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?
The vast majority of visitors to Cuba never make it this far. Their Cuban rum experience begins and ends at the Museo del Ron at the water’s edge near the Havana ferry terminal. The Museo is rum overload for the average sightseer – more information than they’ll ever retain, capped off by generous pours in the tasting room. (Exit through the gift shop, of course.) The Cuban government doesn’t exactly hang a “Come on in and wander around!” sign outside any of its distilleries. You need a good reason to get through the gates. Luckily, I’m with a group of hospitality industry VIPs, which seems to meet the required criteria for entrance.
While simply seeing Cuba has always been a bucket list item, the undisputed focal point of my Seattle-to-Havana journey is a visit to Havana Club’s newest distillery, San José de las Lajas, just 25 miles southeast of Havana.
A minute or so off the freeway, we idle up to a guard post. The moment of truth. Will they board the bus and demand passports? Will I spend my afternoon napping under a tree outside the gate while the rest of the group gawks at Havana Club’s distillation crown jewels?
Our driver waves to the guard. The guard waves us on through. No passport needed this time. Jackpot! I’m in.
The San José distillery is one of two distilleries designated by Cubaron (the rum company owned by the Cuban government) to make rums for the Havana Club brand. While Cuba has at least five operating rum distilleries, I’m told all Havana Club rum comes from either the Santa Cruz del Norte distillery (opened in 1977) or the more modern San José distillery.
It’s highly likely that the decision to build the San José distillery was influenced by the success of Cubaron’s 1993 partnership with Pernod Ricard. In a nutshell, Cubaron and Pernod Ricard are equal partners in the Havana Club brand – Cubaron makes it, Pernod Ricard sells and promotes it. By the mid-2000s, Havana Club case sales presumably had grown to the point where they needed additional distillation and aging facilities to keep up with demand.
It’s a typically hot day and the Cuban sun is intense, so we quickly file into the visitor’s center. This is not your typical visitor center with lots of promotional material and a hard-to-miss gift shop. It’s rather sparse and functional. A pair of display cases exhibit the current Havana Club bottlings. The building seems to be mostly administrative offices and a large room for presentations.
A large, freestanding thatched roof cabana awaits us, just a few yards from the main building. Soon, we’ve all gathered underneath and are enjoying morning coffee or rum – Havana Club 15 for me, please! Our guides for today are Havana Club’s Global Brand Educators, Meimi Sanchez and Audrey Hands, who divide up the duties over the course of the day.
Meimi kicks off our walkabout under the shade of a nearby enormous tree, where we learn key points about the distillery. The San José distillery began operations in 2007. It’s somewhat unusual in that innermost core of the distillery (fermentation and distillation) was actually built in France, quality tested, disassembled, and shipped to San José for reassembly. It was also designed to withstand a major hurricane – always a risk in the Caribbean. A little digging turns up that the functional core was built by the French company Honore SAS, which specializes in building distilleries. You can see images of the reassembly in Cuba here. Fun fact: In poking around Honore’s site I leaned that they also did work for Rhum Damoiseau in Guadeloupe, which I had visited a few months prior.
Meimi passes around a plastic Havana Club cup filled with molasses, which we sample. By law, all Cuban rum must be made from Cuban molasses. There are more than one hundred types of sugar cane varietals in Cuba, typically harvested between December and March. Seven or eight refineries process all of the island’s cane into molasses. The government keeps a three to four year supply of molasses on hand to ensure that a hurricane or other disaster doesn’t impact the country’s all-important rum industry.
A short walk brings us to the distillery core, a hulking, open air rectangular steel structure, filled with cylinders and pipes, big and small. The structure stands alone, unconnected to anything else. Half of the structure is around thirty feet tall and dominated by eight giant cylinders in two rows, like a V-8 engine. The structure’s other half is twice as tall; two giant columns stretch from the ground through its roofline.
Climbing an exposed metal stairway, we arrive on a platform that lets us peer down in to the eight mammoth cylinders. Oh, what a sight! These are the fermentation tanks, each 11,000 liters in capacity. Some are empty, some are rapidly filling with molasses, and one is topped with a vigorously foaming head at least a foot thick. From our vantage point, we can see the short-term molasses holding tanks, with a capacity of 1,500 tons of molasses–enough to keep the distillery supplied for fifteen days.
