One of Cuba’s most famous products is her delicious rum. In a country that became wealthy from its sugar, it is no wonder that rum is as notorious to Cuba as is cigars. By the 1850s Cuba was the number one sugar cane producer in the world and around this time Cubans discovered that the thick molasses, a by-product from sugar, could be used to make rum. Like Cuba, the history of rum has a long tumultuous past and no family was more important during the pre and post-revolutionary days than the infamous Bacardi clan.
In 1862 Facundo Bacardi Massó (1813 – 1886) an immigrant from Spain, founded one of Cuba’s largest, most successful family-owned businesses of all time: The Bacardi Rum Company. Don Facundo and his Bacardi rum would become the most well-known rum in all of Cuba, and was maintained by four succeeding Bacardi generations until the company was seized and nationalized by the Castro government on October 14, 1960.
Devastated, most of the Bacardi clan were forced into exile but thankfully the brilliant head of Bacardi at the time Pepin Bosch, had already grown the business internationally enough to save the family run company from the hands of the Cuban government. Although Castro seized all Bacardi property including its first distillery in Santiago de Cuba, they were never able to successfully use the lucrative Bacardi brand. Bacardi’s main competitor at the time, family-owned brand Havana Club was not so lucky. The Havana Club brand owned by José Arechabala was also seized and the family lost everything and was forced into exile.
Today, the nationalized Havana Club rum is the best-selling rum in Cuba and is found literally everywhere. Meanwhile, Bacardi is a $5 billion industry operated out of Bermuda and continues to push for retaliation against the Castro regime.
There are three rum-based drinks that originated in Cuba: The Mojito, The Cuba Libre and the Daiquiri. Of the three, the most well-known Cuban drink is by far the Mojito. Everywhere we went in Cuba, we were served a mojito as a welcome drink. It was soon discovered that like everything, some mojitos are better than others. Cheaper or free mojitos that come included with a dance club entrance fee or at a cheaper restaurant are usually water, sugary and not very strong. Finding a real, Cuban mojito like the days of Bacardi takes perseverance and fun.
One afternoon while we were touring Old Havana our guide Abel said it was time for a taste test. It was our first full day in Cuba and we had only experienced two mojitos before. The first as a welcome drink at our hotel which was the cheap, free kind (not good). The second mojito was our free welcome drink at our first lunch at a state-run restaurant (not good). Since we were in Old Havana, it was time we tried the real thing.
Finding a nice venue for a mojito in Old Havana is easier than one would think. Over the last few years, Old Havana has been slowly but surely being restored and cleaned up. There are now lots of lovely restaurants and bars that cater to tourists and the few Cubans who can afford it.
We gathered around small tables and watched the masterful bartender at work. It was three in the afternoon and we were the only ones there. The most important step in making a mojito is the mixing. It requires five key ingredients and each one is important and must be mixed properly for the best taste.
Since Havana Club is the national Cuban rum, that is what we were served. I normally do not like any kind of hard alcohol yet “when in Cuba” of course I had to try a few mojitos. And what did I think…..delightful.
We even sampled the sacred Añejo, (7-year-old) rum that is sipped straight up or on the rocks. We bought one bottle for our group of ten tasters, and passed it around. I took a swig and it literally burned my mouth. Sadly I don’t have a taste or appreciation for straight rum but the others in my group, including an 87-year-old retiree, was quite enthusiastic about it. Apparently other tour groups quite often purchase bottles of Cuban rum to drink on the long bus rides between cities or before the flight back to Miami. The only downfall is you can’t bring it home. Bringing Cuban rum or cigars into the United States is illegal. But I do know a few people who snuck some in. It wasn’t me.
In case you are interested in learning more:
The last fifty years since Castro nationalized all businesses has proved a bitter fight for rights by the powerful Bacardi clan. Their fascinating history can be read in the best-selling book “Bacardi and The Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten in case you are interested.