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Cuban rum has the mystique, but does it live up to the hype?

🕐 6 min read

Long before I got interested in booze, I knew Cuban rums were forbidden and wonderful – none more so than Havana Club.

Until recently, when U.S.-Cuba relations began to thaw, we weren’t able to buy Cuban rum. Cuban-style white rums were available, but rum from the island itself retained an ineffable mystique, as though, with one sip, we’d be sitting in El Floridita, knocking back drinks with Hemingway, watching beautiful women in guayabera shirts play chess and smoke cigars over platters of ropa vieja while Michael Corleone and his brother Fredo dance an angry mambo on the hood of a mid-century American car.

The mythology around Cuban rum, and Havana Club specifically, is bound into our feelings about Cuba itself, impressions both muddled and enhanced by the fact that most Americans have never been there.

Now Americans are heading to Cuba in droves. Visitors can bring back up to $100 worth of booze. And there are signs of movement in the longstanding legal battles between booze powerhouses Bacardi, which left Cuba after the revolution and later acquired the rights to sell its Puerto Rican-made “Havana Club” in the United States, and Pernod Ricard, which (in partnership with the Cuban government) sells Cuban “Havana Club” around the rest of the world. However their trademark dispute is finally resolved, the rules are expected to relax further in the next few years, allowing Cuban-made rums to sell in the States for the first time since 1962.

How will Havana Club hold up to its legend?

To help find out, Cubano’s restaurant in Silver Spring set up a blind tasting of four light and two dark rums for a panel of four: Lukas Smith, cocktail specialist and bar manager at Cotton & Reed distillery in the District; master sommelier Jarad Slipp of RdV Vineyards in Fauquier County, Va.; Adolfo Mendez, the owner of Cubano’s; and me. We tasted the Cuban Havana Club Añejo 3 Años, Bacardi’s Havana Club Añejo Blanco, longtime industry standard Bacardi Superior, and Caña Brava from the 86 Co., which is distilled in Panama by a longtime Cuban rum master. The dark rums were the Cuban Havana Club Añejo 7 Años and Bacardi’s new Añejo Clásico.

One of the dark rums smacked of butterscotch and had a faint salinity; the vanilla and wood notes from barrel aging were prominent in a way that the other dark rum seemed to express more subtly. In that other, I tasted caramel, vanilla, a subtle grassiness and some cinnamon – and it was the unanimous favorite.

Mendez articulated the group perspective: “Because of the history, the myth about it, this should be the Cuban [Havana Club],” he said.

We were all wrong. Turned out our favorite was Bacardi’s Puerto Rican-made Añejo Clásico.

Among the lighter rums, the favorite was a split decision between the Cuban and Bacardi Havana Clubs. As to the others, the largely vodkalike Bacardi Superior had a subtle florality; none of us cared for the Caña Brava.

When the light rums were mixed into the house mojitos, the differences among them were imperceptible. But later I mixed them into daiquiris, a more spirit-forward cocktail, and the differences among the drinks were more apparent. There were rums that allowed the daiquiri to shine as a drink, and rums that bossily made the daiquiri their own. Caña Brava performed better here, disappearing into the cocktail seamlessly.

Jason Kosmas, co-owner of the 86 Co., acknowledged that its Caña Brava isn’t meant for sipping. “Most distillers,” he says, “consider the bottle of their product final; we decided a while ago that ours are finalized in the drink itself.”

Owen Thomson, a co-owner of D.C. tiki bar Archipelago, says that a customer there who asks for a daiquiri will probably get Caña Brava; it was designed for such cocktails and he likes its viscosity. Some customers experiment with other types of rum; an aged rum daiquiri “can be delicious, but you’d need to lighten up the sugar a touch,” he says.

One of my favorite daiquiri variations is a slightly less sweetened version of the accompanying recipe, with Banks 5 Island rum. (None of the five islands that contribute juice to its blend is Cuba.) Smith likes to use Smith & Cross overproof Jamaican rum. “Some will say this isn’t a proper daiquiri, but I know what I like,” he says.

To Cuba purists, such ad-libbing may seem sacrilegious. To Cuban Havana Club’s master blender, Asbel Morales, his product is more than a rum; it is an expression of Cuban culture. “The brand is iconic in Cuba,” he writes in an email, noting that the logo is reproduced in many different ways by local artisans as a symbol of the country; half of the rum consumed in Cuba is Havana Club.

Such loyalty is not unique to Cuba, points out David Cid, global brand master of rum and cane spirits for Bacardi. Although whiskey drinkers tend to be polyamorous, dabbling in bourbon and Scotch and Japanese whiskeys, rum tends to bring out national pride, he says. “When you go to Jamaica, the best rum in the world is Jamaican rum; when you go to Barbados, the best rum in the world is Bajan rum; when you go Puerto Rico, the best rum in the world is Puerto Rican rum. There might be others available, but nobody’s pouring them of their free will unless somebody asks for them.”

In Miami, Cid says, there may be loyalties to Bacardi among those who grew up drinking it in Cuba, came here around the time of the revolution and identify with the experience of exile. But there are also Cubans who have never tasted Bacardi’s rums. The company left the island and saw its assets seized after the revolution, and it still has no presence in Cuba. Like Havana Club for us, Bacardi rums “are the forbidden fruit for them,” he says.

Much of our obsession with Cuban rum “is really myth over substance,” says Archipelago co-owner Ben Wiley. He points out that the daiquiri in its purest form has become a favorite among craft bartenders, one they make to demonstrate their chops. It’s shaken, cold, tangy, lightly sweet, with just the right amount of rummy funk. But those craft daiquiris are not necessarily “authentic.” At El Floridita in Havana, they’re churned out in blenders.

If the rules continue to loosen as expected, you’ll soon be able to more easily stack Cuban rum up against varieties from everywhere else. But a daiquiri that lives up to the enduring mystique of Cuban rum? Start shaking. You may need to make it yourself.

Allan is a writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.

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