The hedonistic drink that’s transforming the fortunes of communist Cuba

A report by Ruaridh Nicoll for London’s Telegraph.

An old bottle of rum can cost five times as much as an old cognac, so could it kickstart the Caribbean nation’s economy?

Behind the bar of Bleco, on a breeze-blessed terrace overlooking Havana’s famous corniche, sit spectacular rums, Havana Clubs and Ron Santiagos. The black-aproned bartender opens a bottle, pours a little on the floor in tribute to the saints, and begins to mix daiquiris.

Behind this action lie a thousand others. The liquid that flows on to the ice creates stories, but it also tells them. Of a rollicking Caribbean island history, of poetry, persecution, libations and liberation, but also, lately, of hopes for a better future.

Lía Rodríguez is standing close by, eyes hidden behind sharply triangular shades, lips a slash of red. The dancer looks both futuristic and straight out of Studio 54, with a Cuban twist on top. She scans the terrace. Bleco is her place, and as the falling sun turns passing clouds pink, it heaves with Cuba’s smart set, the vida en rosa crowd. The house DJ arrives, negotiating his way round the daiquiris as they are carried to a waiting couple.

‘Our first Saturday, and sold out,’ says Rodríguez. She and her husband Camilo have been working on this project for 10 years – little happens easily in Havana. She is catering to people ‘who want party, rum, cigars’, she says, but who also ‘want to know the new Havana’.

Bleco is a popular haunt among Cuba’s smart set
Bleco is a popular haunt among Cuba’s smart set

Cuba is in trouble, its economy collapsing under six decades of US embargo and communist central planning, plus the added pressure of the pandemic. Almost two per cent of the population have fled since January. Yet rum, the drink that defines the island, is having its moment, driven by new interest in the spiced and premium versions. Across the world, rum sales jumped 10 per cent in 2021, to 150.6 million cases. More than £1 billion was spent on it in the UK in the 12 months to July 2022, surpassing whisky in restaurants and bars. 

‘When I started out, rum was not considered a noble spirit, but that has changed,’ says Salvatore Calabrese, a veteran cocktail-making maestro, who has just opened the Velvet bar at London’s Corinthia hotel. ‘Now an old bottle of rum can cost five times as much as a bottle of old cognac. And the most iconic rums in the world come from Cuba.’

Global giants such as Pernod Ricard, Diageo and the French luxury titan LVMH, through its wine and spirits division Moët Hennessy, have established themselves on the island. There is even an ambitious young rum brand backed by European investors called Black Tears.

All employ torturous licensing structures to avoid the enmity of the United States, which considers Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism (despite it being barely able to feed its people). Add the Cuban government’s lack of clear or consistent policies, its need for short-term cash, and the shortages of everything from glass bottles to electricity, and the island becomes one of the hardest places in the world to do business. 

Still, the quality of the spirits stored across Cuba means such troubles are worth it, especially given the hope that those US sanctions will one day be lifted, opening up the US market. For the moment they are building their brands’ reputations in Europe and beyond.

The couple clink their daiquiris, one of the world’s greatest drinks made by one of Havana’s best bartenders. Rodríguez smiles as she watches. ‘I’m so happy,’ she says.

Cuba’s economy is in trouble, but rum could hold the answer
Cuba’s economy is in trouble, but rum could hold the answer

Raul Bravo and I are driving fast down the autopista when we hit a deep pothole and the car slews to the edge of the road. Getting out to look at the shredded tyre, I notice we are hemmed in by eight-foot walls of sugar cane. ‘The zafra [harvest] is about to begin,’ says Bravo, Moët Hennessy’s man on the island. 

Bravo is from the pretty northern city of Matanzas. ‘I grew up in a nice family, in a very humble house,’ he tells me. ‘Rum was part of everything. On Sundays, at my grandparents’, it was dominoes and drinking rum, all day.’ 

He has a Sunday-evening TV star’s good looks; his early 20s were spent travelling the island singing to thousands of screaming girls. Moët Hennessy employed him earlier this year after he had made some films for them.  

He is taking me to visit César Martí, the rum master Moët Hennessy has partnered with to produce Eminente, its recently launched spirit. It competes with malt whiskies and cognacs, retailing at around £45. Martí is, in the words of one of Moët Hennessy’s competitors, ‘the most genius-like of all the rum masters in Cuba’.

After replacing the tyre, I’m thirsty and look for a roadside guarapo stall. Little shacks, they are a jewel of rural Cuba, containing a small mill into which someone feeds sugar cane. A milky greenish juice emerges, which you need to drink before it sours.

It is this liquid – a taste of heaven – that the big, rusting mills dotting Cuba’s 777-mile length crystallise into sugar, leaving behind a syrupy molasses which is turned into rum. In the 19th century, these mills were owned by plutocrats and worked by slaves. Each mill would have had a pot still to turn the molasses into filthy rum. 

But in the latter part of the 1800s, new economics meant rum became a profitable side product. In Santiago, Cuba’s second city, a trader called Facundo Bacardí decided to make a better spirit. A genius in a family of them, he turned to column stills that allowed him to pick up the aguardiente, the fruity spirit on edge of the purer rum alcohol. He cut the distillation perfectly, so his spirit was a pleasure to drink rather than mere balm for sailors. He aged the stuff in oak.

As we drive, I can see remnants of earlier times beside the road. Plantation towers, rusting railroad tracks that once hauled cane, old fortunes in the crumbling façades of the market towns. 

Facundo’s son Emilio was a Cuban hero, and a friend of José Martí, the poet who should have led Cuba to independence from Spain but instead died in battle in 1895. Emilio too worked towards a Cuba libre, before that idea became a drink.

The Bacardis were exiled from Cuba after Fidel Castro swept to power. Their old distilleries, like others, were nationalised and began long declines, even if the spirits within were kept alive by workers who believed in their magic.

Villa Clara is rolling, green and dotted by royal palms. Oxen shelter from the sun under vast ceiba trees and the road is full of horse-drawn buggies and jalopies. The tall chimneys of the George Washington sugar mill rise high above this landscape, expelling smoke into the blue sky. At its base men in stained shirts and straw hats emerge from a gate next to a quote from Washington: ‘Discipline is the soul of an army.’

The George Washington mill
The George Washington mill

César Martí is waiting. He leads us to bodega number one, a hangar containing 14,000 barrels of aged rum. This is the treasure Moët Hennessy was looking for, the liquid gold rum masters such as Martí have never stopped making.

In appearance he’s a mix of the Bobs Hoskins and Mortimer. He became a rum master at 32, younger than anyone in history, and is already responsible for a rum loved by Cubans, Cubay 10 Year Old.

‘I was in Italy a few years ago when I was told to fly to Paris,’ Martí says, standing in the middle of his long tunnel of barrels. ‘I was received that night by the president of Moët Hennessy.’

The French giant wanted a Cuban rum. Soon delegations were going back and forth. ‘Eventually they said, “We want you to make the best rum in the world. Forget about price. The only stipulation is that there can be nothing similar to it in the same category in the marketplace.”’ He is holding a glass of Eminente Reserva. ‘That made me very happy.’ 

We take a sip. ‘In the first moment you get coffee and chocolate,’ he says. ‘In the second you get a reminder of the countryside.’ The secret, he explains, is that the rum is heavy on aguardiente. 

I take another slug. It goes in smooth, full of flavours that seem to emerge from the past, and then the alcohol hits. I uncork the bottle. It’s clearly very good. 

Barrels of rum at the Eminente distillery
Barrels of rum at the Eminente distillery

It was in 1993, during Cuba’s ‘Special Period’, when the country began to starve following the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the state rum company, Cuba Ron, sought outside help to sell its spirits. A joint venture was forged with another French firm, Pernod Ricard. ‘They made a huge investment in a moment in which no one had the guts to invest in Cuba, so chapeau to them,’ says Luca Cesarano of rival brand Ron Santiago.

At the heart of the deal was a gentleman’s agreement that no others would be allowed in. ‘Pernod Ricard would not distribute any other international brand and Cuba Ron would not make any international agreement to develop other rum brands until 2013,’ said Christian Barré, Havana Club’s CEO.

For 20 years, Pernod Ricard built the Havana Club name. It went from selling 300,000 cases in 1993 to 4.3 million last year, making it the fifth biggest rum in the world. (It is fighting a nasty battle with Bacardi over the Havana Club identity in the US.)

To maintain its supply, it built its own distillery, on ground it had painstakingly checked against outstanding US property claims. ‘I think they checked back all the way to Columbus,’ says Ramses Villar, another competitor. 

It has hired English, Spanish and Dutch musicians like Skepta, Bad Gyal and Frenna to promote it. ‘You realise what Generation Z is listening to is not necessarily salsa,’ comments Barré. 

He watches the arrival of his fellow French with the wary eye of the old hand. ‘There is a learning experience to doing business in Cuba,’ he says. ‘We will see how they manage to grow.’ Then he laughs: ‘Look, all this brings new interest from the consumer.’

Bars like Breco cater to people ‘who want party, rum, cigars’ but who also ‘want to know the new Havana’
Bars like Breco cater to people ‘who want party, rum, cigars’ but who also ‘want to know the new Havana’

In a sprawling house in Havana’s diplomatic quarter, Enrique Arias is giving a weekly lunch for his staff by a pool, under a vast ‘Fabulous Las Vegas’ sign. Arias’s father ran Bacardi’s operations in Europe, and now he is building his own rum label, Black Tears. ‘No one else was allowed in the market until 2013,’ he says. ‘Here, no one tells you that. But of course I found out [the deal was coming to an end] and I said, “Oh, let’s prepare.”’

He chose to partner with the Cuban state sugar company and began searching for amber gold. ‘What you are really looking for is barrels of aged stock,’ he says. He found his in Ciego de Avila, an area of stultifying decay. ‘The factory didn’t have a roof,’ he says. ‘But it did have 7,500 barrels of Santero 11 Year.’

He tells a story that would be unbelievable anywhere other than Cuba. The name for the brand – from the beautiful song Lágrimas Negras – came to him when he was at the Queen’s Club in west London for its annual tennis tournament, and Pippa Middleton walked in.

What’s Black Tears got to do with the sister of the Princess of Wales, I ask. ‘Nothing,’ he says. ‘It’s just the crowd went silent and I had time to think.’

Black Tears is a spiced rum, a style long seen as an ‘entry’ drink, attracting the young. Dominated by Captain Morgan, it’s a bit low-rent, but Arias is taking it high-end. ‘We came up with the formula of doing a rum based on coffee and chocolate and sweet pepper.’

To market Black Tears, the company dived straight into the most creative corners of Cuban music and art, holding parties to create hip social-media campaigns (invited to one, I was told to stay in a corner so as not to ruin the image).

Another threat to Pernod Ricard’s dominance on the island lies with Diageo, the vast British conglomerate that makes Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and, indeed, Captain Morgan. When Pernod Ricard’s deal lapsed, the Cuban government approached Diageo, which turned to a brilliant young Italian to find a liquid it could market for Cuba Ron. 

Luca Cesarano already knew Cuba and where the barrels lay. He headed to Santiago, where the original Bacardi distillery awaited. He wanted bottles of Ron Santiago de Cuba, which Cuba Ron had been making for 30 years. ‘I brought two bottles to a meeting of the Diageo global executive in Venezuela. I told them, “This is Cuba’s best-kept secret. You can create any liquid you want in Cuba, but if you want history this has the perfect heritage.”’ It was also untainted with pre-revolutionary history.

Ron Santiago has rums of various ages, but when expats sit down for long lunches in Havana, the meal usually ends with the maker’s 11-year-old. Smoky and sweet, as befits a rum from the country’s east, it has levels of depth that are hard to find elsewhere. It’s what I drank the night my son was born. Cesarano’s plan is simple: ‘We want to be the premium rum of Cuba.’

He tells me this as he pours a 20-year-old. ‘Cubans have always drunk rum at home, but in a fancy bar they would buy a bottle of whisky. My dream is to see Cubans so proud of their rum they’ll have a bottle of Ron Santiago on the table in the bar.’

Farmers Mercedes Perez and Ramon Olivia
Farmers Mercedes Perez and Ramon Olivia

Raul Bravo, the man from Eminente, and I drive into the Escambray, mountains where cowboys slouch on their horses, watching us pass, boots tooled and spurred. The road grows so bad that we have to stop and walk. Bravo carries a bottle as we trek through banana, avocado and coffee plants. Finally we arrive at a wooden house belonging to Ramon Olivia and Mercedes Perez, farmers Raul has met in his search for ‘friends of Eminente’ – rum ambassadors. 

A creole meal of chicken, yuca, avocado and congrí (rice and beans) has been laid out. Perez brings us glasses of maracuya – passion-fruit juice – and then Bravo pours some of the amber rum on top.

Moët Hennessy want those who love their rum to visit Cuba, and to see the best of it. They want to support locals, to bring people here, to Mercedes and Ramon’s house and others like it, to eat congrí, and maybe swim nearby, where a mountain stream flows through caves.

It would all seem ridiculous if it wasn’t so wonderful. I look at the glass in front of me. ‘Trust me, it tastes great,’ Bravo says. I gaze out, at chickens pilfering in the dust, and at the canopy-filtered sun, and drink it all in.

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