The Many Lives of Havana Club

Spend any time pondering today’s rum industry, and mysteries start to pile up. Why are there so many brands without a distillery? How is there so much rum aged for multiple decades available at very low prices? What exactly are the Jamaicans doing to make their rum so funky?  All great questions, but answering them is modest in scope compared to truly understanding Havana Club, the flagship rum of Cuba.

Havana Club is the third largest Caribbean rum brand, yet in America, the world’s largest market for Caribbean rum, most people have never laid eyes on a Cuban-made rum, much less tasted it. To complicate matters, Americans can buy rum with a Havana Club label, but it wasn’t made in Cuba by Havana Club. Yet travel to Europe or Asia, and Cuban-made Havana Club rum is everywhere. Behind this dichotomy are corporate behemoths with billions of dollars at their disposal, who’ve wrangled in international courts for decades with no clear end in sight.

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Rummy Overload at Tales of the Cocktail 2017

Dateline: New Orleans. 5:30 PM on Wednesday night, day two of Tales of the Cocktail 2017.

I’m perched on my seat at Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29. (Really, would you expect me many anywhere else?) A few feet away I spot Martin Cate and Jeff Berry chatting in a nook. Soon they’re joined by David Wondrich. A few minutes later, Scotty Schuder and Paul McFadyen. The rogue’s gallery of Tiki icons and rum experts on the Plantation Rum O.F.T.D. Overproof label (missing only Paul McGee) has appeared without warning and likely without planning. When moments like this are commonplace, it’s easy to see why the annual Tales of the Cocktail gathering is becoming a not-to-miss destination for rum enthusiasts.

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Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet

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.

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Rum Has No Rules – Neither Do Whiskey & Brandy

What if I told you that whiskey has no regulations?

Smart person that you are, you’d reply “Of course whiskey has regulations! Straight bourbon must be made in America and start with at least 51% corn in the mash. Aged in new charred oak barrels for at least two years. And Scotch whiskey must be made from barley, pot distilled and aged in Scotland.”

But I press on: Brandy has no regulations.

You’d think I’ve lost my marbles. Obviously Cognac is limited to certain grapes from certain regions of France, and it must be pot stilled. Peruvian pisco is also confined to certain grape varietals, and can only be distilled once in a copper pot still.

And yet if I said “Rum has no regulations”, many people would nod in agreement. I could point out countless articles saying the same thing.

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The Unabridged, English Language Martinique Rhum Agricole 2014 AOC

I’ve been on a French rhum excursion as of late, writing in detail about the history, production and regulations of rhum made on the French islands of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Marie-Galante. To bring the series to completion, I present the present day regulations governing Martinique rhum labeled with the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée – better known as the “AOC”. Not in a neat synopsis of the high points though. No… The entire official AOC document, translated from its native French into English.

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Agricole Without the AOC – Guadeloupe’s Rhum Damoiseau

In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. In this and other posts I describe a distillery we visited. If you’re not familiar with rhum agricole production, it’s highly suggested you start with this overview.

At Guadeloupe’s Damoiseau distillery, the last minutes of a cane stalk’s life are spent on a giant red escalator, lifting it thirty feet into the air before plunging the cane downward into a chute to meet the business end of a whirling shredder. All day during the cane harvest season, massive trucks trundle up to the base of the escalator to deposit ton after ton of freshly cut cane segments. This pipeline of just-cut cane turned into rhum in less than two days is the hallmark of the French-style of production, giving rhum agricole its distinctive flavor.

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Extreme Terroir at Martinique’s Rhum J.M

In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. In this and other posts I describe a distillery we visited. If you’re not familiar with rhum agricole production, it’s highly suggested you start with this overview.

It’s a warm, sunny morning on the northern slopes of Martinique’s Mount Pelée. In the distance, over a field of vividly green sugar cane stalks, lies the island of Dominica, floating in the calm, azure ocean. In the opposite direction, Pelée’s peak mingles with the clouds. By all accounts it would seem like a supremely calm, meditative moment. Except that I’m in the cab of an industrial combine, mowing down rows of sugar cane at a frightening pace. This is the first stop of our visit to Rhum J.M, and we’re experiencing exactly why J.M makes such a big deal about their unique terroir.

Rhum J.M, Martinique
Rhum J.M, Martinique

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The French Connection – A Cheat Sheet for French Caribbean Rhums and the AOC

In early 2017, I visited the islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe with Spiribam’s Benjamin Jones to tour the distilleries whose products are imported to the U.S. by his company. As a prelude to my individual distillery write-ups, this post introduces the key concepts of French agricole rhum. I’ll build from these topics in the individual distillery articles.

Within the rum world, once you move past Bacardi Silver and Captain Morgan, the brands drawing most of the attention hail from the former colonies of England and Spain – think Havana Club, Mount Gay, Appleton, El Dorado, or Brugal. Somewhere in the distance behind them (with regard to general awareness) are the offerings from the French outposts in the Caribbean. The cane spirits of the French West Indies struggle to crack the consciousness of the casual rum consumer, who’d be hard pressed to name a single brand from Martinique or Guadeloupe. And that’s unfortunate, as the French islands in the Caribbean offer some of the most flavorful and authentic close-to-the-soil distilled spirits available anywhere.

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Finding Ron – A Guide to Spain’s Rum Haunts

Spain: land of history, culture, majestic architecture. Complemented by a gastronomic feast — tapas, olives, sherry, and vermouth — best consumed over ice with an orange twist, in the shadow of a cathedral. During our two week trip through Andalucia and parts beyond, from Madrid to Seville to Jerez to Granada to Cordoba to Barcelona and back to Madrid, Mrs. Wonk and I reveled in the best Spain has to offer, including copious amounts of sherry, the genesis of our odyssey. Yet accompanying us at every step along the way was our good friend, Ron.

Ron, in case you hadn’t heard, is the Spanish term for rum. You might ask “What on earth does Spain have to do with rum?” The answer is, “More than you possibly know!” It was Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, who brought sugar cane to the Caribbean from Spain’s Canary Islands. A few short decades ago, sugar cane still grew and rum was still being produced in the south of Spain, as we learned firsthand at our visit to a Madrid Tiki bar. Even today, the Arehucas distillery in the Canary Islands distills rum.

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Ron Dos Maderas – Behind the Scenes and Straight from the Cask

Years ago, as an aspiring rum wonk, I began to branch out from the well-known brands and began seeking out gems from smaller producers. Dos Maderas PX (5+5) soon crossed my radar with its compelling story of aged Caribbean rums shipped to Spain’s sherry region for even more aging in sherry casks. When my first bottle arrived, I was enraptured and declared it my favorite rum, proudly pouring it to my friends. In time I purchased additional bottles to ensure I’d always have a ready supply of this sweet nectar.

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