Rum Wars in Cuba

I am not sure Havana Club is quite as good, but the brand in the US thrives on the forbidden fruit thrill from the embargo. Will Trump reinstate it?
July 23, 2016

In taste test, which Havana Club rum will win?

 

Play Video2:38
Does Cuba’s Havana Club rum hold up to its legend? The Washington Post invited four rum aficionados for a blind tasting of dark and light rums at Cubano’s restaurant in Silver Spring to find out. (Danielle Kunitz, Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

In a warehouse stacked with casks and suffused with aromas of old oak and intoxicating spirits, Asbel Morales is always thinking years ahead. At 48, he’s one of eight maestros roneros, or master rum-makers, on the island. They maintain the quality and tradition of Cuban rum — a staple of the economy and national identity that conjures summer daydreams of Ernest Hemingway knocking back daiquiris in art deco bars, while somewhere the Buena Vista Social Club band plays forever.

Morales splashes a clear liquid onto his hands. It’s potent aguardiente, the soul of rum, fermented and distilled from the molasses of Cuban sugar cane. He rubs his wet hands, assessing its viscosity. He waves scoopfuls of air toward his face, inhaling yeasty traces of cane, alcohol and subtler notes.

“If the aguardiente isn’t right,” he says, “even if you age it 100 years, the rum will never turn out well.”

But not just any Cuban rum. In three to seven years — sometimes longer, depending on the flavor Morales is going for — after filtering, aging and blending, this rum will be bottled as Havana Club, one of the two most storied brands in the history of Cuba.

The other is Bacardi, no longer made in Cuba since shortly after Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959. For years, Bacardi and Havana Club rums were rival spirits, and their founding families — the Bacardis and the Arechabalas, respectively — were fierce competitors, until both clans were forced into exile in 1960.

The revolution didn’t end the rivalry. In time, a rum called Havana Club flowed out of Cuba and was eventually exported the world over — except to the United States. From a new base in Bermuda, Bacardi, too, went global, and Bacardi brand rum came to dominate the U.S. market.

Now, in a dramatic twist, another Havana Club is poised to make a big splash. After two decades of lawsuits, lobbying and congressional hearings, a Havana Club made by Bacardi is rolling out nationwide this summer and should be available in Washington by September.

It is not to be confused with the Havana Club made in Cuba by Morales and his colleagues.

Will the real Havana Club please fix us a daiquiri?

Within this splendidly bitter rum war — Havana Club vs. Havana Club — is a tale of geopolitical jousting that has more turns than a Cuban mambo. The drama is reaching a climax just as historic changes are taking place in the fraught relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.

At its emotional core, the rum war is a proxy for an even more epic struggle over the brand of Cuba and Cuban identity. The saga of revolution and exile has left unresolved issues. Are some claims on what it is to be Cuban more legitimate — more authentic — than others?

Americans embrace all things Cuban

Morales’s aguardiente has been ripening just fine for Havana Club International, a joint venture between Cuba Ron, the state-owned rum enterprise, and the French liquor giant Pernod Ricard. Sales have grown tenfold since the partnership began in the early 1990s. Cuban Havana Club is the No. 3 rum in the world, with sales of 4 million cases a year in more than 120 countries — and that is without access to the U.S. market, because of the trade embargo imposed in 1962.

The French and Cuban partners were buoyed by the stunning announcement nearly two years ago that President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro resolved to normalize relations. Embassies re-opened, travel became easier. Then, earlier this year, the rum partners scored a surprise victory at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, where the U.S. government reversed a decade of opposition and allowed Cuba to renew its disputed trademark for Havana Club.

Still, Congress has not heeded Obama’s call to lift the embargo. For now, Cuban Havana Club reaches U.S. shores primarily in the luggage of travelers.

The French and Cuban partners say it’s only a matter of time before trade is allowed to resume and their Havana Club can flow freely across the land.

“We are ready to face this market, no matter what the date,” says André Leymat, director general of the Havana Club distillery.

The potential is huge — and not just because Americans drink about 40 percent of the world’s rum. Fascination with all things Cuban is intensifying with each small step toward a full embrace of the Cold War adversary. Americans are visiting in record numbers. Charter cruises have launched; direct commercial flights are coming shortly. American movies and TV shows — “Fast 8,” “Cuban Chrome” — are rushing to be produced there for the first time in half a century.

