Not all rums are created equal — just ask the Cubans
San José de las Lajas, Cuba — Cuba’s signature rum, Havana Club, competes with the best known brands in the world even though it cannot be sold in the largest rum-consuming market.
In Cuba, there are barrels that have been used to age rum for more than six decades — as long as the US embargo on the island has been in place — and that give the liquor distilled from sugar cane its unique flavour.
Hundreds of casks rest in the Havana Club warehouses in San José, 30km from Havana, bathed in a sweet woody aroma redolent of vanilla, while bottle after bottle moves down the production line waiting to be filled.
It was in Cuba 150 years ago that light, Spanish-style rum was first created, which, through natural aging in white-oak casks, blending and skill, has evolved into the softer, darker, more subtle version consumed today. "We are not afraid to say that for us Cuban rum is the best in the world," says rum master Asbel Morales, who has been making rum for three decades.
Despite the US embargo, global sales of Havana Club, which is available in 120 countries, grew 6% in 2017, led by Germany and France. And China, a big market for Cuban cigars, has huge potential.
"The US represents 39% of the global market for premium rum. For political reasons, Havana Club is excluded from that market and yet despite that we are among the three leading rums in the world," marketing director Sergio Valdes told AFP.
According to the latest ranking by Drinks International magazine, Havana Club is among the top three in sales globally along with Plantation and Bacardi. Since 1993, the brand has been co-owned by the Cuban government’s Cuba Ron, and French company Pernod Ricard, the number two spirits company in the world.
But the family that owned Havana Club from 1934 until Fidel Castro’s revolution expelled them from the country, kept the original recipe, and in 1994 the Arechabalas sold the recipe to Bacardi, another Cuban exile company. A year later Bacardi began selling its own version of Havana Club, produced in Puerto Rico and sold in the US market, with the slogan: "Forced from home. Aged in Exile. Forever Cuban."
Pernod Ricard dismissed the Puerto Rican version as an upstart misleading consumers, and sued Bacardi for using the trademarked brand name — litigation that continues.
"You can’t talk about Cuban rum if you don’t have the soil, the temperature, the humidity that exists in Cuba," Morales says. The aging process "is not comparable to anywhere else in the world. It’s done naturally with no additives". And Cuba "has very little pollution. This makes sugar cane grow more quickly, with a high sugar content and low amount of substances that degrade the molasses", the raw material for rum.
Under former US president Barack Obama relations with Washington thawed, which led Cuba Ron to register the "Havanista" trademark in the US in preparation to sell a seven-year-old version in the US market if the embargo were lifted. But that seems unlikely under President Donald Trump, so the rum will just keep aging while it waits.
London-based rum expert Ian Burrell told AFP the three-year-old versions of the two Havana Clubs are very different, and he can pick out the Cuban style — aged in Scotch and Irish whisky barrels — in a blind taste test with its light woodiness and citrus notes. The Bacardi version — aged in barrels used for American bourbon — "is lighter compared to the modern-day Cuban rums. So there is a really big difference between the two products", he says.
... both rums can be used in different ways as a base for cocktails that showcase their qualities. I find the Cuban version a little sweeter on the palate with the Puerto Rican version drier.
"To me, as a bartender, both rums can be used in different ways as a base for cocktails that showcase their qualities. I find the Cuban version a little sweeter on the palate with the Puerto Rican version drier."
German tourist Curosch Zandi is a fan. "Cuban rum? I don’t know, there is something special about the taste. Maybe it’s about the country," he says after buying a bottle at the Rum Museum in Havana.
The human touch is key to a rum’s flavour. "The role the rum master plays, what he has in his mind, nose, throat, identify the profile of product he wants to obtain," Morales says. "Without the master controlling the process from the raw material to the finished product, it is impossible to make Cuban rum."
Burrell says a rum master is "like an artist using a palette", blending rums from different distilling columns to create a final product that matches the desired flavour profile. In Cuba, there are eight rum masters — one a woman — who benefit from a tradition passed from generation to generation. And those old white-oak barrels are critical. They have been used to age whisky, and are essential to the rich colour and natural flavours of the rum.
The master selects the specific barrel for each batch and decides how long to age it there. For example, vanilla notes become apparent after 10 years. The highest quality rums are aged in 60-year-old barrels, in which only oxygen, time and the wood contribute to the smooth liquor’s flavour.