Mon, Apr 09, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Cuban rum and the end run around the US blockade

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

By Moises Avila  /  AFP, SAN JOS DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba

A bartender last month serves Havana Club Ritual rum at the Rum Museum in Havana, Cuba.

Photo: AFP

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 gives the liquor distilled from sugar cane its unique flavor.

Hundreds of casks rest in the Havana Club warehouses in San Jose, 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, 49, who has been making rum for three decades.

Despite the US embargo, global sales of Havana Club, which is available in 120 countries, grew six percent last year, led by Germany and France. And China, a big market for Cuban cigars, has huge potential.

“The US represents 39 percent 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,” said marketing director Sergio Valdes.

According to the latest ranking by Drinks International magazine, Havana Club is among the top three in sales globally along with Plantation and Bacardi.

CUBAN FROM CUBA

Since 1993, the brand has been co-owned by the Cuban government’s Cuba Ron SA, 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 dismisses 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 said. 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,” he said. “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 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 said 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 said.

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