The Complete, Unabridged Cuban Rum Regulations

In the aftermath of a May 2017 trip to Cuba with Havana Club, I wrote several articles about Cuban rum. The Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet provides a broad introduction to Cuban rum history and how it’s made. The follow up article took a detailed look at the many lives of the Havana Club brand. Next, I went inside Havana Club’s San José distillery to show how aguardiente and subsequently rum is made. In this final dispatch, I’ll go hyper-wonky, with a complete, English language translation of Cuba’s “DOP,” their regulations for making rum.

It’s popular to say that rum has no rules. But take a look around, and you’ll find that many rum producing countries have detailed regulations about what’s required to label your rum as a product of that country. The most famous, of course, is the Martinique AOC, considered by many to be very strict in its prescriptions for rhum production. Brazil also writes regulation for Cachaça. In late 2016, Jamaica’s rum producers approved a Geographical Indication (aka “GI”) for rums made there.

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Inside Havana Club’s Inner Sanctum: Ronera San José

In May 2017, I traveled to Cuba to immerse myself in the topic of Cuban rum as a guest of Havana Club. My two prior articles (Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet and The Many Lives of Havana Club) cover the broad strokes of Cuban rum and Havana Club’s history. Here, we’ll go inside a Cuban distillery and focus on the technical side of Cuban rum production.

We’ve been riding in the tourist coach for thirty minutes. Just outside of Havana, the highway scenery turns to lush, green farmland. Exiting the freeway I instinctively check my pocket for the umpteenth time – yes, my passport’s still there. The Havana Club handlers have repeatedly drilled us on this tenet in the preceding days: No passport, no admittance to the distillery. As an American–one of only two in our group of fifty–I’ve been forewarned that I might face an additional challenge. Extra paperwork and approval is required for Americans. I’d sent in my forms weeks ago, but who knows if the appropriate Cuban bureaucrat agreed to approve it?

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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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