The history of the Cuban rum industry is an undoubtedly fascinating and vibrant one. However, today it’s booming on the island like never before. Thanks to Cuba partnering with some international companies who have been able to provide the capital and the expertise needed, Cuban rum has been put back on the map, not just globally but on the island too.
While Cuba has countless rum brands, four, in particular, are jostling for position to become the spirit of Cuba, in all senses of the word.
Havana Club is hands down the most iconic rum brand in Cuba and can be traced all the way back to 1887. It was first distilled in the Matanzas province of Cárdenas by the Arechabala family before being branded officially as Havana Club in 1934. Much like other successful family-owned rum businesses at the time, the company was taken over by the new revolutionary government in 1960.
“…we see ourselves as not just representatives of Cuban rum but of a whole culture.Audrey Hands, Global Ambassador for Havana Club
Thirty years later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s biggest trading partner, the country was desperately looking for ways to increase exports. In 1993, French spirits company Pernod Ricard entered into a joint partnership with the Cuban state rum company Cuba Ron S.A which catapulted Cuban rum into the global 21st century. Today, Havana Club takes pride of place in the top three biggest and best-selling rum brands worldwide.
Because of its long history as “the rum of Cuba,” as its slogan claims, Havana Club takes the tradition of Cuban rum very seriously, working closely alongside the country’s “maestros roneros,” master blenders who are responsible for keeping the quality, legacy, and craftsmanship of Cuban rum alive. The role is a highly respected one that takes over a decade of training to obtain, meaning there are currently only 12 maestros in total, four of which Havana Club has exclusive access.
Up until a few years ago, Havana Club held virtually a complete monopoly over the rum industry in Cuba but now things are changing. New Cuban challenger brands have been following in their footsteps with similar partnerships and have given Havana Club an extra incentive to focus on not only tradition but also how the brand can represent modernity. Audrey Hands, Global Ambassador for Havana Club, is embracing this newfound competition:
“I like to think of us as a big brother (or sister!) The joint venture we entered into in the 90s was the gateway to propel Cuban rum around the world and it’s incredible to now see other Cuban brands starting to grow. A lot of the people that are now with these other brands used to work for us which I think shows the incredible knowledge and training of Cuban rum passed down by Havana Club.”
Havana Club takes the tradition of Cuban rum very seriously, working closely alongside the country’s master blenders, who [keep] the quality, legacy, and craftsmanship of Cuban rum alive.
The brand also recognizes that to keep the legacy of Cuban rum alive, it must captivate and inspire the younger generation on the island. This has led to the creation of several new Havana Club rums with ultra-modern branding and limited edition packaging such as “Profundo” – a high-end white aged rum, and “Smokey”- a dark rum aged in smokey scotch whiskey barrels.
Audrey also works closely with young Cuban bartenders and start-up bars during workshops and masterclasses to educate them on the Havana Club brand and Cuban rum in general.
“They are so hungry to understand what’s going on ‘out there’ and how they can bring it to Cuba to offer current drinks and experiences with added Cubanía.”
However, Audrey views her work in Cuba as more of a conversation and an exchange of ideas than training. She may spread her knowledge of Havana Club and the new global trends in rum and cocktail making but she also learns so much from the stories they share from lives spent living alongside Cuban rum.
Related Post: Try Prú: Cuba’s Original (Super Refreshing) Detox Drink
“Havana Club has been sharing the voices of the Cuban people ever since we started the joint venture and we see ourselves as not just representatives of Cuban rum but of a whole culture. We have a lot to teach Cubans to help them grow but the world still has so much to learn from them.”
Black Tears was first conceptualized around five years ago and has been an edgy new challenger to Havana Club ever since. As the first Cuban spiced rum on the market, the liquid is infused with three of Cuba’s most celebrated ingredients: coffee, cacao, and ají dulce – sweet pepper – which is a staple of any Cuban dish.
