“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.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alex January 12, 2018

As usual, Cuban culture & its people are pawns to the whims of its North American big brother. Been that way since the Spanish American war, and was completely exacerbated by Fidel’s revolución. In the parlance of ‘gonzogastronomy’: “Never have I felt so raped as a culture”.

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2 Katie Pizzuto January 12, 2018

I both agree and disagree. While US whims definitely play a part in this, the “culture” is being whored out by the Cubans themselves, too. The regime is trying to sell the world the “original” Havana Club which is not at all the original recipe, and hasn’t been since Arechabala’s exile, and Bacardí is also trying to sell the world the “original” Havana Club, which is not at all the original recipe because of alterations and improper ingredients. They’re both peddling something that doesn’t exist anywhere other than in the American’s mind.

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3 Coupe60 January 12, 2018

As I live and breathe… I almost fell off my chair when i saw that a new issue f Gonzo Gastronomy was in my inbox….

Damn Katie – How have you been? I hope things are going well for you and htat you had a Merry Christmas and a joyous and Happy New Year!!!!

As usual another great article, I honestly can’t wait until about October 2019 for the next article… Anyway, great seeing anything from you. You truly are a talented writer

Lou

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4 Katie Pizzuto January 12, 2018

In the flesh, Lou. Still kicking, still breathing. Focus has been on the hot sauces so the writing has died but every once in a while I can’t keep my mouth shut. Sit tight while I work on something for next year 🙂

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