Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet

Photo credit, righthand image: Cuban rum "base." Photo credit: Caleb Krivoshey

There’s a hint of mythology regarding Cuban rum – a certain cachet, a promise of elegance. Much as the mere mention of “Japanese whisky” gets the single-malt fanatic’s heart racing, the Cuban rums of yore hold a special meaning for rum connoisseurs. It hearkens us back to U.S. Prohibition, when thirsty Americans took a quick hop to Cuba to legally enjoy Cuban rums in the now classic drinks invented on the island: The Daiquiri. The Mojito. The El Presidente. In the fifty-plus years since America’s embargo on Cuban product began, its rum has become highly valued contraband, covertly acquired and doled out on the sly by generations of American imbibers.

Despite being cut off from the American market and its estimated forty percent of the world’s rum consumption, Havana Club and other Cuban rums are still the third most consumed Caribbean rum worldwide. They trail only Bacardi and Captain Morgan, if you can believe that. Bacardi was born in Cuba and the company still touts its Cuban roots and production processes first used in Cuba. Consider just Bacardi and Havana Club alone, it’s clear that Cuban “style” rum is far and away the most prevalent type of rum consumed today.

Despite the worldwide dominance of Cuban heritage rum, even enthusiasts are hard-pressed to tell you what makes a rum “Cuban style.” Thanks to my recent immersive trip to Havana and the San Jose distillery, plus a ton of additional research, in what follows we’ll take a deep look at the essence of Cuban rum and how it’s made.

Before continuing, here’s an important note on my choice of wording for this story:

Recently, there’s been vigorous debate in rum circles about categorization and how existing categories like “white” and “dark” fall short. I’ve even written a few things myself on the topic. A common categorization divides rums into “English style,” “French style,” and “Spanish style,” referencing the parent country of the Caribbean colony where the rums are made. However, there are no official definitions of what make a rum English, French, or Spanish in style. Compounding matters, some producers straddle the very loose lines that delineate, say, a French style rum from an English style. Even the two recently introduced categorization systems (Gargano and Cate) are nearly mute on this particular dimension.

However, with deep knowledge of rum’s history and diversity, I submit that there’s still value in understanding a rum’s production style within the context of its country’s colonial history, e.g.:

  • Barbados, Jamaica, and Guyana, all former British colonies, are known for their molasses-based rum. Both pot and column stills are used, and the blending of pot and column distillates is very common, as is entirely pot stilled rum.
  • The French territories of Martinique and Guadeloupe are known for their rhum agricole – made from fresh pressed cane juice and column distilled. Their grassy, vegetal flavors are immediately recognizable.
  • Former Spanish colonies like Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic are known for their molasses-based, column distilled, charcoal filtered rums. Much more on this in a bit!

If you look around the Caribbean basin, you’ll see Spanish colonial influence elsewhere – not only on the islands, but also in Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia, and Panama. Sure enough, rum production in these countries mostly hews toward the very loose definition of Spanish style rums cited above: molasses based and column distilled. Some producers in the region even practice the technique of solera aging, originally invented as a way of aging sherry (and now, rum) in their Spanish motherland. (Astute readers will note I conveniently sidestep the raging debate about solera aged rum here. We have plenty of ground to cover without going down that rabbit hole.)

Attempting to precisely define Spanish style rum puts us on a slippery slope. However, there’s firmer ground to be found in describing what I’ve come to call the “Cuban process.” I’ve dubbed it that because it was born in Cuba, later propagating to other Spanish colonial enclaves.  Well-known producers following this process include Bacardi, Brugal, Don Q, and of course, Havana Club. With that in mind, let’s dive into the key tenets of Cuban process rum.

Cuban Process Fundamentals

Cuban profile rum tends towards a light, elegant and refined profile. Their rums don’t come across like the pot-stilled ester bombs of Jamaica and Guyana, nor are they as in-your-face vegetal like young rhum agricole. The real skill of the Cuban rum masters is their knowledge of blending multiple rums, as well as their masterful use of old barrels. It’s easy to obtain wood-extracted flavors from a new or lightly used casks. However, Cuban maestros seek out the oldest, most neutral casks they can. The oxidative aging of a neutral cask is very different than the shot of vanilla that bourbon gets from its new oak casks.