Enrique Arías, President of the joint venture between the Spain-based company and the Cuban government, explains that they spent up to two years perfecting the maceration process and achieving the correct proportions of the three spices:
“Even though the ají dulce is the least prominent ingredient you can taste on the palette, it’s the element that brings everything to life. Coffee has the strongest presence out of the three yet the sweet pepper is what balances it out and makes the biggest difference to the tonality of the liquid.”
Black Tears also makes four other rums, three of which are only available in Cuba, including an aguardiente that has been a major seller on the island. Aguardiente is essentially the first distillation, the base of what all Cuban rum is made from. This was a really popular drink in the 1970s, mainly in the Cuban Canchánchara cocktail, but had fallen out of favor.
“We wanted to bring back a more refined version of aguardiente that wasn’t too overpowering and pungent like they often can be, something suitable for both the Cubans and the tourists who come to visit,” says Enrique.
From the beginning, Black Tears set out to be a fresh and youthful brand in the rum scene and since officially launching in 2021, it has quickly found itself a loyal cult following in the young Cuban creative community in Havana. Part of its initial attraction is its name, inspired by the iconic Cuban ballad Lágrimas Negras of the 1930s.
“We wanted a name that reflected all aspects of Cuban life, both the joy and the struggle, and the song epitomizes this. Listening to Lágrimas Negras helps you discover the essence of the Black Tears brand.”
We wanted a name that reflected all aspects of Cuban life, both the joy and the struggle, and the song epitomizes this. Listening to Lágrimas Negras helps you discover the essence of the Black Tears brand.Enrique Arías, President of Black Tears
This strong link to Cuban music is what has made it a firm favorite among many alternative musicians, as well as its position as more of a startup brand. Compared to the other three big-scale rum companies, Black Tears has a team of around fifty and their factory in the Ciego de Ávila province is small. Their success in Cuba is also attributable not only to the quality of the liquid but its accessible price point, as it was essential to them that their products be affordable for the average Cuban.
When it comes to the other competing rum brands, Enrique believes that a rising tide lifts all boats:
“All of these brands provide a symphony of different expressions of Cuban rum, all from different provinces around the island and with different characteristics. I hope to see more quality Cuban rum brands like ours appear over time.”
Ron Santiago de Cuba
Ron Santiago de Cuba originates from the former distillery of the Bacardí family in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, an area known as “the cradle of light rum”. Although this legendary rum has long been a household name on the island, it did not have the same international reach as Havana Club, until recently that is. In 2019, UK spirits conglomerate Diageo, seeing potential in the brand, signed a deal with the state-owned company Cuba Ron to distribute it globally. Right away, they wanted to put the luxury quality of its rum at the forefront of the brand:
“Santiago has long been known as the place to get the best rum, it has the oldest liquids on the island which create some of the most premium products in Cuba,” says Luca Cesarano, General Manager of the joint venture between Diageo and Cuba Ron S.A.
The east of the island, known as el Oriente, has a unique microclimate that shapes the flavor profile of the rums produced there. For example, the higher temperatures felt in this region make the rum a lot sweeter, creating a fruitier flavor similar to the rums you might find from nearby Jamaica.
Once the liquid has been distilled, it’s aged in white oak casks in the famous Don Pancho warehouse, fondly referred to as “the cathedral of Cuban rum.” Situated next to a railway track, local legend has it that the ground shaking from passing trains adds an interesting element to the aging process taking place in the barrels.
“This is what we want Ron Santiago de Cuba to be associated with: respect for tradition, heritage, and storytelling,” comments Luca.
This is our biggest ambition for the brand in Cuba: to raise the entire category and make Cubans proud of their rums, to make rum aspirational.Luca Cesarano, General Manager of Ron Santiago de Cuba
However, this doesn’t mean there isn’t space for innovation. After all, the biggest revolutionary moments come from Santiago: rum, music, and even the Revolution itself.
