The name rum is considered to be linked to the Latin word for sugar, saccharum, and it is produced in almost all countries that grow sugar cane. Ron is Spanish for rum. Cuba is the greatest sugar-producing country in the Caribbean so it should come as no surprise that despite its relative isolation, it is also big in the rum-making business.
At one stage, there were over 120 rum factories in Cuba but that number has since halved. After the Cuban revolution, the factories were confiscated by the government without any compensation for the original owners – taking over all the main production assets of all the well-known brands, including Bacardi (under a new name), Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba. The factories are now looked after by Corporacíon Cuba Ron and trade under the name of Cubaexport. I travelled to the island to research the history of Cuban rum as well as to find out what the locals drink and how they mix their cocktails. I was fascinated by the backstory about the Bacardi and Havana Club rums, and how they both claim to be the ‘real Cuban rum’. It reminded me of my previous article about the battles between two Scottish whisky distilleries. There’s nothing quite like a good fight over alcohol…..
Bacardi rum was originally from Santiago de Cuba in the south-eastern tip of this beautiful island. Don Facundo Bacardí Massó created Ron Ligero in 1862, a rum that had been ageing for years in white oak barrels. The Bacardi brand is the largest family-owned spirits company in the world and has remained in the family for the past seven generations. The company started to expand internationally when it opened bottling plants in Barcelona in 1910 and in New York in 1915. During prohibition (1920–1933), Cuba became a popular drinking destination for Americans and this helped Bacardi to come up with a plan to brand Cuba as the ‘home of rum’ and Bacardi as the ’king of rums’ – even though they may have a dubious claim to both. They then expanded even further to Mexico in 1931 and Puerto Rico in 1936, from where they eventually re-established sales in the USA after prohibition ended.
Viva la Revolucíon!
Funnily enough, most of the Bacardi family actually supported the revolution up until the Soviets showed up, even donating tens of thousands to the movement. In the end, the distillery and all its assets in Cuba were confiscated by the government in 1960 – the Bacardi family say illegally, although I’m sure Fidel would disagree. The family quickly emigrated to the USA, leaving all the barrels and equipment in the distillery, and by 1962, the Cuban government, using the left-over rum, replaced Bacardi with their own brand, ‘Ron Caney’. However, the Bacardi brand had already been established in foreign countries and they had previously moved its trademarks out of Cuba for safekeeping, unlike the other local rum-makers pre-revolution, and all this helped the company to rebuild the brand elsewhere.
Ron Caney is being produced in the former Bacardi distillery with the left-over Bacardi rum barrels simply bottled and sold under a new name. The rum is claimed to contain all the traditional elements of the original Ron Ligero first made by Don Facundo Bacardí Massó 100 years earlier. Ron Caney is also called ‘El Ron de la Revolucíon’ and currently the brand is producing seven different rums which all claim to be handmade, apart from bottling and labelling. This has, however, been hard to verify and some local rum merchants seemed doubtful, as the rum is produced in the same premises as Santiago de Cuba rum, which is not handmade. Many Cubans seemed to prefer Ron Caney over Havana Club, although it was rarely available in the local shops – perhaps they were saving it for the locals and not for the tourist. The rum is, however, available online in most of Europe and Asia. I recommend you give it a go and compare it with the mass-produced Bacardi or Havana Club.
The company was originally founded in 1934 by Jose Arechabala, who was selling Havana Club only in Cuba and in the USA. Like Bacardi, the Havana Club distillery was nationalised and confiscated by the government during the revolution without any compensation. After the family left Cuba, they were unable to compete with the government as, unlike Bacardi, Havana Club didn’t have any production outside of Cuba. With Arechabala and his family gone, the Cuban government eventually registered the trademark ‘Havana Club’ in the USA in 1976.
Since 1993, the government has had a 50:50 contract with Pernod Ricard to sell Havana Club rum internationally, everywhere except in the USA and its territories, although this may change very soon as relations with the Obama government continue to thaw. However, it’s worth noting that when you have a glass of Havana Club, you aren’t drinking the original. Even if the government may be producing rum under the original name in the original factory with the original equipment, it never had the original recipe – Jose took that with him when he fled. Then, like all good soap operas, we have another twist in the tale. In 1994, Bacardi bought the remaining rights to Havana Club brand from the Arechabala family and created another Havana Club rum based on the original recipe. The rum is manufactured in Puerto Rico and sold as ‘Havana Club’ in limited amounts (due to the ongoing legal battles) in the USA.
Over the years, there have been several unsuccessful battles to legalise Bacardi’s Havana Club trademark outside the USA. Since Pernod Ricard’s involvement, the Cuban Havana Club brand has grown internationally and is now the fifth largest rum brand. They’ve also branded the rum as the ‘real Cuban rum’ to boost the sales. Clearly, this has made Bacardi worried about their situation in the rum market and they have since rebranded their rum to remind buyers they are also originally Cuban. You can now find the phrase ‘company founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1862’ on their bottles.