Let’s start with what is easily defined and well-understood about making Cuban process rum. Like the majority of rum made worldwide, the Cuban process uses molasses. Sugar is still widely grown in Cuba, so molasses is plentiful. Fermentation times are relatively short, on the order of a day, not weeks like some of the ultra-funky Jamaican marques.

The Cuban process is inextricably tied to column distillation. However, let’s be very clear here. While some folk pejoratively believe all Spanish style rums come from huge, multi-column stills making high ABV distillate in the 95 percent ABV range, this isn’t correct.

Producers like Bacardi and Havana Club absolutely use multi-column stills to make very high ABV distillate. But they also have stills tuned to make lower proof distillate at around 75 percent ABV, in the same range as rhums distilled on Martinique and Guadeloupe. Nobody says those rums are flavorless! I’ll come back to the two types of column stills and their distillates in a moment.

The original Cuban rums from the early and mid-1800s weren’t entirely column distilled – a fact that was initially a very big surprise to me. As Tom Gjelten writes in his book Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba:

In 1911 the Bacardis retired the old pot still the company had used for nearly fifty years, replacing it with the latest version of a modern “Coffey” still, which processed larger quantities of fermented molasses far more efficiently.

The company ordered its first Coffey still after Enrique Schueg saw one demonstrated at an international exhibition in Paris in 1889. The Bacardis were the first rum makers in Cuba to use a Coffey still.

Ponder that in light of your understanding of Cuban rum. Viewed only from the consideration of source material and distillation equipment, there was a time when Cuban rum producers like Bacardi made rum similar to the English style rums of the same era. However, the true essence of the Cuban process comes to light once Cuban producers moved past those dimensions.

Two different types of column distillate are a hallmark of the Cuban process. The first, known as aguardiente (Spanish for “fire water”), comes off the still at around 75 percent ABV and is quite aromatic and flavorful. From firsthand experience, I would happily drink this in much the same way I consume unaged rhum agricole.

The second type of distillate, known as destilado de caña or redistillado is made in a modern, multi-column still, and is much higher proof and less flavorful.

At this point in the process immediately after distillation, neither the 75 percent ABV nor the 95 percent ABV distillate is thought of as “rum,” per the official Cuban definition, cited below.

To make the distillates into proper rum, the aguardiente is aged for several years and then filtered (more on this momentarily). After aging and filtration, it’s blended with the high proof distillate and possibly water to create an unaged “base” rum. Each unique combination of distillates (and perhaps water) make a different base, for different purposes. This blending of rums to create bases is another touchstone of the Cuban process. At Havana Club in Cuba, we learned that they use three primary bases:

  • Oro (“gold”)
  • Centenario (“centenary” or 100)
  • Extra Sec (“extra dry”)
Aged rum bases at Havana Club's San Jose distillery
Aged rum bases at Havana Club’s San Jose distillery

Let’s return to filtration aspect, another hallmark of the Cuban style. Charcoal filtration removes most of the unpleasant flavors, a bit of the “good” flavors, and much of the color imparted by the initial aging. In fact, one Spanish style rum maker refers to it as the carta blanca (“white card”) process. The exact makeup of the different charcoals used for filtration are closely held secrets, although it’s generally assumed that different types of woods and coconut husks are part of the charcoal “recipe.”

Historical side-note: While Bacardi is often cited as the first to use charcoal filtration in rum, similar filtration was likely already in use for other distilled spirits, including what we now know of as Tennessee whiskey.

Filtration tanks at Havana Club's San Jose distillery
Filtration tanks at Havana Club’s San Jose distillery

After the initial aging cycle and filtration, all the rum bases progress through additional long aging in oak casks. Thus, all Cuban process rum is technically double aged. And some are triple aged!

At any given moment, the producer’s aging facilities are filled with thousands of barrels with rum bases at different points in the aging continuum. Only when a barrel’s contents reach sufficient maturity does the rum maestro blend it with other aged bases to create the final bottling blend.

Aging warehouse, Havana Club San Jose distillery
Aging warehouse, Havana Club San Jose distillery

Speaking of the final blend, one very unusual aspect of rums made in Cuba is that they have a surprisingly low maximum bottling strength – 45 percent ABV. In fact, the Havana Club Selección de Maestros was previously known as “Barrel Proof” with an ABV of (you guessed it) 45 percent. While nothing to sneeze at, it’s surprising to rum enthusiasts like yours truly who commonly consume 60 percent (or higher) ABV rums from Jamaica, Barbados, and Guyana.