The appeal is bigger than any single product or experience. What’s for sale is the cachet of Cuba itself — once forbidden, now trendy. If only it could be bottled.

“For us, rum is not just merchandise; it’s also the expression of a culture,” rum master Morales says. “It’s something inherited from previous generations, passed down Cuban to Cuban for more than 150 years. You must never betray the rum.”

Bacardi International has sold its version of Havana Club in select markets. The label doesn’t mention Bacardi — but does list Puerto Rico. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

A 1936 Bacardi advertisement evokes dazzle and glamour from an era where people visited Cuba for its cocktail culture. (Bacardi/Bacardi)

Clash of the liquor giants

It’s early June in the posh Faena Hotel in Miami Beach, where Bacardi is celebrating the national launch of a line of rums with the help of blue-feathered showgirls, salsa dancers and a 10-piece band playing Cuban classics.

The bash is meant to evoke what Bacardi calls the “golden age” of cocktails in Havana, in the middle of the last century, when Americans flocked to their favorite tropical sin city, until the revolution killed the party.

Waiters in guayaberas carry bottles of the rums — one clear, one amber — like icons on mirrored trays.

The name of the brand is printed in big letters on the labels:

“Havana Club.”

Almost as big is: “Puerto Rican Rum.”

Nowhere on the label is Bacardi cited.

The clear Añejo Blanco is a tweaked version of a white Havana Club that Bacardi has been selling in a handful of markets. The amber Añejo Clásico is new — or maybe old. Bacardi says both rums are based on a recipe the Arechabalas used to make Havana Club until 1960.

It’s a rival line of Havana Club for sure.

A “falsa Havana Club,” in the words of Morales.

But then, Bacardi’s lawyers call the Cuban Havana Club an “ersatz Havana Club.”

Which is the real Havana Club?

The question lies at the heart of this titanic showdown between the world’s fourth-largest spirits company (Bacardi) and the second-largest (Pernod Ricard).

Bacardi is the top rum-seller in the United States (7 million cases a year) and in the world (17 million cases). It has evolved into a global powerhouse in other spirits, too, with such brands as Grey Goose vodka and Bombay Sapphire gin.

Rum is a comparatively smaller part of Pernod Ricard’s lineup. Still, Havana Club is one of the company’s top 10 brands, behind the likes of Absolut Vodka and Jameson Irish Whiskey.

“For many years, Bacardi played the rum game with one brand, the brand that carried the name of the family, and that is ‘Bacardi,’ ” Fabio Di Giammarco, global vice president of rums for Bacardi, says. “We know we have consumers who are more and more interested in brands that deliver a story. We think this is a brand that has a very rich story.”

One of the names on the guest list at Bacardi’s Havana Club party in Miami Beach is part of that story: Arechabala. Some heirs of the rum-making family attended.

After the revolution, the Arechabalas let their American trademark for Havana Club lapse, and they drifted into other lines of work. The label on the Bacardi Havana Club sketches their story, a kind of counternarrative to the one Morales tells in his Cuban rum warehouse.

“Our family was disheartened after the forced exile from Cuba, and has always felt the need for justice for what happened to our ancestors,” José Arechabala, a great-grandson of the founder, says in a statement released by Bacardi. “We feel their life’s work continues to live on through this rebranding of Havana Club.”

Fidel Castro, at left, led the revolution that would pitch Cuba into isolation from the Western world. Rum operations were seized in the aftermath, and many families fled. (Associated Press)

A 1930s photo of the José́ Arechabala distilling columns in Cardenas, Cuba. (Bacardi)

‘From now on, I am Pepe’

In the beginning was Facundo Bacardi, who launched his company in 1862. Rum historians credit him with pioneering Cuban-style rum: lighter than other types, perfect for cocktails, but also aged and blended into fine sipping rums.

The Arechabala company, founded in 1878, and other Cuban rum-makers worked in the shadow of Bacardi.

Americans discovered Cuban rum when veterans of the Spanish-American War returned home. A plaque in the Army and Navy Club in Washington commemorates the moment in 1909 when, as the story goes, the daiquiri was introduced in the club’s bar after being invented in Daiquirí, Cuba.

