The Spirit of Sugarcane is Still Cuba's Favorite Quaff. We Taste the Best.
Posted: June 1, 1999
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Perla del Norte's Carta Blanca is one of the lightest of the three year olds, with 36 percent alcohol, and offers delicate floral and peppery flavors.
The Varadero and Caribbean Club brands are even better, though in opposing styles. Varadero comes from Santiago, on Cuba's southeastern coast, and its back label claims the distillery was founded in 1862, which implies it is the former Bacardi factory. D'Meza mentions that it is made from sugarcane grown in the region. The rum shows complex citrus, floral and coconut flavors, intense yet still delicate. Caribbean Club is also made in Santiago. It is considerably sweeter than the Varadero, with pronounced vanilla flavors and a smooth, rich body.
The consensus favorite among the three year olds, however, is Havana Club. With expressive flavors of vanilla and toast, and the additional body and sweetness generated by its 40 percent alcohol, it has grip and personality. "To me, this tastes like rum," Blanco says with conviction. El Floridita makes its Daiquiris with this rum.
We moved on to the five-year-old rums, variously labeled "Dorado" or "Carta Oro." They have deeper colors, more assertive flavors and generally more sweetness, with notes of honey and butterscotch. There are still disappointments. Legendario, awful at three years old, is hardly better at five.
Varadero Oro (labeled as distilled in Havana), is dark and sweet, with toast and caramel flavors, punchy though not complex. Caribbean Club has more finesse and a wider range of flavors; with its notes of orange peel and walnuts it reminds us of a Spanish brandy. Paticruzados, another Santiago product, was smooth and sweet, well integrated and long, but D'Meza shakes his head. "This was a great rum 20 years ago," he says. "It's gone downhill."
Havana Club's two entries are at once the best and the most provocative of this group. A five-year-old bottling shows more smoke and pepper and less sweetness than the other brands; it is very clean and long. The label notes that it was distilled in Santiago, but D'Meza claims the rum we are tasting is no longer on the market, replaced a year ago by an undated "Reserva Especial."
D'Meza estimates that the new brand is a blend of rums aged between four and seven years. It has a fancy package and a slightly higher price than the five-year-old rums ($7.40 at the Casa del Ron), but its flavors are exaggerated and candied, with maple syrup and cola notes that taste artificial. One of the bartenders mutters "jinetera" as he tastes it, referring to the prostitutes who try to catch the attention of tourists with lurid makeup and skimpy clothes.
Referred to as "Anejo," the rums in the next group are those with the most age, generally at least seven years. Darker colors, a wider range of aromas--including honey, floral, nutty and smoky notes--and long, sweet finishes mark the best of them.
Varadero seven-year-old rum again shows well, characteristically light and clean, with pretty butterscotch and ripe fruit flavors, not too sweet, and a silky texture. Havana Club seven year old is outstanding; full-bodied and dry, its well-integrated flavors range from honey to walnut and cedar. But the best of the group is Matusalem Anejo Superior. It, too, comes from Santiago, and shows a distinctive Scotch whisky-like character, with peaty and smoky aromas and flavors accented by orange-peel notes, dry on the palate and long in the finish.
We finish with two even older rums, our favorites of the entire tasting. Ron Santiago 45 Aniversario sells for $20 in Cuba and its label claims it is in "limited production." It is a big, expressive rum, with round notes of walnuts and honey that are sweet on the palate; the flavors smack of long aging (we estimated 12 to 15 years), not artificial additives. It is topped only by Havana Club Gran Reserva, aged for 15 years, priced at a stratospheric $80 a bottle (enough for a Cuban family to live on for a month). It is a spectacular rum, intensely flavored yet elegant, with complex fruit, spice, tobacco and honey flavors and a long finish. While maintaining the essential molasses-tinged character of rum, it has the refinement and harmony of fine Cognac.
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