A Brief History of the Cuban Rum Industry

As a rum enthusiast, my understanding of a rum’s character and production technique improves immensely by understanding a country’s historical circumstances, from inception to the present day.

I’ve done deep dives previously with Jamaican and French West Indies rums. However, I found Cuban rum history and producers far more challenging to research. As you might expect, the Cuban Revolution had a dramatic effect on the Cuban rum market and created a near black hole for information from 1960 through 1993. What follows is by no means exhaustive but provides the critical context for understanding how Cuban process rum came to pass.

Starting around 1500 A.D. with Columbus and other explorers who followed, Cuba and other Caribbean islands were extensively planted with sugar cane. Circa 1650, rum production was introduced and spread like wildfire around the Caribbean. All rum made in the 1600s and 1700s was of a reasonably similar style – molasses based, pot distilled, and not much in the way of aging.

Even as late as the mid-1800s, rums from the islands of the various European empires hadn’t evolved into anything like the French, English, and Spanish styles we think of today. The column still, a critical part of today’s French and Spanish style rums, wasn’t even invented until the 1820s and took some time to fully take hold in the Caribbean. Likewise, the French hadn’t begin switching en masse to cane juice from molasses before the 1870s.

During the early colonial period, Cuba was effectively on the sidelines of the rum world. Up till 1796, the Spanish crown forbade rum production in its Caribbean territories. When the shackles came off, Cuban rum wasn’t particularly highly valued, as other colonies were much further along in their production knowledge, processes, and overall quality. Seeking to turn the situation around, the Spanish government initiated a competition to reward those who could quickly improve the quality of rum made in Spanish territories.

The person most celebrated for developing and commercializing the Cuban style of rum is Don Facundo Bacardi Masso, who experimented extensively with yeast strains, distillation techniques, charcoal filtration, and aging in American oak casks. In 1862, he and his brother formed Bacardi y Compañia, the forerunner of today’s Bacardi. It was far from a smashing success for a number of decades, however.

Other Cuban rum producers sprang up around the same time. The Arechabala family began production in 1878, and in 1934 they established the Havana Club brand. Likewise, Matusalem & Company began rum production in Cuba in 1872.  The key takeaway here is that by the late 1800s, Cuba was a vibrant rum producing island with a number of distilleries spread across its terrain. However, it hadn’t yet reached its apogee.

In the late 1800s, the fledgling rum industry struggled to stay afloat through several wars for Cuban independence, including the Ten Years War (1868-1878) and the Cuban War for Independence (1895-1898) which later escalated into the Spanish-American war of 1898. War wreaks havoc on supply lines, and a distillery’s output is often repurposed. Despite the disruption caused by wars, the Bacardi family, primarily Emilio, were significant players in the Cuban independence movement.

It wasn’t until the first decades of the twentieth century that the Cuban rum industry really hit its stride, producing at scale and becoming known worldwide for their great rums. The advent of U.S. Prohibition in 1920 was a boon for Cuban producers. Not only were libation-minded U.S. citizens travelling to nearby Cuba for their legal fix, a substantial amount of rum bootlegged into the U.S. during this period came from Cuba.

Even after Prohibition’s end, Americans (and others) continued to flock to Havana to drink rum and enjoy its renowned nightlife. It’s worth noting for later in this tale that Bacardi was successful enough by this point that it built additional production facilities in Mexico in 1931 and in Puerto Rico in 1936. Another key date to remember for later is that the Arechabala family created the Havana Club brand in 1934.

Fast forward to 1959 and the end of the Cuban Revolution. Under Fidel Castro, the new Cuban government nationalized many industries, including sugar cane and rum production. Every Cuban distillery, including those owned by Bacardi, Havana Club (the Arechabalas), and Matusalem, were seized by the Cuban government. The families behind these distilleries fled Cuba. The Bacardi family, having wisely set up operations outside of Cuba well before the revolution, was able to continue operations. The Arechabala family wasn’t so lucky, and never resumed rum production elsewhere.

Cuba’s nationalized rum production remains in effect to this very day. That is, all Cuban rum made since the early 1960s has been made under the management of the Cuban government.

In 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy established the trade embargo, prohibiting the import of nearly all Cuban goods into the United States. This embargo remains in effect to the present day, which is why you won’t find any Cuban rum on U.S. store shelves. That said, people returning to the U.S. from abroad are currently allowed to bring in Cuban-made rum, but only for personal use.

