Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Support Haiti. Support Vodou. Buy Barbancourt Rum.

From the Chicago Tribune, Feb. 28, article by Scott Kraft:
Since Haiti's founding, its important institutions have had shortened lives: The presidential palace has been burned down twice and again lies in ruins. Thirty-two rulers have been toppled. One leader was thrown out, returned and was sent packing again.

Over the last century and a half, though, one national institution has survived intact -- Rhum Barbancourt.

The earthquake that struck Haiti last month didn't pass over the venerable distillery north of Port-au-Prince. Walls collapsed, machinery was damaged, and the plant's 800 French oak vats, each holding 2,000 gallons of rum, tumbled into one another like dominoes. About a third of the rum splashed onto the ground.

But the maker of Haiti's best-known export, founded by Dupre Barbancourt in 1862, is an institution that isn't likely to disappear any time soon.

"There's a lot of work to do, and we lost a lot of rum," said Thierry Gardere, the silver-haired 57-year-old who presides over the company. "But we should be back in production in three or four months."

Beyond the distillery itself, the quake took a toll on the staff. Four of the plant's 250 employees died in their homes. The company opened its soccer field to homeless residents of the neighborhood, and its employees are among the 1,400 camped there.

The secret to Barbancourt's survival in the face of Haiti's tumultuous history, Gardere believes, is its steadfast resistance to change. Another reason is the sense of loyalty Haitians have for their national drink and the special place it holds in important rituals, from weddings and holidays to bringing forth the Vodou spirits that appease the dead and protect the living.

Each of the spirits has a favorite beverage. For some it's moonshine, for others Champagne. But for several important spirits, it's five-star Barbancourt. Nothing else will do.
From Cigar Aficionado, Aug. 1 2000, article by Jack Bettridge:
While Barbancourt has as many medals as a Haitian general, perhaps its biggest accolade is that it is--by default, if not "by appointment"--the libation demanded in rituals by the Voodoo spirits, who get famously upset if they don't have their way. (The star on the rum's label is said to be a symbol of a Voodoo god.) Thierry Gardère, the fourth-generation head of the family business, is almost equally as upset at the idea that people would want to drink his rum with mixers. "Some makers don't like people to drink their rum without a mixer­ and I'm not surprised," he sniffs. "[Barbancourt] has a particularity, like a fine Cognac, but you can smell the sugarcane." His disdain for mixing applies to the eight-year-old Five Star as well, although he's prepared to consider the possibility with the four-year-old Three Star.
And here is a description of the history, production, and ritual use of Barbancourt, by "Cornelia" over at the nakedauthors blog ("Well I've Never Been to Haiti, But I Kinda Like the Voodoo"):
The House of Barbancourt was founded in 1862 in the heart of Port-au-Prince. Run today by the sugarers Jean Gardere and Company, this rum is still pot-stilled from fresh cane juice. Barbancourt is thus what is known as an "agricultural" rum, as opposed to the more common industrial rums, which are molasses-based. This rum is produced exclusively from cane grown in the fields of Plaine du Cul-de-Sac. According to the Barbancourt website, "It is common belief that this cane is evocative of its genuine soil, the terroir. A unique wild yeast, originating from this area, probably exists, which proliferates on the cane stalks, thus producing these peculiar esters, taste and aroma of Barbancourt brands, during the fermentation process."

Once this cane has been harvested, it must be crushed and processed quickly, before the cane begins to dry out, allowing the sugars to deteriorate. The cane is cut into small pieces, to ensure proper sugar extraction, before it is sent to the three sets of mills needed to begin rum production. After the first milling, water is added to the cane so that the last of the sugars can be extracted, but the juice is never diluted to less than 14 degrees Brix, at which optimum fermentation occurs.

This juice, called Vesou, is filtered again and mixed with a proprietary yeast before being stocked in vats. After 72 hours, the juice has fermented into a sugar cane wine, known as wort. In the second step, the wort is distilled to remove unpleasantly flavored alcohols, and then aged in oak casks in a manner similar to that employed in cognac production.

This is the technical side of Barbancourt, but it has insinuated itself into the culture of Haiti in remarkable ways, particularly as something of a sacrament in the rites of Vodou, the Haitian hybrid of Roman Catholicism and African animist religions known more widely as "voodoo."

Bottles of Barbancourt are routinely incorporated into the Mange loa, or "feeding the gods," the most frequently performed ritual in vodou. Food and drink offerings are placed on an altar, to nourish and fortify these divine spirits, the vodouin equivalent of saints. The Mange loa is performed to allow a devotee to make contact with a particular loa. Each of these beings has favorite foods and totems, but all are partial to Barbancourt, which is poured three times on the ground for the loa's delectation.
Personally I think that Barbancourt Rhum should now be the default for all Pagans who include any kind of libation or alcohol offering in their practice (and for those who don't: what's up with that?). Offering libations is a very common feature among the many and varied African Traditional Religions, including those that have made a home for themselves in the Western Hemisphere. And, as the above excerpts testify, Vodou practitioners use Barbancourt Rhum for just this purpose.

Instead of giving money to Christian missionaries, Hollywood stars, and jet-set hipster dogoodniks, why not contribute directly to rebuilding the Haitian economy, while also making a show of spiritual solidarity with the Loa and their Haitian devotees, by buying Rhum Barbancourt!

[The beautiful Mosaic Libation Bottle for "Le Siren" is by Johnt T. Unger, from his online gallery
here. The libation pouring photo is from the Caruthers-Watson family website. Shown is Valeria Watson-Doost aka Yeye Siju Osunyemi pouring a libation at Watson Cemetery in Irene, Texas.]