Rum Makers Are Elevating Sugar's Nectar to Higher Levels
Posted: August 1, 2000
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Largely a family-owned company, Bacardi values its Cuban heritage and created the museum in 1995 to display what artifacts of its history are available outside of Cuba. Jose "Tito" Argamasilla Bacardi, a vice-president and the director of the museum, is the great-great grandson of the company's founder, Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso. He explains that many of the displays--photos, signage, promotional materials, etc.--were donated by people who had brought them from Cuba after the 1959 revolution. They tell the story of Don Facundo, a wine merchant originally from Catalonia, Spain, who set out to elevate the status of rum by smoothing its rough edges. He did it by applying the latest scientific methods available, and, after years of experimentation, bought a distillery in Santiago de Cuba to test his theories. Many of the advancements that Don Facundo brought to the process, such as the use of the Coffey still (the first in Cuba), were aimed at ridding the rum of impurities. The final product was a light rum made from molasses, using a standardized yeast and a quickened fermentation process. The aging process utilized oak barrels and charcoal filtration. And, as always, there were the proprietary secrets of the master blender, which have been passed down and jealously guarded through the generations. To this day, Bacardi rums have followed the same basic style formulated by Don Facundo.
In the building's dining room, high above Biscayne Bay, Tito gives a visitor a mojito, a sugary concoction, to sample. "Pretty sweet, eh? You don't have to drink it. Why don't you try the Bacardi 8?"
In his office, president of global brands Alfredo Piedra is describing the origins of that blend. "Bacardi 8 is our flagship," he says, explaining that while it was first commercially introduced about two years ago in limited quantities sold only in duty-free shops, the rum has been around much longer as a special taste reserved for family and friends. The trend toward other superpremium spirits and cigars, Piedra says, suggested that there was an opportunity for finely crafted age rum. "We saw the trend 10 years ago, but the formula was in our archives for 120 years."
Part of the key to Bacardi 8, he reveals, is selection of special barrels that accentuate the aging process. "The eight-year-old matures more than an 18-year-old Scotch," he claims.
The Millennium Edition, issued with 3,000 bottles on a one-off basis, was made by way of commemoration and used to raise $300,000 in charity for underprivileged children in an auction of celebrity-signed decanters. (Some bottles are still available.) The inspiration to put the rum in sherry casks for extra finishing he describes as "intuitive."
Piedra goes into a reverie about rum and "the art of Caribbean passion," describing a bygone indulgence from his native Cuba, involving cigar-smoke-filled casinos with men in white linen suits and Panama hats, enjoying music, dancing, rum and fun.
"We were doing it before it was chic," he says.
SPIRIT OF THE VOODOO GODS The ancestors of Dupré Barbancourt, who founded the company in 1862, came to Haiti from the Cognac region of France. Stories say that his kin had survived the earlier era of Haiti's wars of independence--a time when almost everyone with links to France was killed or exiled--because they produced quality drinks for islanders of all political stripes. After his death, Barbancourt's widow brought in her nephew to run the business, and it has remained in the Gardère family ever since, surviving invasions, wars and conspiracies.
Barbancourt only makes two million bottles a year of its "rum of rums," the 15-year-old Estate Reserve. Set against the surrounding squalor and chaos of its homeland, the rum's quality is little short of miraculous. In fact, at blind tastings people who don't associate rum with this degree of quality sometimes mistake Barbancourt for a Cognac, or single-malt Scotch.
While Barbancourt has as many medals as a Haitian general, perhaps its biggest accolade is that it is--by default, if not "by appointment"--the libation demanded in rituals by the Voodoo spirits, who get famously upset if they don't have their way. (The star on the rum's label is said to be a symbol of a Voodoo god.) Thierry Gardère, the fourth-generation head of the family business, is almost equally as upset at the idea that people would want to drink his rum with mixers. "Some makers don't like people to drink their rum without a mixer and I'm not surprised," he sniffs. "[Barbancourt] has a particularity, like a fine Cognac, but you can smell the sugarcane." His disdain for mixing applies to the eight-year-old Five Star as well, although he's prepared to consider the possibility with the four-year-old Three Star.
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