Information about the Cuban rum industry between nationalization (1960) and the early 1970s is exceedingly hard to find. Some people in the know have told me the Cuban government continued to operate the rum factories, making rum for the domestic market.

In the early 1970s, the Cuban government began focusing on the rum export market. Being a communist government, most of Cuba’s rum exports went to other communist-bloc nations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  When it came to naming their export rum, the Cuban government wisely chose to not call it “Bacardi,” despite the name being synonymous with Cuban rum.  (The Bacardi family has always vigorously defended its trademarks in international courts.) In contrast, by early 1973 the Havana Club moniker wasn’t in active use, so the Cuban government picked that as their export brand name, figuring the Arechabala family wouldn’t put up a fight in international courts. (Oh, if only it were that simple! More on that in a bit.)

By 1977, the Cuban rum enterprise was doing well enough to warrant building a new distillery in Santa Cruz del Norte.      However, by the early 1990s, the collapse of communism in its former trading partner countries led to a severely depressed market for Cuban rum exports. The Cuban government responded by entering into an equal partnership with the French spirit maker Pernod Ricard. I’ll talk much more about this in a subsequent post, however, in brief, the Cuban part of the partnership (known as “CubaRon”) produces and bottles Havana Club, while the French company Pernod Ricard handles distribution and marketing of the Havana Club brand. This partnership exists to the current day.

Havana Club Trademark Dispute

The nationalization of the Cuban rum industry set up a chain of legal entanglements that continues nearly sixty years later. Broadly known as the Bacardi/Havana Club trademark dispute, its complex twists and turns are reported in the mainstream news. After all, with the world’s first and fourth largest rum brands duking it out in national and international courts, billions of dollars are at stake. Rum expert Paul E. Senft has created a comprehensive accounting, but here I’ll touch on just the key aspects.

When the Cuban government began exporting rum in the 1970s under the Havana Club name, it did so without the cooperation of the Arechabala family, who held the original Havana Club trademark. In 1973, the family let the trademark lapse, as they weren’t actively using it in the rum business. In 1976, the Cuban government, in the form of the CubaExport Company, registered the Havana Club trademark in the United States, despite being unable to sell its rum there due to the U.S. embargo. In 1994, the Arechabala family formed an alliance with Bacardi (their one-time competitor) and eventually sold the Havana Club recipes and trademark to them.

Exactly who owns the Havana Club trademark is at the crux of the ongoing legal disputes. In a nutshell, Bacardi’s position has been that the Arechabala family was the legal owner and that the Cuban government had illegally appropriated it. The Cuban government and Pernod Ricard contend that the Arechabala family abandoned the trademark when it didn’t renew it in 1973.

In 1996, Bacardi began selling very small quantities of Puerto Rican-made rum labeled as “Havana Club” in the United States. This was obviously contentious, but given the tiny quantities, not many consumers were confused. Meanwhile, outside of the U.S., a bottle of Havana Club rum is always Cuban-made and distributed by Pernod Ricard.

These uneasy, parallel worlds simmered away in relatively obscurity until 2016, when Bacardi substantially ramped up distribution of its Puerto Rican-made Havana Club rums, setting off a new wave of legal action and media stories. Contributing to this field day for lawyers is that different arms of the U.S. government have been incredibly inconsistent over many decades as to who owns the trademark.

Is all this confusing to the consumer? From firsthand experience, it is. While standing in the duty free shop of the Havana airport, I watched an obviously American couple pondering a purchase of Cuban-made Havana Club rum. One said to the other, “The price is pretty good, but we can get this at home.”  Sensing a rum education moment, I asked where they were from. South Florida, as it turned out. They’d seen the Bacardi-made Havana Club rum at the store and assumed it was made in Cuba.  Not so.

The Maestro Roneros

Governments have a notoriously bad (and deserved) reputation for making products requiring a modicum of artistic taste and talent. Process-pushing bureaucrats aren’t interchangeable with skilled experts who’ve devoted their working life to doing one thing extremely well, e.g. making rum. However, the Cuban government has wisely chosen to put the country’s rich, rum-making tradition in the hands of a self-selecting group of extremely experienced rum making experts, known as the Maestros Roneros — in English: master rum-makers.

The Maestro Roneros oversee all aspects of Cuban rum production, from molasses selection through distillation, aging, blending, and bottling. Each has dedicated decades of their life to learning every aspect of rum production inside and out. Although they’re all technically responsible for overseeing the whole of Cuban rum production, in practice, each Maestro Ronero works with particular brands and distilleries.