In January 2016, the US government finally awarded a trademark for Havana Club to the Cuban government and therefore they have been given the rights to sell Havana Club with Pernod Ricard in the USA as soon as the trade embargo is lifted. Bacardi has already raised several questions regarding the ruling and it is likely it will lead to a legal battle with Pernod Ricard. Bacardi has commented on the news by declaring they are “committed to defending the fundamental rights against confiscations without compensation”.
“We support both legislation and legal action upholding the principle of protection of trademarks and ensuring trademarks that have been illegally confiscated by the Cuban government without consent of their rightful owners not be recognised by the international community,” Bacardi said.
This is a battle that seems set to rumble on and on….
It will be interesting to follow the outcome of the battle between the two big brands and to see what possibilities will arise to try new rums after the Cuban trade embargo is ended. Cuba has always produced top-quality rums, and even though the revolution caused significant disruption, they still remain a top producer. Even if all the local rums are not available worldwide, tourists can source some bottles locally to take home. Hopefully, the success of both Havana Club and Bacardi will over time help the other rum brands to become widely available.
So, which one of the Havana Club rums is actually the ‘real Cuban rum’? On the one hand, Bacardi was established in Cuba before Havana Club so it is within their rights to add that little line mentioning they were founded in Santiago de Cuba. On the other hand, even if they might have the original recipe for Havana Club, the name is misleading when the rum is not produced in Cuba and neither are they using sugar cane from the island. In my humble opinion, the Havana Club rum trademark belongs to Cuba even if it was forcibly taken from the family. Bacardi is already a success story without having to keep a hold on the Havana Club brand. Also, if they had just used the original recipe but named the rum something else they probably would be able to sell it worldwide rather than limit themselves to the USA. They seem to be fighting the wrong battle and, with the politics involved now in cosying up to Cuba, it is one they are unlikely ever to win.
Classic rum cocktails
Most Cuban cocktails were created using Bacardi rum, although not many remember this. For example, the popular, yet often considered tacky, Piña Colada was created in 1954 by barman Ramon Marrero using Bacardi rum, and the cocktail has since been declared Puerto Rico’s national drink. Puerto Rico is also where Bacardi’s version of Havana Club is being produced, yet Piña Colada is widely served in Cuba.
In 1900, American soldiers combined Bacardi Carta de Oro with new soda made from coca leaf and the kola nut, garnished with lime, and the Cuba Libre was born. Nowadays in Cuba they have two variations, Cuba Libre made with white rum and Cubata made with dark rum.
‘Frappe’ Daiquiri was invented around 1920 by a barman in El Floridita cocktail bar. The bar has since been branded the ‘Cradle of Daiquiri’. Even if the original hand-shaken Daiquiri (mix of Bacardi rum, sugar, lime and ice) was invented in 1898 by an American engineer working at Daiquiri copper mines near Santiago de Cuba, the frozen Daiquiri is the only way the cocktail is made in Cuba.
Hemingway once wrote, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” La Bodeguita el Medio, as well as El Floridita, are both now major tourist attractions in Havana and the famous cocktails in these bars are ruined by the fast demand. Apart from the staff, don’t expect to see locals in these venues; the cocktails are overpriced and the frappe cocktails at El Floridita in particular are actually very very bad. You can hardly tell the difference between the original Daiquiri and Papa Doble – same drink different glass.
Mojito was invented in Havana but the exact time is unclear. It is considered to date as far back as the 16th century. The first version was called ‘El Draque’ after Francis Drake. Unlike most cocktail bars around the world, in Cuba the drink is made with ice cubes rather than crushed ice. Some places chop the mint and others add a few drops of angostura bitters, but no matter what the variations, the cocktail is always refreshing.
Other popular rum cocktails are Cubanito, the Cuban version of Bloody Mary, and Canchanchara, a strong drink popular in Trinidad. It is made with rum, honey and lime and served in a tiny clay pot without ice. It’s a strong short drink considered as local moonshine. Fidel Castro prefers dark rum with lime juice and ginger ale.
When it comes to cocktails, the Cubans know how to do it with a simplicity one will appreciate, especially today, when cocktails are so often prepared with too much fuss, by bar staff who think it’s all about the show. Many places have their own variations of Cuban cocktails. However, it is something special to actually enjoy a local Piña Colada whilst listening to one of the local bands in the beautiful town of Trinidad in Central Cuba or to sip an unpretentious Mojito on a terrace in Havana watching daily life go by.
More tips on where to drink in Havana see my previous article on smarter drinking in Havana.