The Spirit of Sugarcane is Still Cuba's Favorite Quaff. We Taste the Best
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99
"I'll make anything you like," promises Nicolas, who has tended bar for nine years at La Bodeguita del Medio. "But everyone here wants mojitos."
The slim young man combines sugar and lime juice in a tall glass, crushes a sprig of mint in the mixture, then adds ice cubes. He pours in a shot of Havana Club Silver Label rum, fills the glass with club soda and pushes it across the bar with a smile. Alas, it's not a great drink: the rum is young and raw, the mint wilted, the glass too small for the $4 tab. But it is clean and refreshing; two quick gulps later, it's gone.
Tourists to Cuba, flush with dollars, can drink Scotch whisky or Spanish brandy if they like. But most follow the example Ernest Hemingway set in the 1940s when he proclaimed his allegiance to the island's classic rum cocktails in Havana's two best bars: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." La Bodeguita occupies a former carriage house in the heart of Old Havana; the rustic bar opens onto the street, and small dining rooms tucked behind it serve native Criollo dishes such as moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice) and pork. It's famous for the old graffiti that cover the walls, and draws a raucous crowd of tourists who rush the bar, snap a photo, chug a mojito and head down the street.
Not far away, El Floridita is an oasis of elegance and sophistication. The restaurant was founded as Pina del Plata in the 1820s, where Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main street, met the Monserrate Gate of the walls that once surrounded the colonial city. It became El Floridita early this century, and by the 1950s, when Esquire magazine named it one of the world's great bars, it was the center of Havana's international café society.
The restaurant's fame is built on a single drink, the seductive mix of rum, sugar, lime juice and ice known as the Daiquiri. Legend attributes its invention to Jennings Cox, an American engineer working in Cuba after the island's liberation from Spain in 1898. Cox found himself hot and thirsty in the coastal town of Daiquiri (where Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had landed not long before), a few miles from Santiago, home of the Bacardi rum distillery. Suspicious of the quality of the local water, Cox boiled it, added Bacardi rum and, to make the mixture more refreshing, hit on a blend of lime juice and sugar. In the 1920s, El Floridita's star barman, Constantino Ribalaigua, refined the drink by substituting shaved ice for the boiled water.
Today, El Floridita's Daiquiris are made in an electric blender, but little else has changed over the years. The spacious bar area is designed in an neoclassical Art Deco style, with tall, slender columns and scarlet cocktail tables. Behind it, and three steps up, the round dining room is decorated in cream and gold, with a large mural depicting the old port. The waiters, in red tuxedo jackets and white trousers, are formal but friendly. Musicians serenade the room.
"People come to Floridita from so many places," enthuses Alejandro Bolivar, a young bartender. "Working here is like traveling the world."
Tourists come and go, but El Floridita's refinement inhibits the raucous crowds that stampede La Bodeguita. Inspired by a Daiquiri or two, James Suckling, Cigar Aficionado's European editor, and I decide that it's the perfect place for a full-scale tasting of Cuban rums.
In The Happy Child of the Sugar Cane, Fernando G. Campoamor recounts a history of rum in Cuba, quoting with approval an assessment written in 1925: "In truth, there never has been and never will be rum as good as ours. Those made outside Cuba lack the best raw material that exists, molasses made from Cuban sugarcane."
The sugarcane plant is a tropical perennial native to Asia. European explorers introduced it to the Caribbean early in the sixteenth century. When a slave revolt devastated Haiti's sugar industry in 1791, Cuba became the world's most important producer of sugarcane, and sugar has remained the backbone of its economy ever since.
Rum is the alcohol produced by the distillation of sugarcane by-products, typically molasses. When sugarcane fields spread rapidly throughout the Caribbean, distilleries followed close behind. By the close of the eighteenth century, rum production was well established. Diverse styles of rum resulted from the natural variations in raw materials and the different production techniques employed across the region.
Sugarcane is harvested, then crushed to yield a sweet, sticky juice. The juice is boiled, then crystalized, to concentrate and separate what will become the raw sugar. What's left is molasses. The molasses is diluted, then fermented, a process that converts it into a liquid, called the mash, that contains about 5 percent alcohol. The mash is distilled to about 70 percent alcohol. Better rums are then matured, generally in oak barrels, before they are filtered, diluted to 40 percent alcohol and bottled.