Maestro Ronero Asbel Morales at Havana Club's San Jose distillery
Maestro Ronero Asbel Morales at Havana Club’s San Jose distillery

There’s no guaranteed path to becoming a Maestro Ronero. You have to be voted into the group by its current membership after putting in decades of work mastering all aspects of rum making. Currently there are eight Maestro Roneros — Two Primeros Maestros del Ron Cubano (“First Teachers of Cuban Rum”) and six Maestros del Ron Cubano (“Teachers of Cuban Rum”). In addition, there are four more Aspirantes a Maestros del Ron (“Aspiring to Ron Masters”). Until recently, all Maestro Roneros were men, but in 2016 Salome Alemán Carriazo became the first female Maestra Ronera.

Cuban Rum Today

Today, Cuban rum production, including all distilleries on Cuban soil, remains under the control of the government. Cuban-made Havana Club rum is far and away the best known and readily available brand, but there are others. Matching up exactly which brands are made at which distillery is challenging, especially since a production house may contribute to multiple brands. Ultimately, it’s the Cuban government that assigns the rums from each distillery to specific brands, and they may switch things up as the need arises.

What follows is my best attempt at enumerating the currently available Cuban distilleries and their associated brands. If you see something incorrect or missing, please let me know.

Distilleries (by city name):

  • Cárdenas: Founded in 1878 by Don José Arechabala Aldama. Brands include Perla, Legendario Elixir de Cuba, and Cubay.
  • Santiago de Cuba: Founded in 1862, and Bacardi’s production site up till 1959. Current brands include Santiago de Cuba, Varadero, and Caney.
  • San Jose: Founded in 2007. Built in France and transported to Cuba. Produces aguardiente in its column still for use in Havana Club base rums. Also has aging and bottling facilities.
  • Santa Cruz del Norte: Originally built in 1919 but completely overhauled in 1977. Brands include Havana Club. Today, its multi-column still creates high-proof distillate for use in Havana Club base rums. Prior to the San Jose distillery coming online in 2007, Santa Cruz also created aguardiente for Havana Club rums.
  • Villa Clara: Founded in 1972, also known as the Central Rum Factory. Brands include Cubay.
  • Sancti Spiritus: Founded around 1944 (1946?). Brands include Ron Santero. Seen in various Cuban rums from independent bottlers. Update: May be part of La Estancia, which operates a site in Sancti Spiritus.

Brands

Note: The descriptions here are mostly lifted directly from Cubaron web site.

  • Havana Club: Cuba Ron SA Corporation produces Havana Club rums for Havana Club International, which are distributed worldwide by Pernod Ricard.
  • Santiago de Cuba: It is elaborated in Santiago de Cuba, known since 1862 as the cradle of light rum.
  • Cubay: A brand that reflects a name of araucanian origin, identifies a rum from Santo Domingo, a town in the province of Villa Clara.
  • Arecha: It is manufactured in Santiago de Cuba, recognized as the birthplace of light rum since 1862.
  • Perla del Norte: A rum made with the use of a unique technology from spirits and aged bases.
  • Legendario Rum: Legendario rums are produced by the MINAL Beverage Company.
  • Santero: Does not appear to be a Cubaron-owned brand. Likely made at Sancti Spiritus.
  • Mulata: Does not appear to be a Cubaron-owned brand. Produced at the distillery of Heriberto Duquesne, which is located in the central region of Cuba at Villa Clara.
  • Edmundo Dantes: Does not appear to be a Cubaron-owned brand.
  • Varadero: Distilled, aged, and bottled in Santiago de Cuba.

The Cuban Rum Geographic Indication (DOP)

Used barrels at the Havana Club San Jose distillery
Used barrels at the Havana Club San Jose distillery

Although it’s not well known, Cuba adopted a Geographical Indication (“GI”) for its rum in 2013. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it’s essentially the regulations that define how Cuban rum is made, including source material, distillation aging practices, and labeling requirements. It’s somewhat akin to the much better known Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for rhums made on Martinique.

Naturally, the GI document is written in Spanish, and the formal term for the regulations is “Denominación de Origen Protegida”, which translates to “Protected Designation of Origin.” In the document, you’ll see it abbreviated as “DOP.”