“It’s a city which is brooding and more hidden, with a rough energy to produce new cultural ideas.”
The breadth and width of the base rums that the company has at its fingertips certainly give a lot of scope to produce a whole host of highly sophisticated products. Last year, Santiago launched a brand new eight-year-aged rum to rival Havana Club’s seven, signaling major competition coming from within Cuba. The brand is also currently developing some super premium aged rums to further cement Santiago as the luxury brand of Cuba.
Luca admits that Ron Santiago de Cuba also has big ambitions for the rum movement within Cuba:
“Even a few years ago, when you went to some of Havana’s coolest bars and clubs, young Cubans wanted to be seen with a bottle of whiskey in their hand. It was seen as a symbol of success but they didn’t feel that same way about rum. However, this is really starting to change. This is our biggest ambition for the brand in Cuba: to raise the entire category and make Cubans proud of their rums, to make rum aspirational. Many Cubans don’t fully comprehend just how exceptional their rum is…”
Although Santiago de Cuba has long been widely hailed as the best premium rum in Cuba, Eminente’s imminent arrival on the horizon will be an exciting disruptor for the brand. This is yet another collaboration between Cuba Ron S.A and an international company, this time with the iconic luxury French spirit company Moët Hennessy.
So, if Ron Santiago de Cuba’s brand is more rooted in old-school rum making, Eminente has more of a contemporary spin on luxury. Their rum master, César Martí, is the country’s youngest and wanted to get experimental with rum to produce something completely new.
Eminente comes from the center of the island in the province of Villa Clara, where César hails from, a lesser-known style of rum that marries the fruity sippable nature of the Oriente and dry and intense taste of Occidente rums like Havana Club in the west. In Cuba, there are 120 types of sugar cane, of which around 70 grow exclusively on the island, meaning that the country has some of the best raw materials in the world. However, high-quality rum could not be produced without the important role of the rum master in the continuous blending and aging process.
“César grew up surrounded by sugar cane fields and this is where he inherited the generational know-how. He also has a doctorate in chemistry, which allows him to translate that tradition and knowledge into innovation,” comments Raúl Bravo, Eminente’s Representative for Cuba.
César’s work with Eminente has also seen him experimenting with the proportions of aguardiente to produce unique flavors. Cuban rums typically have up to around 15% aguardiente but Eminente’s Ámbar Claro three-year rum has 30% and their seven-year Reserva contains 70% which Raúl feels gives them greater complexity and roundness.
Regarding the brand, the unexpected, untamed, and untainted nature of Cuba is what the company most wanted to pay tribute to. This can be seen in Eminente’s award-winning bottle design made from textured crocodile-skin-patterned glass and its label which features the island of Cuba shaped like its native species of crocodile.
Eminente comes from the province of Villa Clara, a lesser-known style of rum that marries the fruity sippable nature of the Oriente and dry and intense taste of Occidente rums like Havana Club.
“For me and for us Cubans in general, rum is not just a drink, it is a symbol of our country that has been part of our history and the history of our families. When I drink Eminente, no matter where I am, I am transported to Cuba, to Cuba’s fields, and to my roots.”
Eminente is already seeing success in Europe and Raúl is gearing up to launch the brand officially in Cuba later this year where it will undoubtedly become another key player in the vibrant rum scene on the island:
“I think we are in a moment of great health in the Cuban rum industry, new brands and products are emerging and we respect and value them all because they are all raising the image of Cuban rum nationally and globally. I really feel like we are experiencing a movement of innovation and change for the better.”
All four of these brands are championing the true value of Cuban rum worldwide while simultaneously invigorating the rum industry on the island. This has a knock-on effect on the country’s cocktail and bar scene in general as, even over the last few years, Cuban craft products and brands have emerged that are pushing forward entrepreneurship and innovation in this space.
As Luca from Ron Santiago de Cuba puts it: “the more we can help Cubans appreciate their rum, the more they will start to wonder what they can bring to this industry.”