American appreciation of Cuban rum deepened during Prohibition, when partyers made their way to the island to slake their thirst. Later, Hemingway wrote about El Floridita, the Havana bar where he refueled on daiquiris.

The Arechabalas introduced Havana Club with Americans in mind in 1934. The name of the Cuban capital was spelled in English, rather than the Spanish “Habana.” Soon Havana Club was served in places such as the Stork Club, a high-society night spot in Manhattan.

Bacardi executives initially supported Fidel Castro, according to journalist Tom Gjelten’s 2008 book “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.” They toasted brother Raúl Castro’s 1959 wedding to a revolutionary fighter who was the daughter of a Bacardi executive.

The Arechabalas, on the other hand, according to Gjelten, sympathized with dictator Fulgencio Batista, whom Fidel Castro overthrew.

Soldiers showed up at the Havana Club office on New Year’s Day 1960. The late Ramón Arechabala was a sales manager, while one of the top executives, his uncle José María Arechabala, or “Pepe,” was in Spain.

“From now on, I am Pepe, and you people will do as I say,” declared a military commander, as Ramón Arechabala recalled in court testimony in 1999.

“I say, ‘Okay, no problem, whatever you say,’ ” he testified, “because he was armed with a machine gun.”

The Bacardis’ Cuban rum operation was seized nine months later. Their company already had significant rum facilities abroad.

Ramón Arechabala, on the other hand, went on to sell cars in Miami.

In 1973, he realized that the Havana Club trademark was due for renewal. He asked his uncle whether they should file the paperwork.

His uncle said no. The family did not have enough money to produce rum in the U.S. and mistakenly believed they couldn’t renew the trademark without making rum.

“He told me we could not do anything right now with it, because, ‘Let’s wait because we might be going back to Cuba any moment,’ ” Arechabala testified.

In 1976, a state-owned Cuban enterprise secured the American trademark for Havana Club. It was a cunning yet hopeful investment in the day when Cuban rum might once again be poured on the other side of the Florida Straits.

The bat, logo of Bacardi, sits atop the art deco building once used as the company headquarters in Havana. (Reuters)

Artists have incorporated the Havana Club logo into their work as an element of Cuban identity. (Eliana Aponte/For The Washington Post)

Much depends on a U.S. trademark

The rum war was declared nearly 20 years later, when two things happened.

In 1993, news broke that Pernod Ricard had struck a deal to become equal partners in Havana Club. (Pernod Ricard declines to specify terms of the partnership. Fidel Castro has referred to it this way: “Long live the peasant-worker alliance and the friendship with Pernod Ricard!”)

In 1994, Bacardi filed its own application for the U.S. trademark for Havana Club. Bacardi paid the Arechabala family $1.25 million for any rights to Havana Club that the family still possessed, plus a portion of any sales of Havana Club.

Ever since, Bacardi and Pernod Ricard have battled on legal, regulatory, political and commercial fronts.

The Arechabalas “were free to maintain the trademark if they wanted to; they only had to pay a $25 fee,” says Ian FitzSimons, general counsel for Pernod Ricard. “The moment they abandoned the trademark in 1973, the trademark fell into the public domain.”

“At the end of the day, [Pernod Ricard] partnered with the Cuban government for property that is stolen,” says Rick Wilson, Bacardi’s senior vice president for external affairs. The law does not recognize trademark rights connected with confiscated Cuban property, he adds.

The American trademark was not stolen, FitzSimons counters, because “the Arechabalas were able to keep their trademark registration up until 1973, 13 years after the Cuban revolution. They chose not to take the necessary steps to keep it after that.”

Nor is Cuban Havana Club being made with seized Arechabala property, he says. The Cubans built a new distillery in the 1970s. Pernod Ricard added a state-of-the-art distillery in 2007, where Asbel Morales works.

Wilson argues that what matters in the law is intent and that the Arechabalas never intended to surrender their trademark. Over the years, they attempted to find partners with capital to make rum in the United States. Further, Wilson says, trademarks are founded on actual use, not mere paperwork.

“The only people to have used the Havana Club trademark in the United States have been Arechabala and Bacardi,” Wilson says.