The thirty-five articles that make up the DOP are fairly dry. Many are about administrative procedures and rapidly induce a peaceful and deep sleep. Below, I’ve summarized the essential elements of the DOP with a tiny bit of inline commentary. I’ll publish the complete, translated DOP in a subsequent post.

The big picture view is that the DOP has lots of verbiage about what makes Cuban rum unique, e.g. its sugar and molasses, the Cuban weather, and its long tradition of rum making. But in terms of hard, quantifiable, measurable elements, such as allowed fermentation times or the ABV of distillate off the still, it’s far less specific than the Martinique AOC.

Of particular note is the part of the DOP that (when translated) says: “The use of scents, aromas, artificial additives, macerations, and extracts is prohibited, even if it is not intended to modify the aroma and flavor.” In my discussion with people involved in the Cuban rum industry, it does not seem that sugar is disallowed as a “finishing” component.

Key summarized excerpts from the DOP:

Article 4: The Corporation Cuba Ron, S.A (“Cubaron”) holds the right to use the DOP, registered in the Cuban Office of Industrial Property.

Article 7: The rum regulatory council is associated with the Ministry of Food Industry. It consists of all producers and marketers of export quality rum made in Cuba.

Article 10: The regulatory council is in charge of the control and certification of rums, as well as the promotion and defense of Cuban cultural heritage.

Article 21.1: Cuban rum is made with sugarcane molasses with low viscosity and acidity, with a high total sugar content. It has an excellent ratio of fermentable to non-fermentable sugar. Cuban molasses has a very low formation of sulfur compounds.

Article 21.4.1: Molasses containing sulfur dioxide can’t be used because of its destructive impact on the rum’s aroma.

Article 21.4.2: The yeast used must be a mixed yeast culture of the genus Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which has been isolated and preserved under strict control for decades.

Article 21.5.1: Distillation requirements.

The following technical elements are critical in making Cuban DOP rum. (Note: There are no specific technical values cited in this part of the DOP document, unfortunately.)

  • Surface velocity of the vapors in the distillation column.
  • How long the liquid resides on each plate in the still’s enrichment zone. Those plates must be copper.
  • Specific volume ratio of liquid in contact with the copper plates.
  • The design of the still plates avoids high temperature in the reboiler, preventing the distillate from burning.
  • Careful selection of which still plates the distillate is collected from.

Article 21.6: Single stage aging is prohibited. That is, all Cuban rum must be double aged. (See below.)

Article 21.6.1: The use of scents, aromas, artificial additives, macerations, and extracts is prohibited, even if it is not intended to modify the aroma and flavor. It is also forbidden to use any compound intended to imitate aging.

Article 21.6.2: During the aging process, any time when the ambient temperature is below 15 C (59 F) is excluded from the accumulated age.

Article 21.6.3: White rum has at least two aging stages, and very dark (“premium”) rum has at least three aging stages. (Note: “White” and “dark” are categorizations specifically mentioned in the DOP document.) Each aging stage is preceded by blending, the goal of which is to allow subsequent aging to reach higher quality.

Article 21.6.4:

Aging phase 1:

In Cuba all pure spirits must age for a period of at least two years in white oak barrels of 180 – 200 liters of capacity, generally of Irish or Scottish origin, already used. (The DOP document says ya armadas, i.e. “already armed.”)

The high alcoholic strength of the distillate and the congeners, in addition to the usage of newer barrels, means that after two years, the rum holds a high formation of acids, esters, aldehydes, and high extraction of wood in compounds such as volatile phenols, furan aldehydes, phenolic aldehydes, and other very important elements such as oak lactone. Likewise, the extraction of tannins with their high load of harsh and bitter polyphenols is also high, which decreases the oxygenation that occurs in later stages of aging.

Since everything extracted from the barrel is not necessarily pleasant, an active carbon (“charcoal”) filtration system is used.

Aging phase 2:

All Cuban rums have a second stage of aging where the light character is emphasized via blending it with high-proof cane distillate (always less than 96 percent ABV) and highly purified with activated charcoal.

This second stage is made in American white oak barrels of 180 – 200 liters capacity and, to a lesser extent, in larger volume barrels that don’t exceed 500 liters. These are typically older barrels.

Aging phase 3 (optional):

The passage of time depletes the oxygen contained in the barrels, reaching equilibrium in the processes that optimize flavor and aroma. All rum that intends to be qualified as dark-brown must have some portion that undergoes a third stage of blending and additional aging.