The careful production of fine rum on the island dates only to the nineteenth century. According to the patriotic Campoamor, "in 1820, Fernando de Arritola, using an alambic of his own invention, succeeded in producing a rum superior to its crude Caribbean competitors." An 1827 survey counted 300 distilleries in the country. Then, in 1862, a wine merchant in the town of Santiago named Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso began making the rum that would make Cuba famous.
In 1960, the new Socialist government of Fidel Castro expropriated and nationalized Bacardi's factories and all the other rum producers on the island. Since then, the distinctions between producers and brands have become blurred. Some brands are produced in various distilleries, and some distilleries produce many brands.
In Cuba, details of the production, sale or consumption of rum are not considered appropriate for public discussion. The Casa del Ron, next door to El Floridita, is Havana's main showcase for the native spirit; the store's manager breaks three appointments before finally meeting with us, and even then has little to say. He estimates that a dozen distilleries operate today in Cuba, producing about 60 brands of rum.
The small, second-floor store, which also stocks Cuban cigars and assorted souvenirs, offers what is perhaps the widest range of rums in Cuba. Each brand generally has three types of rum: white rum, which is aged three years before release and costs less than $5 a bottle; golden rum, aged five years, costing $6; and "Anejo," or aged rum, generally seven years old, costing about $10. Their alcoholic contents range from 34 percent to 40 percent.
We buy every type of rum we can find: 28 bottles, with a total cost of just under $200. We carry them down to El Floridita.
The tasting takes place in El Floridita's main dining room, during the calm hours before lunch. Restaurant director Gustavo D'Meza, maître d' Pedro Tejeda, sommelier Orlando Blanco and four members of their staff join us. They have never tasted such an extensive range and are enthusiastic and attentive. The table is set with wine glasses and spit buckets, mineral water and bread. The rums are grouped by age level and poured in order of increasing strength. The tasting is not blind; we discuss each rum before going to the next.
The three-year-old rums, mostly labeled "Carta Blanca," are colorless or very pale gold. The best are racy and elegant, with floral and citrus notes, smooth but light on the palate, with a clean, peppery finish. The worst are the most offensive rums in the tasting. Puerto Principe, distilled in Camaguey in the center of the island, exhibits the character of paint thinner; Mulata, from Villa Clara, east of Havana, has the sickly sweet aroma of fresh vinyl.
"I expected more from Mulata," comments a disappointed Tejada, "but the Perla del Norte was a pleasant surprise."
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.
The tasting over, the group lights cigars. Strong coffee arrives at the table, and the discussion grows lively. What is their favorite rum cocktail? All give the nod to the mojito except D'Meza, who loyally stands up for El Floridita's Daiquiri. What do they think of El Duque, the Cuban exile whose pitching helped the Yankees win the World Series last year? Again, they concur: he's a hero, who proved to the world how good Cubans can be. What's the best dish at the restaurant? They look at their watches--it's near noon--and in a scramble of handshakes they are off to don tuxedos.
Suckling and I move to a smaller table and order a beer--the light, bitter Cristal that cleanses our palates and clears our heads. Tejada returns, suddenly formal, wheeling a silver cart. "We have tasted your rum," he announces. "Now you will taste our food."
He lights a burner under a small saucepan and tosses in a pat of butter and a dash of oil. He chops an onion and a green pepper and cooks them for a moment, until they soften. Then he adds a handful of large, fresh shrimp. As they sizzle, he squeezes in the juice of half a lime and then picks up a bottle of rum. "Usually we use a simple rum," Tejada notes, pouring a steady stream into the pan, "but today I thought the Matusalem would do nicely." He lights a match, and the rum bursts into flame. He divides the mixture onto two plates. "This is the classic dish of El Floridita," he says.
The shrimp are tender and juicy, sweetened by the onion and enlivened by the lime. The rum adds a haunting smoky warmth that evokes a driftwood fire on the beach at sunset. The dish doesn't taste old-fashioned, but its harmonious balance doesn't taste newly minted, either. It tastes of the sea and the sun. It tastes like Cuba.
Thomas Matthews is a senior editor and the New York bureau chief of Wine Spectator, a sister publication of Cigar Aficionado.
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