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Rum Rundown

The Spirit of Sugarcane is Still Cuba's Favorite Quaff. We Taste the Best
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

(continued from page 1)

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."

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