When in full swing, the fermentation tanks are sequenced at regular intervals. Every four hours, another 11,000 liters completes its fermentation and is ready for distillation. The typical length of the fermentation at the San José distillery is 24 hours, and the resulting wash is around six percent ABV. The Cuban rum industry uses a cultivated yeast that’s carefully controlled to prevent mutation. The final step of preparing the wash is centrifuging the yeast out of the liquid.
Beyond a phalanx of pipes is the taller portion of the structure, where distillation happens. Situated at the very corner of the structure is an enormous silver-hued column. Portholes covered by doors run at three foot intervals for most of the column’s length. This is just one column of the double-column setup here at San José. The twenty lowest plates are made of steel, while the top five are copper. What comes off this still is dubbed aguardiente, typically 74 percent ABV. By Cuban law, it’s not yet rum. We’ll come back to exactly how it becomes rum in a bit.
Near the column is a clear glass spirits receiver, capturing a flow of distillate straight off the still. Meimi opens an attached faucet and fills a cup with fresh aguardiente for us to sample. At 74 percent ABV, the initial alcohol “burn” is clearly front and center, but there’s no disputing that the distillate is full of flavor. Naysayers who think all Cuban rum is multi-column distillate and rectified to nearly pure ethanol are sadly mistaken. This aguardiente is quite enjoyable. Charles Joly (the token other American on the trip) and I linger behind the rest of the group, and I say, “They should just age and bottle this.” It’s not the Cuban way, however.
The San José distillery focuses on lower proof aguardiente, if you consider 74 percent ABV to be “low proof.” Havana Club’s other distillery in Santa Cruz del Norte creates high proof (approximately 95 percent ABV) sugar cane distillate known as destilado de caña, as well as aguardiente. Both will be come together to make the final, bottled product.
The remaining buildings on the distillery grounds are relatively low slung affairs, all painted the same brownish orange color. In one, barrels are being filled by workers.
Most of the distillery’s buildings are aging warehouses, stacked floor to ceiling with countless towers of upright barrels, four to a pallet. The vast majority of the barrels here are ex-whiskey, already with two lives in their rearview mirror. Many of the barrels began as virgin American oak barrels, used first by Wild Turkey, after which they traveled to Jameson for a few spins aging Irish whiskey. Why Wild Turkey and Jameson? The wise observer will note that, like Havana Club, Jameson is owned by Pernod Ricard. Likewise, Wild Turkey was owned by Pernod Ricard until 2009, when Campari purchased it.
To understand Cuba’s approach to rum aging, a tiny bit of barrel science is helpful. When a barrel is young, what we call “aging” is actually two things:
- Extractive aging: Flavors in the wood leech into the liquid. For instance, bourbon gets its vanilla flavor from extractive aging in new oak barrels.
- Oxidative aging: The flavor changes from prolonged exposure to oxygen and evaporation, aka the angel’s share.
Anybody can practice extractive aging — just use new(ish) barrels, and the wood imparts various flavors. But as Foursquare master distiller Richard Seale tells it, oxidative aging is far harder to master. The Cuban maestro roneros are renowned for their aging expertise, and they favor oxidative aging over extractive aging. Neutral barrels, with nothing left to extract, are the way to get only oxidative aging. Generally speaking, in Cuba, the more aged the rum is, the older the barrel it’s aged in. (It’s completely common for an aged Cuban rum to move through many barrels in its lifetime. The blending and reblending process that Cuba’s roneros use accentuate this.
The youngest barrels that Cuban rum makers work with are around fifteen years old. Once a barrel goes into service in Cuba, it remains in use until it’s practically falling apart. Some of Havana Club’s barrels are 80 to 100 years old, and the oldest, most precious rums go into them.
Leaving the aging warehouses, we pass similar buildings, except they’re inhabited by large silver tanks rather than barrels. This is where carbon filtration (a requirement of all Cuban rums) takes place. Alas, we’re short on time so aren’t able to see the process up close. Another trip, hopefully! Soon we arrive at another sprawling building with a sign: EMBOTELLADO, the bottling plant. Havana Club bottles both its core products and the Iconica range on site. It’s not the only bottling plant they have, however. Inside, we get a quick look around from one corner of the building, but the lines weren’t running. There is a video of the facility in action, however.
Meeting the Maestro
Back at the visitor’s center, a surprise awaits. Not just air conditioning, but also a blending and tasting session with Maestro Ronero Asbel Morales, the man ultimately responsible for ensuring Havana Club makes the best rums possible.
