Art Deco meets Neoclassical in the lobby of Havana’s Hotel Nacional
Freely as the rum flows in Havana, the selection is limited. Most rum countries are like this, but Cuba may be unique in the total lack of imports. Even Bacardi is conspicuous only in its absence. No Bacardi is remarkable enough, but even more peculiar is that many Cubans name Bacardi as their favorite rum. More on that curious situation later. . .
The visitor is thus limited to Cuban rums, a bibulous restriction I can happily report is no great hardship. Still, the adventurous voluptuary seeking a trial separation from the ubiquitous Havana Club can face a hard slog. Havana’s more touristy bars exclusively pour the brand that bears the city’s name. While the top shelf occasionally offers alternatives, even there the pickings are slim. The house pour in local bars may be something cheaper, perhaps Mulata, but Havana Club is never far away.
Inside La Bodeguita del Medio. . .
For those on a real budget, supermarkets and bottle stores sell rum in cardboard tetrapacks. Havana’s legions of underemployed and under-resourced can often be spotted lounging in the sun and sipping from these tetrapacks. Rum tetrapacks even pop up in lower end bars, either sold across the bar or casually smuggled in. I never tasted these tetrapacks. They may contain what Cubans would consider ‘aguardiente’ (see below) rather than true ‘rum’.
A bartender pours Mojitos in Lluvia de Oro, one of Havana’s most pleasant bars
Cubans pour rum with tropical liberality. The Cuban pour is languidly generous, as though, having set to work, the pourer discovers that returning the bottle to the vertical will involve unanticipated effort. The sensible course is naturally to lighten the load some more before attempting this taxing maneuver. A drinker can feel that the only thing being rationed is the ice. And that brings me to another thing, perhaps even a ‘complaint’. Havana bars score low in the ice department – disappointing for an Ice-Nazi like myself. Ice is always wet, stored in ice bins rather than a chiller, and you don’t get very much of it. Leaves more space in the glass for rum mind you.
El Morro, Havana’s harbor fortress
The tale about Cuban bartenders pouring a little rum on the ground for luck when opening a fresh bottle is true. I saw lots of bartenders do this. It isn’t done with any ceremony. Flicking some rum into the air is simply part of the routine of opening a fresh bottle – twist, toss, flick, pour. The ‘toss’ comes from the habit of tossing the cap away, at least in the case of mixing rum. With rum the national drink, this makes perfect sense since a bottle is rarely sitting around half-empty for long.
Inspiring revolutionary mural art
Drinkers and bartenders use a curious ‘secret language’ to discuss rum brands. In speech, certain brands are not referred to using their current names. Havana Club is straightforward, but Caney is spoken of as ‘Bacardi’, while Santiago becomes ‘Matusalem’. Cubans told me that these were the original names before the relevant factories were nationalized following the Revolution. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that version of history, but I do know talking rum with Cubans becomes a most confusing business.
Interestingly, Cubans do not seem to rate Havana Club especially highly. I made a point of asking bartenders their favorite rum, and none of them named Havana Club. The clear favorite was Santiago (‘Matusalem’ in Cuban rummy lingo), with Caney (‘Bacardi’) ranking second.
Morning drinks at the Hotel Ambos Mundos
Cuban bartenders deserve a favorable mention in any discussion of the country’s rum culture. Tending bar seems to be a vocation in Cuba, and many bartenders are middle-aged to elderly guys with decades of experience. Ordering a mixed drink is mercifully free of drama, suspense or surprise, and reliably yields a quencher that performs exactly as intended. Interestingly, despite living in a country with few imported products, bartenders are quite knowledgeable about foreign rums. Names like Barbancourt and Appleton’s Estate are well known and well regarded. Importantly, Cuban bartenders are a friendly and down-to-earth lot, and happy to chat about things drinks related.
The Hotel Havana Libre, appropriated by Castro as his temporary headquarters after the Revolution
Cuba has numerous rum producers and the largest liquor stores and supermarkets stock a comprehensive range. Every producer offers a similar lineup, running from a white mixing rum through to a seven year old sipping rum, with two or three stops in between. Everything is bottled at around 40% alcohol by volume, and rums aged longer than seven years are rare. For rum shoppers, the ground floor of the Hotel Havana Libre has a liquor store with a comprehensive selection of local brands. The souvenir shop at the Havana Club Rum Museum also sells the full range of Havana Club products, including the hard to find Barrel Proof and 15 year old versions.
Sadly not a real rum bottle! The Havana Club Rum Museum
The Havana Club Rum Museum offers a useful introduction to the manufacture of Cuban rum, with the focus naturally enough on Havana Club. I found the tour rushed and formulaic but still worthwhile. According to the guide, Havana Club is made from a mix of two molasses-based rums, distilled to around 76% and 96%, respectively. The first provides the ‘body’, while the second provides the ‘soul’ – and presumably most of the alcohol. Both rums are double distilled in column stills. The rum is all aged for a minimum two years in bourbon barrels previously used for Wild Turkey. The exception to this two year minimum aging rule is the white, which is a blend of aged and unaged rums.
Antique still at the Havana Club Rum Museum
Cubans distinguish two variants of rum, namely ‘rum’ (in Spanish ‘ron’) and ‘aguardiente’ (which in English translates to something like ‘firewater’, or ‘spirit’). The more prestigious and dominant category is rum/ron. Aguardiente is the poor relation, and its definition varies depending on who you ask. Perhaps the situation is like that of rum and clairin in Haiti, with aguardiente being the rural and homemade product and rum the refined and industrialized version. The difference between rum and aguardiente (at least in Cuban terminology) may lie in distillation method. Most bartenders told me aguardiente is distilled just once, and to relatively low proof, while rum is distilled twice, and to high proof. However, others told me that aguardiente is distilled from fresh sugar cane juice while rum is distilled from molasses. Perhaps the aguardiente category contains multiple product types.
A bottle of the elusive aguardiente
Some Cuban rum producers offer aguardiente alongside their rums. For example Mulata offers both clear and aged versions of aguardiente. Aguardiente only rarely appears behind bars though, and unable to try the stuff by the glass I ended up having to buy a bottle (pictured above).
I found the Mulata aguardiente totally different to the same company’s rum, with a rough edge, robust flavor and almost chewy graininess. Cuba will probably never be famous for its aguardiente, but the stuff made for an interesting change from the highly refined and polished rums.
I only got the one taste of my Mulata aguardiente. On my last night in Havana a guy stopped me outside my hotel, asking for money to buy a can of coke. I told him to wait a second, grabbed the aguardiente from my room, gave him his coke money, and suggested he try an aguardiente and coke. He seemed pleased, and I freed up space in my luggage for a bottle of Caney seven year old – or should I say ‘Bacardi’?