Doing the Rum Thing

Okay, I can hear everyone mumbling already. But it is a tough job. Someone has to do it. My goal was to taste all the major Havana Club rums while I was in Havana last week, and at least as many other rums as possible. Not in any kind of formal tasting (trust me, it would have taken weeks to get permission to conduct something official like that), but in a real life, on-the-street kind of mission. I failed. I missed the Reserva Añejo. Well, I think I missed it; there may have been a glassful on that first Sunday afternoon in country. But it was hard. The other versions of Havana Club and Santiago are so good, I kept saying, "Next time, I'll have the Reserva."
First of all, let's get one thing straight. Tasting rum in Cuba is like tasting Scotch in Scotland, Cognac in France, Bourbon in Kentucky, Tequila in Guadalajara. You get the idea. This is home territory for rum. And, the Cubans love their rums. The ubiquitous red oval with the Havana Club letters is as common on walls as pictures of Fidel and Che Guevara...maybe more so today.
Let's start with Havana Club three-year-old. To be fair to it, I didn't taste it straight. It is the ubiquitous back bar rum at Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio. Ask Pedro the bartender at Bodeguita how to make their iconic mojito (they don't make daiquiris there), and the starter ingredient is a Havana Club three-year-old. Same is true at Floridita for their iconic daiquiri. In fact, the bar claims to be the birthplace of that drink. In both cases, the rum is so smooth it doesn't interfere with essence of simple syrup and lime, with the addition of the mint in the mojito.
Which of the two drinks did Dave and I prefer? In my case, I preferred the daiquiri. It was more refreshing, partly because it was done up in a blender with ice. The mojito didn't quite deliver the same degree of Havana Happy Hour pleasure: We tried both at the end of two long days. They were both delicious.
I had the seven-year-old once with some ice and a "bit of lime," which turned into a good dollop of lime juice that overpowered the rum. I wouldn't recommend it. I also had it over a couple cubes of ice. In that format, it was slightly sweet with burnt molasses and wood notes on the palate. It wasn't as smooth as I remembered, but nonetheless, it is a robust rum with a lot of complex sweet flavors that trend toward dried orange and caramel.
But all the younger vintages paled when it came to the two best rums I drank last week in Cuba. They are decidedly different in their taste profiles, but each stands alone as a truly great spirit.
The Santiago 11-year-old is a sweet, molasses bomb. It is incredibly smooth on the palate, and probably goes best in a snifter without any accompaniment. I still prefer rums with a touch of ice, partly to cool them, and partly to help dilute the liquid just enough to release some of the flavors. But you won't go wrong taking this one straight. It is that smooth.

The Havana Club Reserva del Maestros is a 15-year-old rum that begins to approach a more Cognac-like profile that comes with more barrel aging. Instead of the sweetness on the attack of the Santiago 11-year-old, the Reserva del Maestros is a more tart, alcoholic spirit that has just a touch of burn to it going down. It's also got more of a burnt caramel taste with some of the orange peel notes that I associate with a great rum.
Choose, you say? I can't. The Santiago 11-year-old and the Reserva del Maestros are both great rums. I would probably choose the Santiago as an aperitif, mostly because it is a little smoother. But after dinner, with a cigar, I would be reaching for the bottle of Reserva del Maestros...just like Dave and I did after a meal at La Guarida with some Spanish friends who insisted that the bottle remain on the table while we smoked until near midnight.
Like I said, I can hear the grumbling coming from all quarters.

"Gentlemen, I am new to the aficionado world but am enjoying it immensely. I realize this article was about tasting Havana Club rums but feel I need to share some very important info regarding rum. I am from Queensland in Australia & we have a rum there called Bundaberg Rum. This is truly the nectar of the gods. In fact most Queensland children are weaned on Bundy rum!! While the yellow label while strip the inside of your stomach ( but gee it tastes good ) the limited edition & aged releases are something to behold. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find any over here yet but if any of you are going to Australia - I strongly recommend a taste of the aged & limited edition bottles. You wont be disappointed!!" —December 7, 2011 16:44 PM
"Dan, the mojito should be made with lime juice. I haven't been in Havana since 2000 but they all were using lime juice. As far as the rum, for mixing, I preferred the 7 year Havana Club. When drinking straight, Santiago had a bit more residual sugar taste which I preferred. " —August 9, 2011 08:32 AM
"Did they make your mojito with limes? sounds silly, but last time I was in Havana every bar (and trust me, I went to many!) made the drink with lemon juice, and it certainly did not taste as good as I have had before with limes." —May 17, 2011 18:53 PM
"You said it Gordon: "nothing better than this". Did you see the life-size bronze sculpture of Ernest Hemingway at El Floridita leaning against the bar counter? They say that that corner was Hemingway's favorite spot in the bar. I think I have a picture of it." —May 17, 2011 14:28 PM