The sidewalks were slick with rainwater as I approached Bill’s Townhouse on a cold, wet night in Manhattan earlier this month. The three-story restaurant was hosting an immersive theatrical performance called Amparo, a play that told the story of the Arechabala family—the original owners of Havana Club rum—whose brand was taken from them by Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
At the bar inside the townhouse, spirits giant Bacardi served Havana Club cocktails alongside special cigars from Padilla Cigar Co. You couldn’t smoke in the bar, but if you stepped outside the building you could light up before or after the play. Each cigar was adorned with a large foot band that, unfurled, revealed text about the Padilla family and its own story of exile and abuse at the hands of the Cuban communist government.
“The history of Havana Club and Padilla are intertwined,” cigarmaker Ernesto Padilla said, standing at the bar in Bill’s Townhouse before the performance began. Padilla left Cuba when he was six years old. His father, the late Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, was imprisoned and tortured by the Cuban government for his writings that were critical of the Castro regime.
“The play tells the history of the Havana Club brand and asks the question, ‘What does it mean to be Cuban?’ That’s a question which, in cigars, we get a lot,” Padilla said. “When we have so many [cigarmakers] that left Cuba, to make cigars elsewhere. The parallels between the two stories are interesting.”
The event was organized by Bacardi, who owns a version of Havana Club rum that’s sold in the United States and distilled in Puerto Rico, which the company says is the real, authentic version of the rum. It’s made with the original recipe from the Arechabala’s, who sold it to Bacardi after the communist government forced them to leave Cuba in the 1960’s. However, there’s another, more widely known version of Havana Club that’s still made in Cuba to this day. It’s a competing product that’s sold all over the world (except the United States) by Havana Club International, a joint venture between Cuban government enterprise Cubaexport and French spirits company Pernod Ricard.
So which version of the rum is the ‘real’ Havana Club? And who owns the trademark? The answers are a bit murky—and Bacardi and Cubaexport continue to clash in the U.S. courts over ownership of the brand. It’s a legal battle that bears similarities to General Cigar Co.’s ongoing struggle with the Cuban government over the rights to Cohiba.
At least with Amparo, Bacardi can tell the Archebala’s side of the story. The play is an interactive tale of tragedy, exile and rebirth, and it took place throughout the entirety of Bill’s Townhouse—from the bar to the back rooms, to the kitchen and dining rooms. Guests moved up and down the stairs, following the actors like ghosts hovering behind their heads, watching, and sometimes taking part, in the performance as it unfolded.
“Given the storied history behind Havana Club rum, we felt that an emotional, active storytelling platform that fully immerses the audience in the experience—which is what Amparo does—would be the perfect avenue to truly bring our story to life,” Roberto Ramirez Laverde, global rums director for Bacardi said.
As I left the play that night, my main takeaway was that, at its core, the evening was a celebration of Cuban heritage. The performance, the drinks, the cigars—were all elements of a larger Cuban story about overcoming tragedy, of perseverance in the face of adversity.Amparo debuted in Miami in February, and had its New York premiere this month as part of a private showing. It’s expected to receive a wider release to consumer audiences later this year (returning first to Miami and New York and then to other cities based on demand), though dates and venues have yet to be announced. When it arrives, is it worth checking out? Definitely. It’s an eye-opening experience. It’s educational. And there’s plenty of good rum and cigars.