In the spirits world, the “master distiller” title has lost much of its prestige. It seems anybody can buy some distillation equipment, ship a few bottles, and dub themselves a master distiller. But in Cuba, they take their titles seriously. The highest individual achievement a Cuban rum maker can achieve is of Maestro Ronero. The Cuban Maestro Roneros are a very small, self-selecting group that technically don’t work for any specific brand or distillery. Rather, they’re employed by Cubaron to maintain and pass along the art of Cuban rum making. For instance, Havana Club’s Selección de Maestros expression is a joint effort of all the Cuban Maestro Roneros, regardless of which distillery they’re assigned to.
Currently there are only eight Maestro Roneros, and that number won’t likely change by much. Realistically, you won’t become a maestro ronero with less that twenty-five years of experience in every single aspect of rum making – from sugar cane cultivation to final bottling and everything in between. There’s no fixed criteria to become a Maestro Ronero – you have to be accepted into the group by the existing members.
Maestro Ronero Asbel Morales Lorenzo is currently assigned to the San José distillery. At only 49 years of age, he’s worked in Cuban rum for nearly thirty years. He holds several degrees, including chemical engineering. By 2003 he was already the plant manager for the Santa Cruz del Norte, and has worked closely with the San José distillery from its earliest design stages.
In his bright red Havana Club shirt, Asbel projects an air of authority and extreme competence. However, he’s also quick to break out into a smile and animated conversation. Today, with the translation help of Havana Club global educator Audrey Hands, he’ll teach us the fundamentals of Cuban rum blending, including the concepts of the all-important “bases,” the building blocks from which all expressions are made.
Cuban aging is a far cry from just putting a freshly distilled spirit in a barrel for three, seven, or twelve years and then bottling it. It’s far more complicated, and I have learned only the most rudimentary concepts.
All Cuban rums are a blend of low proof aguardiente (approximately 74 percent ABV), high proof destilado de caña (approximately 95 percent ABV), and water. Let’s start with the aguardiente. Cuban rum regulations require aguardiente to be aged in oak for a minimum of two years. Afterward, the aguardiente is carbon filtered to remove most of its less desirable flavors while retaining the desired components. Only then is the liquid be considered “rum,” and unaged rum at that. Put another way, the two years of initial aging and filtration turn aguardiente into brand new rum – zero years of age.
Next, the “new” rum is blended with unaged, high proof destilado de caña and possibly water. There are a number of different “recipes” used, each with a different ratio of the two distillates and water. The blend goes then back into barrels for yet more aging and possibly even more blending.
At our session, we each have three glasses filled with golden liquid. Asbel explains (through Audrey) that each glass holds one of the three primary bases that Havana Club uses:
- Oro – Aged in barrels of around thirty years of use. What’s in our glass has nine years of aging (in addition to the two years the aguardiente had aged).
- Centenario – Aged for twelve years.
- Extra Seco – Translated: extra dry. My note taking skills are gone by this point.
Maestro roneros monitor the evolution of all the bases in all the barrels, and only when ready do they harvest the barrels that are deemed finished and blend them prior to bottling.
While all Cuban rums have double aging (the initial two years plus whatever follows), premium rums are aged a third time. The reason is that during the second aging, the oxygen in the barrels depletes, and an equilibrium is reached — aging essentially stops. However, by blending rums from multiple barrels and re-barreling the blend, oxygen is reintroduced, and another productive aging period commences.
Asbel was quite animated as he explains these concepts, pouring liquids from tasting glass to tasting glass, and occasionally adding water from a plastic bottle. I’m sure he explained far more than I was able to capture. Perhaps someday I’ll have an opportunity for another blending session where I have a fighting chance of keeping up. My big takeaway is that Cuban rum blending is immensely complicated– effectively liquid artistry.
Distillery visit complete, Asbel and our group travel to a nearby farm where we enjoy an amazing barbeque lunch, followed by hand-rolled cigars and some of Havana Club’s finest rums under the shade of an enormous mango tree. Life is good! There was a lot of contented dozing off on the bus ride back to Havana.
In my fourth and final installment on Cuba, we’ll take a detailed look at Cuba’s rum regulations. While Martinique is famous for its Rhum Agricole AOC, they are not the only rum regulation game in town. Cuba has recently adopted a comprehensive set of regulations about what can be labeled Cuban rum. There are surprises to be found, so stay tuned!