In this third phase, the rum receives more oxygen before being placed in very old American white oak barrels, also 180 – 200 liters. (Note: These barrels are essentially “neutral.”)

It’s common practice in Cuban rum to take a fraction of the finished rum (i.e., ready for bottling) and continue to age it longer. This further-aged rum is then blending into future rums. (Note: As an example, a “seven year” rum may also contain some amount of fourteen yea, or even older old rums.) These rums must be aged at an average ambient temperature of 30 degrees C (86 degrees F).

Article 22: Chemical Requirements

RequirementMinimumMaximum
Ethanol – ABV at 20 ° C.37.5%41%
Total acidity, exposed in grams of acetic acid per 100 liters of absolute alcohol2100
Aldehydes, expressed in grams of acetaldehyde per 100 liters of absolute alcohol030
Esters, expressed as grams of ethyl per 100 liters of absolute alcohol090
Higher alcohols, expressed in grams of higher alcohols per 100 liters of absolute alcohol8400
Methanol, expressed as grams of methanol alcohols per 100 liters of absolute alcohol010
Color, expressed in density units optics. It can be done by means of sample pattern01.3

The content of ethanol may exceed that indicated in the above table, after agreement between the producer and the customer. (Note: This may be why Havana Club has a 45 percent ABV Selección de Maestros.)

Extra quality rums, due to their characteristic, limited-level of production and the use of extra-old bases, are treated specially. They may exceed the maximum specifications above, except those of methanol, per previous agreement with the customer.

Article 23: Considering that all Cuban rums have at least two stages of aging, one for the original distillate and another afterward, these rums are typified using the following names (Note: Añejo means “old” or “aged”):

  • Ron Añejo Blanco
  • Ron Añejo Ámbar Claro or Carta Blanca
  • Ron Añejo Oro moderadamente oscuro, also Carta Oro or Dorado
  • Ron Añejo Reserva
  • Ron Añejo Oscuro, also simply Ron Añejo
  • Rones Extra-Añejo, These dark, aged rums are special because of their unusual and prolonged aging and high representativeness of the most legendary old reserves of Cuban rum.

Article 25: The attributes that distinguish Cuban Rum from other light rum are the following:

  • Translucent and shiny.
  • Drink of evident body and good sunrise. (Thanks Google Translate!)
  • Minimal alcoholic odor. An excellent balance between alcohol and age aromas without excessive undeveloped wood.
  • Aroma that comes from the fermentation and distillation. High complexity while still a cohesive whole.
  • Pleasant and mild to the palate. The flavors open and unfold in the mouth. The multiple and soft nuances are not aggressive and affirm its Cuban origin.

Article 30: The CUBA appellation of origin may be identified by means of a stamp, used in all advertising of rums brands with the CUBA DOP, as well as in advertising of the Denomination of Origin Protected Cuba.

Wrap-up

As celebrated as it is, the elements that make Cuban rum special are not particularly well-known to the general rum-drinking population. It certainly seems that the curious consumer can find all sorts of information about Appleton, Mount Gay, Foursquare or Diplomatico, all of which send their master distillers on the road to tell the brand’s stories. With Cuban rum, it’s more challenging to dig below the surface. Sure, Havana Club has great brand ambassadors, but the average consumer can’t just show up to the gate at Havana Club’s Santa Cruz del Norte distillery and expect a tour. The Havana Club Pernod Ricard partnership certainly opens the door a bit, but there’s much more to the Cuban rum story. This piece is my attempt to create a baseline set of knowledge about Cuban rum.

In a subsequent post, I’ll be writing in more detail about the Havana Club brand, the associated San Jose distillery, and Maestro Ronero Asbel Morales. I’ll wrap up my Cuban adventure with the complete English language translation of the Cuban rum GI. Stay tuned!

Cuban rum "base." Photo credit: Caleb Krivoshey
Cuban rum “base.” Photo credit: Caleb Krivoshey
Cocktail Wonk, Asbel Morales and Ian Burrell
Cocktail Wonk, Asbel Morales and Ian Burrell
FacebooktwitterpinterestFacebooktwitterpinterest

8 thoughts on “Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet”

  1. I just discovered this blog and I have to say that I am impressed! This article especially is so incredibly in-depth. I like to think that our bar staff are well versed in all liquors, but this will help even more. Thanks for making such a great cocktail blog!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, Kim. A lot of effort went into the post. I’m glad to see people are finding it useful.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *