Review: Rhum Barbancourt 5 Star Special Reserve 8 Year Old Rum

I’ll be honest — Haitian rum wasn’t on my bucket list of things to try, mostly because I had heard practically nothing about it. It’s not one of the Caribbean islands that come to mind when you think of rum production, and yet their distilleries have been cranking out quality products for as long (if not longer) than others in the region. Today we’re looking at the flagship Haitian rum: Barbancourt’s 5 Star Special Reserve 8 Year Old Rum.



Rum production in the Caribbean has been going on for longer than the United States has been in existence. The earliest references date back to 1651, but production in Haiti seems to be tied closely with its French colonial history. Together with Martinique, Guadalupe, and other islands in the Caribbean, these French territories began cranking out rum starting around 1811. The hallmark of French rum production was that instead of using blackstrap molasses (the waste product from producing raw granulated sugar from sugar cane plants), the distilleries would instead use fresh pressed sugar cane juice directly in their fermentation process. For distilleries still within France, this process is protected as Rhum Agricole.

On March 18, 1862, a pair of French brothers in Haiti named Dupré and Labbé Barbancourt began similarly distilling rum directly from fresh pressed sugar cane juice. Originally from the region of Charente, which is known for its rich history of cognac distillation, it makes sense that fermenting and distilling spirits would be something familiar that made sense to try. Their spirit was an instant hit, and started a family owned business that continues to operate to this day.

Labbé left the company in 1906, leaving his brother in sole control of the business. Upon Dupré’s death ownership of the distillery passed to Dupré’s wife Nathalie Gardère, and that side of the family has owned and operated it ever since. The latest CEO of the company is Delphine Nathalie Gardère, who entered that role in 2017. The company remains headquartered in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti and is 100% privately owned.


To produce their first rum, the Barbancourt brothers copied the original cognac production method and simply substituted fresh sugar cane juice for grape juice to start the process. Today, the process has been updated but follows roughly the same pattern.

As with other similar French rums, Barbancourt starts with fresh pressed sugar cane juice. The raw sugar cane is sourced from 3,000 individual farmers on the island of Haiti, totaling about 40,000 tons of plants. These sugar cane plants are crushed to express the juice inside, which is then fermented with a specific strain of Haitian yeast that has been in use for 150 years to create a mildly alcoholic (~7% alcohol) liquid. The excess plant material (the bagasse, in rum parlance) is then burned to generate heat, steam, and electricity for the operations on the facility.

Barbancourt uses a variation of the distillation process from mainland France to selectively capture the flavors and concentrate the alcohol in their product. While cognac requires the use of a pot still, Barbancourt uses a trio of column stills (also called continuous stills) to heat the sugary liquid with steam and cause the individual elements to boil. These boiling components are then captured and re-distilled again in a second and further in a third column still to produce the raw white rum.

Once distilled, the raw rum is placed into oak barrels. These barrels are sourced from Limousin, France (the same barrels used in the production of cognac) and shipped to Haiti, where they are locally constructed and filled with raw rum. Each barrel will be re-used for about 40 years before being replaced. After sitting in the barrels for a period of eight years the rum is blended, proofed down, and bottled for sale.


If you’re looking for a knock-out bottle design, this probably isn’t it. What we have here today is a straightforward, typical design for a bottle, with some minor embellishments that are just enough to let you know that the distillery cared about the production and made some effort to make these bottles their own.

As with most liquor bottles, the design is a rough approximation of a wine bottle shape. One key difference is the flared base with the text “Rhum Barbancourt” embossed into the glass, which is a nice and unique touch. From there, the body tapers outwards slightly to the rounded shoulder, which then continues in a medium length neck and is capped off with a cork stopper.

While the label is rather plain, I appreciate the clean style. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just a good, solid label design that lets you know what’s inside and where it came from. It’s a clean design that reminds me of some of the more modern French wine label designs, moving away from the ornate and heavily illustrated labels and moving towards something a little cleaner and more readable.

One thing to note is that the glass of the bottle is tinted. Historically, this was done to preserve the contents of the bottle, especially on long voyages, which makes sense for a French overseas colony to do when shipping their product back to the mainland. These days, the tinting might be less necessary, and usually I prefer to see the actual color of the spirit… but in historical context, it makes sense.



While the glass of the bottle might be colored, the liquid inside still looks great on its own. It has a rich golden color that I’d usually associate with a Scottish whisky instead of a Caribbean rum, but I’m not complaining. Coming off the glass are aromas that remind me of Cuban rums: toasted marshmallow, a hint of vanilla, and brown sugar. It’s a pleasantly light and delicious aroma with some serious sweetness thrown in for good measure.

That simplicity and sweetness comes through as clearly in the flavor as it does in the aroma. It tastes like a toasted marshmallow on a graham cracker — caramelized sugar, vanilla, and near the finish there are some more hints of baking spices that start to develop. Other notes I can spot are hints of honey, some very light pineapple and banana (especially at first), and black pepper spice on the finish.

On Ice

I was a bit hesitant to add the ice here — usually with a lighter and sweeter spirit, the extra dilution and chill tends to mute the light and sweet flavors and leave behind a glass of nothing. But I was happy to see that this spirit actually holds up pretty well to those icy rocks.

I’m still getting every bit of the aroma, and it still smells as delicious as ever. The flavors took a bit of a hit, but not a mortal wound — it just seems a bit muted compared to before. I can still taste the toasted marshmallow, the brown sugar, the vanilla, and even a bit of the baking spices. They aren’t quite as loud and well saturated as before, but they are still present.

Cocktail (Haitian Divorce)

I’m deviating a bit from the normal formula here, since typically we’d try this in a Dark and Stormy to see how it fares. I’ll save you the trouble: it’s fine. Mediocre. Unremarkable. But we actually have a cocktail where this specific spirit is called out as the main ingredient, and I almost feel honor bound to try it and see how it does.

It’s a pretty simple recipe:

  • 1 1/2 oz Barbancourt 8yr Rum
  • 3/4 oz Mezcal
  • 1/2 oz Sherry
  • 2 Dashes Angostura bitters

And to be honest, even in a cocktail where this spirit is specifically called out to be used, I’m not impressed by its performance. The vast majority of the flavors I’m getting are from the interaction between the mezcal and the sherry, and there isn’t even much room for the bitters in that conversation. The rum itself is fairly well drowned out and feels more like it is being used as a generic sweetener than for any particular flavors it brings to the party.


Overall Rating

While Haitian rums might not have been on my radar before, they are definitely something I’m going to spend some time investigating this year. This seems to be a delicious, clean, and straightforward rum that is very similar to the rhum agricole spirits that I enjoy from other French colonies, but with some different production choices and different terroir.

In terms of how this specific rum performs, I’d say it’s worth the price of admission. Sipping this neat is a good experience, but a bit boring and saccharine. There’s nothing technically wrong with it… I just would have liked a bit more depth and complexity. It stays together on ice, which is a testament to the distillation process, but there isn’t enough flavor to really make a difference in cocktails.

Giving you a peek behind the curtain here, I’ve already got a couple special bottles from Barbancourt queued up to try so keep an eye out for those reviews to come soon. With something this solid as a base, I’m excited to see what they can do to make some delicious variations on a theme.

Barbancourt 5 Star Special Reserve 8 Year Old Rum
Produced By: Barbancourt
Production Location: Haiti
Classification: Rum
Aging: 8 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $38.99 / 750 ml
Overall Rating:
All reviews are evaluated within the context of their specific spirit classification as specified above. Click here to check out similar spirits we have reviewed.

Overall Rating: 3/5
Toasted marshmallow on a graham cracker. Delicious, sweet, but gets lost in cocktails.


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