a virtual conversation with Delphine, she said, “My grandfather, a jurist/entrepreneur, brought the business from the back of the family house to the equivalent of the Great Plains of Haiti, which was a revolution. My father, an engineer, increased the production capacities. I come from a different background, with a business-oriented education, and work experience outside of the family business (investment banking and luxury goods marketing). “Every generation brings their touch, with their own history and own experience.”
Rum is made world-wide, but the Caribbean is probably the best-known area for production. It is believed that the first distillation of rum dates back to the 17th century on sugar cane plantations in the Caribbean, most specifically Barbados. The plantation workers discovered that molasses fermented into alcohol. Haiti is located in the Caribbean and is the western part of Hispaniola, bordering the Dominican Republic.
Rum is a distilled spirit made from sugar cane by-products such as sugar cane juice, sugar cane syrup, or molasses. Typically after the sugar cane is cut, it is taken to the mill and fed into a crusher. This process extracts the sugar cane juice from the fibrous pulp. At this point, the sugar cane juice can be fermented and distilled or cooked down into a syrup for fermentation and distillation. The last option is to process the sugar cane juice into molasses. Fermentation, distillation, and barrel-aging vary from one distillery to another. However, most rums are aged and blended with other batches from the distillery or blended with rums of different ages. Rum is available in many styles and flavors, from sipping rums to cocktail mixers to sweet, spicy, and herbal.
In 1862, Dupré Barbancourt used sugar cane juice and applied the traditional French distillation method of double distillation, usually reserved for the very finest Cognacs. He aged the rum in oak barrels from Limousin, France, as practiced in Cognac production in his native Charente. Dupré passed away in 1907, leaving no heirs. His wife, Nathalie Gardère, and her nephew Paul managed the company until her passing, and then Paul took over. During this time, the distillery was located in Port au Prince. Only a limited quantity of rum was produced and sold, with the older aged rum reserved solely for family and friends. In 1946, Paul’s son, Jean Gardère, took over the business, initiating its modernization. And by 1949, Rhum Barbancourt relocated the distillery to the “heart of the sugar cane fields” of Domaine Barbancourt.
By 1952, the company had transformed from a small cottage industry to an international exporter. Jean passed away in 1990, and fourth-generation Thierry Gardère took the helm. He upheld the commitment to quality, fine natural ingredients, and the unique cognac-based production process. Thierry passed away in 2017, passing the baton to his daughter, Delphine.
Delphine talked about growing up with the backdrop of the distillery and her “ah-hah” moment of wanting to be a part of it.
Delphine: “Growing up in Haiti was very particular. I was born in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, Haiti was under embargo. So my mother and I moved to Jamaica, where I learned English over the summer so I could attend school. My father at the time remained in Haiti. I remember as a child it being a very intense time. My father was the only one of his brothers and sisters to choose to move back to Haiti and work for Barbancourt. He was the one “holding the fort” in times of uncertainty, and he always had a strong sense of duty towards the employees, which they still admire. Several periods shaped our family history (end of the dictatorship, the departure of Aristide in 2004, Haiti earthquake). I have a lot of admiration for the courage, determination, and resilience he had, not only as my father but also as a CEO. This is what always keeps me going in difficult times. The family business was never something that was forced upon me and I slowly became involved in it. I first realized how “cool” it was when I went to high school in Paris. We had a presentation on career day from L’Oréal, where I discovered business strategy, marketing, packaging, etc. On this day, it really clicked for me that I wanted to go to business school. This was when things started.”
I asked Delphine to tell me about Barbancourt’s production process.
Delphine: “Today, Barbancourt employs 500 people and works with 3000 farmers in a co-op manner. Only 20% of our sugar cane comes from our lands; 80% is sourced from local farmers. It is at the core of our value chain. Our brand’s DNA is rooted in aged rums, and our Haitian Heritage makes our products unique in terms of positioning. Our products are made from sugar cane juice, but we are not an AOC Agricole Rum, as we are not French. (Rhum Agricole is the French term for rum made from sugar cane juice) We do not use molasses, so we are not English or Hispanic in terms of Rum. This trickles through our production process, which is unique and gives a rum that can be viewed as light, smooth, and with no added sugar or caramel.”
I received two samples of Rhum Barbancourt for review, and I tasted both rums neat.
Rhum Barbancourt Reserve Speciale, 5 Star Aged 8 Years
This is a noteworthy “sipping” rum that would most certainly add character to a light rum cocktail. Double distilled and aged for eight years in French oak. It is slightly dry and smooth. The nose offers caramel, vanilla, candied orange, spice, and a touch of ethanol. A surprising palate is reminiscent of brandy with notes of smokey toast, toffee, vanilla, and dried fruit that linger on a long finish.
Rhum Barbancourt Estate Reserve, Aged 15 Years
This is a rich and elegant sipping rum. Butterscotch, toast, baking spice, and orange peel aromas set the stage for this complex and creamy rum. The palate offers caramelized sugar, charred oak, candied fruit, orange peel, and a long finish of spice notes, and a touch of dark chocolate. It had my palate begging for another sip.
Before we said our virtual good-byes, I had a few more questions for Delphine.
Delphine, please tell me about your interest in Women’s Empowerment.
Delphine: “I live in Haiti and have two young daughters. I would feel like a fraud saying that the road leading up to this was easy. Inside and outside of my role at Barbancourt, I would like to use my voice to help other women. I recently went to dinner with men where I spent three hours being mansplained and manterrupted. It shows that there’s still a lot to be done in the area of Women’s Empowerment. This is my most recent example of things that need to change. On a larger scale, campaigns like “Me Too” that happened in the US are things that don’t exist here. Victims of abuse are often left confused, misunderstood, with no voice, and no one to talk to, in a country that doesn’t have the infrastructure for this.”
As CEO and fifth generation of the company, what is your vision for the future?
Delphine: I’m very humbled by the history and legacy of our family business. My role as the CEO of a family business is to grow and maintain the company for future generations. On a more personal level, my goal is to expand the fame of Rhum Barbancourt, increasing brand recognition through International development and the launch of new products. My professional background is deeply rooted in luxury consumer goods and brand strategic management, so I am looking forward to seeing Barbancourt grow and be the International Ambassador Haiti deserves.”
And, I am looking forward to following Delphine’s journey and enjoying more products from Rhum Barbancourt.
Feature photo is of sugar cane fields at Domaine Barbancourt.