The drink of choice in Cuba is ron — rum — although a cool Bucanero or Cristal beer is always refreshing, too. At every restaurant stop we receive a “complimentary cocktail” — a mojito, not very strong. This becomes a bit of a joke by about the tenth enthusiastic offering of the “complimentary cocktail!” However, it’s always a welcome joke, as I love mojitos, no matter how weak, and the fresh mint. Our guide also jokingly refers to rum as “Vitamin R,” as in “we need our daily minimum requirement.”
Rum goes with the hot weather, the music, the food, the jokes, and the friendly hospitality of Cuba.
I like photographing liquor bottles on a bar or cocktail table. It’s festive — all dressed up for a party or holiday. And the bottles are so varied, the labels creative, and the liquor itself gleams like rubies or amber. In a small apartment in Alamar, on the outskirts of Havana, I snapped this picture of the family’s table.
I was particularly interested in examining the drinks table in Hemingway’s home, Finca Vigia, also outside of Havana. His home is carefully preserved with many of his possessions intact. (See my blog post Nov. 4, 2013.) I assume the selection of bottles on display are his favorites. If so, he was a Bacardi drinker.
Rum, of course, is a distilled drink made from the byproducts of sugar production. Sugar cane was brought to the West Indies by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage. Not until the 1792 slave revolt shut down the sugar cane industry in Haiti did planters establish plantations in Cuba. As sugar cane production flourished, the byproducts of molasses and cane juice were increasingly used to make rum.
It was the Bacardi family who brought Cuban rum to the attention of the world. Facundo Bacardi Massó, a wine merchant, emigrated to Cuba in 1830 from Catalonia, Spain. He was soon determined to elevate common rum from a drink considered unrefined to a beverage on par with fine liquors. The book, Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba: The Biography of a Cause, by Tom Gjelten, relates the fascinating history, how Bacardi’s first isolated a strain of yeast that gives his rum its flavor profile and developed a filtering and aging process to produce the world’s first white rum.
The story of the family itself is entwined with the history of Cuba, from the War of Independence against Spain to the rise of Fidel Castro, when the company’s assets, along with those of all private enterprises, were confiscated. The Bacardi family had already moved ownership of its trademark, proprietary formulas, and many assets to the Bahamas, and had production plants in Puerto Rico and Mexico. This enabled the family to continue operations after they left Cuba.
Today, the rums we drink in Cuba are Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba.
Havana Club rum was established in 1878 by Jose Arechabala. After the Cuban Revolution, the family moved to Spain and, unlike the Bacardis, did not have the financial resources to continue the brand. When the trademark license expired in 1973, they did not renew it, and the Cuban government snapped it up and began producing rum for the domestic market and later for export to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Today, it is produced under a joint venture with Pernod Ricard and the Cuban government.
The brand Santiago de Cuba seems to have originated from the Ron Matusalem founded in 1872 by the brothers Benjamin and Eduardo Camp and their partner Evaristo Alvarez in the western city of Santiago de Cuba. Named for the Biblical Methuselah, the brand thrived through the years, becoming the most popular brand in Cuba until the death of two owners in 1956 and then the takeover by Fidel Castro. When the family fled Cuba after the Revolution, it reestablished the brand in the U.S. (Currently it is made in the Dominican Republic.) The Cuban government continued to make rum at the factory in Santiago de Cuba under the name Santiago Ron. As far as I can tell, this is the origin of the current brand we were offered.
Our waiter at Ivan Chefs Justo, a wonderful paladar (private restaurant) in Havana, suggests a Santiago de Cuba Anejo as their best rum. I’m not certain how long this anejo is aged–my guess is 2-3 years. The brand also offers a rum aged 11 years, 12 years, 20, and 25 years.
The rum we drank at Ivan Chefs Justo went well with our delicious appetizers.