The Missing Minister of Rum

In the last few months I’ve seen solid evidence that true premium rum is finally making inroads to the hearts and minds of spirits lovers. Bourbon and single malt drinkers are taking (the right) rums more seriously, and new bespoke limited editions are arriving nearly every week. It’s not uncommon for an entire allotment of bottles priced at $100 or more to fly off the shelf within 24 hours of release.

Concurrent with rum’s rise in respectability, a growing number of hyper-enthusiasts have arrived, absorbing the production details and histories of their favorite rums. No longer content with the marketing copy on the back label, aficionados are visiting distilleries, asking hard questions, journaling their findings (which aren’t always pretty), and sharing what they’ve learned. Facebook groups like the Ministry of Rum, Foursquare Rum Appreciation Society, La Confrérie du Rhum, and Velier Rhum Lovers Fan Club have become hotbeds of global information sharing and, yes, the occasional opinionated rum brawl. More and more brand representatives and producers like Foursquare’s Richard Seale are actively adding to the discussion in these groups.

Never has there been such transparency in the rum world. Collectively we now know deep details about rum regulations, sugar added to rum, distilleries, and even the Dutch rum blenders who supply many of the world’s well-known rum brands. With so much information in the hands of so many enthusiasts, it’s becoming much easier to fact check a brand’s marketing material. Recently I encountered a perfect example of how a brand’s statements don’t seem to add up.  I’m sharing it as an example of how just a little digging can turn up inconvenient questions.

UPDATE: 7/28/2018: Simon Ford of The 86 Co wrote to me after seeing this article. You can see his response at the end of this story.

Recently, Caña Brava Rum posted a picture of their three year rum bottle on Instagram and Facebook. The final paragraph reads:

It is made using traditional carta blanca rum making techniques that Master Distiller ‘Don Pancho’ learned in his native Cuba where he was the minister of rum for 35 years.

Minister of Rum. Impressive, no?

But as someone who’s written several times about the distillery that makes Caña Brava, that statement struck me as odd. You see, I’ve also been to Cuba, met one of the eight maestro roneros, and written about the history of the Cuban rum industry.

So with a bit of foreknowledge on my part, let’s examine the minister of rum claim. (And just to be clear, I’m not talking about Ed Hamilton, the rum legend known as The Minister of Rum.)

On Caña Brava’s site, it helpfully includes information about the distillery that makes the rum, Las Cabras, in Panama. The text about the distillery reads in part:

In the mid-nineties, ‘Don Pancho’ and Carlos Esquivel discovered the neglected warehouse. Beneath the overgrown grass they uncovered a copper column still with a small medallion inscribed with ‘Cincinnati 1922.

At this point, we have Don Pancho in Panama around the mid-1990s. A subsequent snippet on Caña Brava’s page narrows this a bit more.

Francisco ‘Don Pancho’ J Fernandez is the Master Distiller at Las Cabras. While making rum in his native Cuba for more than 35 years, he mastered the “Cuban method” before moving to Panama in the early ’90s.

So let’s agree that Don Pancho is in Panama circa 1993.

The next question is: When was Don Pancho born? Per the Don Pancho Origenes page (copyright 2015), he is 76 years old, so around 1939. This YOLO rum page– “The Legend of Francisco ‘Don Pancho’ Fernandez”–says 1938. So we have agreement there.

Let’s now refill our rum glass and do a bit of math.

Assume that Don Pancho joined the Cuban rum industry at the tender age of 18. That would have him starting in 1956.

We can reasonably surmise that Don Pancho worked in Cuba in the vicinity of 1956 to 1993—that’s 37 years. Certainly a very long time.

However, was he the Minister of Rum for 35 years?  For that to be true he must have achieved the title almost immediately upon starting – at the very young age of twenty or so.  I may be missing something, but that seems highly implausible.

Furthermore, in a story for Distilled Magazine, I wrote about the Cuban Maestro Roneros, the extremely small group of people who are entrusted with safeguarding Cuba’s rum legacy. The fastest anyone has ever become a Maestro Ronero is after fifteen years of study, and typically it takes much longer. The youngest Maestro Ronero currently is in his early 40s.

I posit that it’s entirely possible that Don Pancho spent around 35 years in the Cuban rum industry, learning the ins and outs. But, by all reasonable accounts, it doesn’t seem possible that he was the minister of rum for 35 years. In fact, as I learned in Cuba, there is no minister of rum. Just a small group of Maestro roneros. Yes, there are two Primer (head) Maestro Roneros, but they are most assuredly not Ministers of Rum.

Some people might try to brush this off as a small thing—perhaps someone used the wrong phrase when writing the marketing copy.

But words matter.

If a company can’t get something basic like this right, how sure can we be that all the other voluminous details they provide are correct? If we’re to entrust our money to a brand, as educated consumers we have every right to expect we’re not being told made-up facts. Rum has had a reputation for “no rules” and “don’t worry, just have fun” for too long. The days of no consequences must come to an end if rum is to be taken seriously.

Finally, take note that in everything said above, I’ve not offered any critical opinions about Caña Brava’s or other rums made by Don Pancho. They’ve certainly grabbed a fair portion of space on bar shelves. I personally have many examples of Don Pancho rum on my shelves, and have written glowingly about one of them. I’m not singling out Caña Brava in particular here. There are plenty of other examples of brands making highly questionable statements, like a Colombian rum distilled in Panama. Or a “rum” distilled from beets rather than sugar cane.

For rum’s reputation to rise with the average consumer, brands need to be more forthright and accurate in their message. And in the absence of any official oversight for their claims, it falls on the highly educated rum enthusiasts to politely but firmly ask the hard questions.

UPDATE: 7/28/2018: As noted above Simon Ford, one of the cofounders of The 86 Co (which owns Caña Brava) wrote to me after this article appeared. His response seems genuine and sincere. I have excerpted the essential elements of Simon’s email below.

I am writing in response to your article on Caña Brava and to apologize for the misleading information as noted on our latest Instagram post. Thanks to your article, the post has been updated so it will no longer mislead anyone who reads it.

This was genuinely an honest mistake. Don Pancho has 35 years of experience in the Cuban Beverage Industry and was the Director of Research and Development under the control of the Ministerio de la Alimentación which was the department that looked after the Cuban Rum Industry until the end of the 80’s. His work involved developing the rum and sugar cane industries of Cuba and it in part it is this experience that he draws upon when making rum today.

One of the core values of our company is transparency. We try and share as much useful and honest information as we can and we like to share the stories of the people we partnered with to make spirits. When we first discovered Don Pancho we read a story that said he was Minister of Cuban rum for 35 years but a few conversations later we found out this wasn’t possible and changed our materials and education to reflect this. This information still sits in some of our old documents and was unearthed by a newer team member and posted. This is a good learning experience for us and we will endeavor not to make such mistakes in the future.

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