Bacardi appeared to win the rum war in 2006, when the Cubans and Pernod Ricard were not allowed to renew the trademark. The reason: New rules required a license from the Treasury Department to write a check for the renewal fee of several hundred dollars. Treasury, on advice from the State Department, refused to grant the license.

The case was still pending in the trademark office early this year — though Bacardi disputes that the matter was truly alive — when the rum world turned upside down.

“In light of a number of factors, including … the landmark shift in U.S. policy toward bilateral relations with Cuba,” the State Department advised the Treasury Department to give the Cubans and Pernod Ricard permission to write the check to renew the trademark through 2026, a State Department official testified before a House subcommittee in February.

Now the dispute is back in U.S. District Court in Washington, where both sides are seeking a ruling on who owns Havana Club. The case could last well into 2017. Meanwhile, Bacardi’s Havana Club will be sold in the U.S.

If Bacardi prevails, the French-Cuban partnership has a backup plan. It has registered the name “Havanista.” Under one name or another, should the embargo be lifted, they will be the first to sell Americans a rum that is actually “made in Cuba.”

How much that matters is the last and perhaps most important front in the rum war. Authenticity is like another flavor note.

“It’s not just the juice,” says spirits writer Wayne Curtis, author of “And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails” (2006). “There’s a lot of money to be made in selling that Cuban story to Americans, who want to have that authentic brand.”

A couple settles in for a relaxing day at Megano Beach outside of Havana. (Eliana Aponte/For The Washington Post)

People linger at the Malecón, Havana’s sea wall, as the sun drops. (Eliana Aponte/For The Washington Post)

‘If I don’t drink Havana Club,
I’m not Cuban’

At sunset on the Malecón, Havana’s sea wall, Lazaro Rizo Modochi, 46, a cook, and his wife, Merlin Fernandez, 42, are strolling and sharing the remains of a bottle of Havana Club, accompanied by their twin 13-year-old daughters, Yaremi and Yaneisi. It’s a Saturday evening tradition for the family.

“Havana Club of Cuba is richness, it’s the sugar cane, it’s the African heritage of the cane-cutters — all that is Havana Club,” Rizosays. “If I’m in Italy or France and I drink Havana Club, I’m in Cuba. If I don’t drink Havana Club, I’m not Cuban.”

After Rizo takes his last swig, he kisses the bottle and throws it into the sea, toward the north.

“A message to Miami,” he says.

The logo is ubiquitous in Havana — on bicitaxis, on the tunics of parking lot attendants (“If you drink, don’t drive”), even in the paintings sold by street artists.

“When there’s an opening of the blockade, Havana Club will present to the United States a symbol of Cuba,” says Luis Rodriguez, a barman at the Bar San Juan in central Havana, where singer Beny Moré is said to have drunk Cuba libres before the revolution. “It represents traditional Cuban rum.”

Across a plaza from the cathedral, a plaque on what is now the Museum of Colonial Art notes that the 18th-century mansion used to be the offices of the Arechabala rum company. Graham Greene, in his novel “Our Man in Havana,” set a fateful checkers match here in the Havana Club bar, where free drinks were served to tourists in the hope they would buy bottles to take home.

Several blocks away, the majestic art deco Bacardi Building now contains travel offices, while its signature bat, wings spread, still presides atop the tower.

At El Floridita — where a statue of Hemingway occupies a spot at the end of the bar — the periodic arrival and departure of busloads of tourists give a tidal rhythm to midday, as a band plays hits from the Buena Vista Social Club. Veteran bartender Manuel Carbajo Aguiar grabs a bottle of Havana Club and raises his arm high in a showy pour of a silver stream into one of four blenders purring simultaneously. In a flash, he fills two dozen glasses with tangy-sweet and icy daiquiris.

“Havana Club has status,” Carbajo says. “If you’re relaxing with friends and on the table is a bottle of Havana Club, it gives the moment more personality than another rum … Havana Club is the rum that represents Cuban-ness.”

Two can play the authenticity game.

The labels on Bacardi’s Havana Club carry a picture of founder José Arechabala and the phrase “based on a recipe created in Cuba.”

The labels’ synopsis of the family’s story continues: “Decades later, this family of rum makers would be forced to flee during the Cuban Revolution, precious recipe in hand. After years of controversy, this well-kept treasure has been dusted off once again for crafting this incomparable rum in Puerto Rico.”

Bacardi does not claim to have resurrected the exact Arechabala Havana Club. The chain of knowledge from rum master to rum master was broken for too long. Certain ingredients are different. The technology is modern. A single recipe can yield a variety of flavors.

Still, the result is close, says David Cid, global ambassador of rum for Bacardi: “We are applying the Arechabalas’ techniques and methodologies along with our yeast with the aim of replicating the aroma and flavor balance of the original Havana Club.”

“What certainly cannot be said is that the other Havana Club has anything to do with the original,” Bacardi’s Di Giammarco says.

Indeed, the Cuban Havana Club was created after the revolution, though the bottles say “Fundada en 1878,” the year José Arechabala founded his rum company.

“The only Havana Club I know comes from Cuba,” says Jérôme Cottin-Bizonne, chief executive of Havana Club International, the Pernod Ricard-Cuban joint venture. “If the rum is not made in Cuba by a master of Cuban rum, if it’s not made with Cuban sugar cane, you can’t make the same product.”

But how does it taste?

The most recent skirmish in the rum war takes place on a Friday afternoon at Cubano’s restaurant in Silver Spring: Four experienced spirits tasters conduct a blind test at the invitation of The Washington Post.

It’s Havana Club vs. Havana Club: Bacardi’s Añejo Blanco and Añejo Clásico against the Cuban Añejo 3 Años (white) and Añejo 7 Años (dark). The Bacardi contenders cost about $20 and $22 for a 750-milliliter bottle, respectively. The Cuban rums sell for about $7 and $18 in Havana.

To confound the tasters, we throw in two more white rums — regular Bacardi Superior and premium Caña Brava by The 86 Co.

Amid the sounds of slurping and deep inhaling, the four Havana Clubs quickly distinguish themselves over the other two. Then things get interesting.

“I love the way that it decays on the palate,” says Lukas B. Smith, a bartender at Dram and Grain who is helping to launch the Cotton & Reed rum distillery planned for Washington. He’s tasting the Bacardi Añejo Clásico, though he doesn’t know it.

“It has this soft heat,” says M. Carrie Allan, spirits columnist for The Post.

“If you still have training wheels on” — if you’re not a sophisticated drinker — “you’re not going to like that,” says Jarad Slipp, estate director of RdV Vineyards in Delaplane, Va.

“I love it,” says Adolfo Mendez, owner of Cubano’s, who left Cuba just after the revolution when he was 3.

Then they try the Cuban Añejo 7 Años, again without knowing its identity.

“It’s definitely a crowd-pleaser,” Smith says, calling it “a mouth bomb.” “I think they might have overdone the sugar a little bit.”

All the tasters guess that this sweet, brash pleaser is by Bacardi, while the subtler, “handmade”-tasting rum is from Cuba.

Wrong.

“Wow!” they exclaim.

As for the white Havana Clubs, the tasters are divided. A couple find that the sweeter Cuban entry is richer and more flavorful than Bacardi’s. To others, the Cuban sweetness is a bid for mass appeal.

“Basically, these are both big fat sweet tourist rums,” Smith says of the Cuban Havana Clubs.

“There’s a reason why [the Bacardi Havana Clubs] are in a different label and not branded under Bacardi proper, which is that people who typically drink Bacardi wouldn’t get it,” Slipp says. “Good on [Cuban] Havana Club, because they’re going to be getting a lot more tourists now, and they’re making a tourist-driven product.”

“Maybe that’s part of the tradition,” Allan says. “One of the things that I thought was interesting here was the idea that ‘authenticity’ … doesn’t necessarily mean nuance, subtlety. Something that is authentic is not necessarily better out of the bottle.”

Mendez proposes a compromise. He places the bottle of Bacardi dark Havana Club and the bottle of Cuban light Havana Club together on the table — his two favorites.

“These two guys are inseparable,” he says. “I support them both.”

It’s a pleasant vision — perhaps inspired by the warmth of fine spirits — the idea of a reunited front of great Cuban rums. A Havana Club all-star team. But for now, in this rum war, you have to choose sides.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *