“Yo soy un hombre sincero, de donde crece la palma…”

by Katie Pizzuto on January 12, 2018

in rum

FightingRumFor as long as I lived in the Dirty Jerz, I always seemed to be the de facto voice for the entire Cuban American population, be it in school, or at work, or amongst friends. If Castro was on his feline, 9-lives deathbed, I would get asked what I thought would happen after he passed. When he finally did give up the ghost, I got asked how soon it would be before we could stop smuggling in rum and cigars in our kids’ diaper bags. Moving to Miami relieved me of that monstrosity of a burden, because everyone here has an opinion about Cuba, its politics, its people, its products and its cultural heritage—and most of them don’t give a shit about your opinion.

Havana Club rum, much like a Cohiba cigar, is the holy grail of Cuban exports for most Americans, perhaps even more so because those who smoke can usually name a few other “big” Cuban cigar brands, while nearly no one can name another Cuban rum. And though there really is nothing like a Cuban cigar, the truth is that the country’s rum is just…good. Not amazing. Not life altering. Not even panty wetting. But for 50+ years it’s been contraband, and that’s allure enough for most citizens to hedge their bets against US Customs. What matters in those instances is generally not the spoils, but the war itself. Personally, I’ll take Nicaragua’s Flor de Caña over any bottle of Havana Club, but that’s neither here nor there. Literally.

The far more interesting war is the one now being waged between two rum Goliaths. Actually, the one that’s been being waged between them for well over 20 years. The original Havana Club was distilled by the Arechabala family, in Cuba, but Castro took control of the island on New Year’s Day in 1959, and within a year the Arechabalas found themselves forced into exile while their distillery was seized by the new regime. Bacardí’s distillery fell under the same control, but by then the company already had operations in both Puerto Rico and Mexico, and production of their rums continued. Havana Club also continued being produced, but it was no longer Arechabala’s recipe. He was busy selling cars in Miami with absolutely no money to continue distilling.

So when it came time to renew his US trademark for “Havana Club”, empty-pocketed Arechabala let it lapse and the Cuban government took that opportunity to file for it, in hopes that it would one day be able to sell its rum to the US again—a rum that was a distant cousin of its original. Then, the shitstorm began. Cuba partnered with Pernod Ricard and ramped up global distribution of Havana Club. “Global” sans the US, that is. Bacardí, circling over Cuba’s stateside carcass, contested the government’s trademark in the US, because our country didn’t recognize trademarks connected with confiscated Cuban property. Pernod, however, punched back, saying it was not distilling on confiscated property because a new distillery had been built in the 70s. Bacardí went to its corner as the bell rang, caught its breath, got its legs back, and came in swinging again.

In 1994, Bacardí filed for the US trademark of “Havana Club” and got it. In addition, it paid Arechabala $1.25M for whatever rights he had left, and for his original recipe. They began selling their version of the rum in a couple of states, not that you’d ever have known. Trust me, you didn’t know. You were way too busy gossiping about Nancy Kerrigan getting shafted by Tonya Harding. Bacardí continued to keep itself bathed in Benjamins with its original brand, while their version of Havana Club moped in the shadows of the original, which wasn’t even being sold in the US. Legacy is apparently not a horse that’s easily shot down.

Cuba made its valiant attempts to regain the trademark in 2006 but it was turned down like Farmer Ted at the senior dance because the US Treasury refused to accept a check for the renewal fee from the country. Why? Duh, the embargo. You know…the one that has been as effective at accomplishing its mission as a torn condom is at doing the same. So Bacardí continued selling a brand you never knew about, and a Communist government continued making bones from the contraband brand you always knew about. Meanwhile, round after round, I was drinking the Nicaraguan nectar. But I digress.

In 2016, just as Obama began hearing the presidential death knell, he opted to begin “normalizing relations” with the long-suffering country. So our State Department whispered into our Treasury Department’s ear and made a strong recommendation that it accept Cuba’s check to take back the trademark for “Havana Club”. After all, soon we’d be bathing in the shit…women dabbing it behind their ears and on their delicate wrists. So they did, renewing the trademark through 2026. And of course Bacardí’s retort was, “What the actual fuck?! WE hold the US trademark for that name!” Florida lawmakers begged Trump to reverse the decision, Raul Castro did a little happy salsa move, and Americans remained completely oblivious to the ongoing rum war.

HC historyBut as I was driving home one night on the Dolphin Expressway, right before the holidays, I saw a billboard that actually made me divert my eyes from traffic—something I’m not wont to do on Miami’s roads. It was Bacardí shilling their version of Havana Club, and claiming it was “forever Cuban.” They’re making inroads, I thought. They’re finally finding their balls and attempting to win over American drinkers. But here’s the rub. Despite the fact that they purchased Arechabala’s recipe for the original Havana Club, they make ZERO claim that they have resurrected the exact rum. Certain ingredients are different. The technology is modern. A single recipe can yield a variety of flavors, they say. They will tell you that Ramón Arechabala personally transcribed the recipe and gave it to Bacardí as an agreement between the two families. They will tell you that it does not matter where Havana Club rum is produced. They will tell you that they will continue selling Havana Club rum using a recipe “based” on the original. Insert eye roll.

And not being ones to be silenced, the Cubans will tell you that 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. They will sell you their authenticity because of terroir, despite the fact that they don’t have the original recipe. They will sell you the nostalgia of a rum that hasn’t truly existed for nearly 60 years. They will sell you the thrill and bragging rights of getting a couple of mediocre bottles of 7-year-old rum past a customs officer. But just like the unknowing American tourist strolling the streets of Cancún, buying those coveted, yet fake, Cohibas because he can’t tell the real from the fraud, regardless of which Havana Club you let wet your lips, you, my friend, are being had.

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510053_344563-20140927-applefest_0The American Dream is dead. It is laying by the side of a winding stretch on the PCH, mangled, shattered and gasping for breath as it drowns in the blood that is beginning to fill its lungs. The American Dream has been pummeled, and every last one of us has taken a turn at it, wielding the sword by its back end and taking a swing. Skip the kangaroo court and the fucking finger pointing unless you’re looking in a mirror you flag wavers, because we’re all to blame. The American Dream got left behind, at the bottom of some Woodstock porta potty, steaming, rotting, and suffocated by the mounds of shit that got heaped on it. The flies are swarming. The sun is at high noon. And the second line continues dancing under the parasol of ignorant bliss.

It’s patriotic heresy, no doubt, to speak of such a death, but it’s pointless to discuss it in polite, soft whispers with some other partygoer you’ve managed to corner, while the host’s stereo speakers reverberate to the clichés of a Bon Jovi song. We’re not, after all, having some socially awkward chat about the new neighbors, using our hand to occult our mouths so our paranoid prejudices can’t be heard. This is Taps. This is two coins for the ferryman. This is bye-bye Miss American Pie. The levy is not only dry, it’s fucking cracked and blistered. This one needs to be heard from the proverbial mountaintop. Go tell it on the mountain. The American Dream is dead.

History is hard to know, because history is hired. Somewhere at some time, someone will decide to build a kingdom, be it religious, political, commercial or intellectual, and that kingdom will be built and breastfed by fear. It’s what we’re good at—building kingdoms of fear. We fear the wrath God, we fear the turban-wearing foreigner, we fear the angry black man, we fear fats and carbs and sugars, we fear the wall-jumping Mexican, we fear that rock ‘n’ roll devil music, we fear retiring with more lint than money in our pocket, and we fear anything other than the two-party system that this country wears like old, comfortable, shit-stained pajamas, but damned if the right doesn’t make us fear the socialist, gun-hating bastards and the left doesn’t make us fear the warmongering, gay-hating tightasses.

But even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation can come to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time (and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened). Take enough educational debt, unaffordable healthcare, dead soldiers, intrusive legislation and economic skullfuckery, and then tickle that teetering mound with bathroom stall debates and a complete dirth of decent music on the radio waves and you’d think you would see that generational flash. But the Ego fell asleep somewhere during the road trip, the Id and Super-Ego are now fighting for the wheel, and there is no line to be found anywhere on the horizon. This is the generation of selfie-obsessed navel gazing. It’s the generation that’s so busy trying to decide whose lives matter that it’s sacrificing its own.

So how surprised are we, really, that it’s come down to a “my dick is bigger than yours” fight for the presidency of this shattered freakshow of a nation? How much shock and awe can you possibly feign at money grabs like the ENRON scandal if you whined for government deregulation? And I am no better. I have no duty to obey a system that lacks any moral legitimacy, yet here I am typing on a Macbook that was bought in promotion of capitalism, sharing my words over an internet being monitored by the NSA, sipping a glass of sparkling wine that was made possible by illegal immigrant labor under inhumane conditions that are all but sanctioned by a government that turns a blind eye to such corporate ass grinding. Cheers. Every budding politician believes they are entering the arena for the good of the people. Lofty ideals. Positive change. Upward mobility. Dare I say, freedom. But politics is a bit like fucking— it’s only fun for amateurs. Old whores don’t do much giggling.

One look at the US birth rate right now (down to about 1/10th of what it was 50 years ago) and you can’t help but believe that it’s one huge, collective “fuck you”. Americans in their 20s and 30s are looking around at each other, wondering how many, if any, children they want to bring into the world when the best advice they’ll be able to give them is, “Hope for the best but plan for the worst, kiddo.” We’re borrowing from our grandchildren and leaving them a legacy akin to Barnum & Bailey, but without the safety nets. We were given David Bowie, but we’re gonna leave them Kanye. In the end, the love you take is nearly never equal to the love you make.

The line between martyrdom and stupidity depends on a certain kind of tension in any kingdom, but that line disappeared, and there’s no longer a point in kidding ourselves. The only decision to be made right now, is do you float or do you swim? If you can’t control the circumstances—if the train is off the rails—do you shut your eyes to avert them from the disaster and simply go play a couple of matches of Wii tennis? Do you live the narrow life, moving vertically rather than horizontally? Hunter S. Thompson wrote, “…a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.” But the options suck, Doc. It may indeed be a decision to float or swim, but it is a decision made in a septic tank being sucked out by a sewer drain that leads to a leach field. If you believe you are living in the American Dream, you most assuredly are asleep and should probably wake the fuck up. That is of course unless you’re living in Japan or Taiwan. They’re living the shit out of the American Dream.

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“I’m the man! I’m the man! I’m so bad I should be in detention…”

by Katie Pizzuto September 23, 2015
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While unfortunately this blog has gone by way of the history books for the sake of my attention span being devoted to an upcoming line of Gonzo hot sauces (stay tuned), every once in a while something waltzes into my line of sight, lingers in my crosshairs and all but dares me to satisfy the […]

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“Freedom, you’ve gotta give for what you take…”

by Katie Pizzuto April 28, 2015
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I remember sliding onto the operating table and the anesthesiologist bitching about something to a nurse, but then the world faded out to black softly, just like it does on the big screen. Probably one of the few things Hollywood manages to portray with any kind of reality. After it was over, I was in […]

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“I’m not dead yet…”

by Katie Pizzuto April 6, 2015
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Things that are often described as difficult, high risk, and overly sensitive are nearly always worth both the wait and the trouble–yeah, damn right that includes me. So, I tend to have a weak spot for a really well-made pinot noir because I know that both the grower and the winemaker didn’t take the easy […]

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“But glittering prizes and endless compromises shatter the illusion of integrity…”

by Katie Pizzuto November 5, 2014
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Those that have been watching the growth of the craft beer/microbrewery movement this last decade with a diligent eye know that Big Brewing has done its best to steal back at least a portion of what it’s lost to the little guys—mostly by screwing with the less-than-diligent consumer. The A-B family of brands now includes […]

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“No! Don’t sign it! Give me time to think. I mean hold on a second boy, ’cause that’s magic ink…”

by Katie Pizzuto July 23, 2014
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I’ve just had the pleasure of spending the last couple of weeks with Randall Grahm. Nobody knew. In fact, Randall didn’t even know. Hell, if I’m being honest, I didn’t know until I had drained the last bottle. Though this could quite possibly be the post that finally lands me a one-way cab ride to […]

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WORDLESS WEDNESDAY: “Every picture tells a story, don’t it…”

by Katie Pizzuto May 7, 2014
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“I don’t give a damn ’bout my reputation, I’ve never been afraid of any deviation…”

by Katie Pizzuto April 24, 2014
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Making a wine with native yeast (instead of commercial yeast) fermentation takes a brass set of balls. Well, either that or a little madness. But I’ve always felt that a little madness keeps the big madness away…and it also keeps you on your toes. It’s one part speculation, one part faith, and two parts beer […]

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“Owww we want the funk, give up the funk…”

by Katie Pizzuto February 27, 2014
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Brooklyn Brewery makes me wish I lived in Brooklyn, and other than my friend Joe Carroll’s trio of gastro-bliss joints (Spuyten Duyvil, Fette Sau and St. Anselm) I didn’t really think anything could make me want to live in Brooklyn—I heard a tree grows there, but it continues to elude me. Every beer they’ve ever […]

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