The story of Havana Club is the story of one family’s success, heartbreak, anger, and love. Although these two bottles have the same name and started from the same origin, today they are made by two very different companies in two very different parts of the world. But I guess, all the question for the average consumer is this: which one is better?
The original Havana Club brand starts with the Arechabala family, who founded a distillery in Cardenas, Cuba in 1878. José Arechabala was originally born in Spain in 1847, but left town fifteen years later seeking a better life in Cuba. Once on the island, he was introduced to a relative who was working in the sugar production / distribution industry and, using the contacts he made from that experience, he found a lucrative way to use the molasses and leftover products from sugar production to make rum.
The business flourished, making money hand over fist with their production process and delicious end result, and easily survived the 1888 hurricane that crippled much of the rest of that new industry. José died suddenly on March 15th, 1923, only a few minutes after starting the morning shift and gently encouraging his kids to get to work.
The company remained family owned after his death and in 1934 (at the height of the Cuban cocktail cultural boom) they introduced the Havana Club brand of rum. The brand was a huge success, achieving international renown.
During the 1959 Cuban revolution, the Arechabala family was forced to flee the country and had their distillery taken from them at gunpoint by the Cuban government. Since then, a Havana Club brand of Cuban rum has continued to be produced in cooperation with the French company Pernod Ricard, but the family maintains that they never agreed to hand over the rights to the Havana Club name.
Bacardi, another brand of rum from a family forced to flee Cuba during the revolution, entered into an agreement with the Arechabala family to produce their Havana Club brand of rum from the United States, exercising their claim on the copyright for the name. The first bottles rolled off the production line in 1994 and Bacardi was immediately sued (successfully) by Pernod Ricard. Rather than letting the Cuban government take control of another brand name, though, Bacardi successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Bacardi Act that protected brand names of companies that fled Cuba and they resumed production in 1998.
We’ve reviewed these spirits individually in the past, but now it’s time to compare them head-to-head in different categories to see which one is ultimately the better choice.
This is a tough category. Mainly because there’s two ways to look at it, and your choice of winner might depend on what criteria you care about most.
Havana Club is, by its own brand name, supposed to be a Cuban rum. And by legal definition, Cuban rums need to be made from Cuban molasses and overseen by Cuban rum masters. You can read more about the technicalities and requirements in our article on Cuban rum here. Thanks to the trade embargo with Cuba, only one of these bottles is actually a Cuban rum — and that’s (unsurprisingly) the Cuban version of Havana Club. The other one is made in Puerto Rico and, while I’m sure the recipe is very similar, it’s still produced in a different climate with a non-Cuban source of raw materials.
But this gets into the other side of the debate: while the Cuban version might use Cuban materials like the original Havana Club, the people who actually made it and oversaw production of the original all fled to Puerto Rico during the Cuban Revolution. The people making the Cuban version now might be using the same sources and equipment, but there’s no way to be sure that the recipe and quality control are what you would have gotten from the original owners.
I’m actually going to call this one a tie. I feel like both sides are equally important here, and I really don’t feel like picking one side over the other on the question of authenticity would be beneficial. But feel free to disagree in the comments — we do actually read them, and love to hear well thought out and respectful opinions. Even when we are dead wrong.
Branding and Bottling
There’s zero doubt that the Cuban Havana Club has this one in the bag.
The logo for Havana Club has been around for ages, and it is iconic. The simple classic design is instantly recognizable, and even in today’s market it looks stunning.
While the Puerto Rican Havana Club may have been able to use the name, the logo seems to have been a step too far. They needed to reinvent their branding and style guide from the ground up, and the current result is a forgettable and generic label that means nothing to the casual observer. It looks like a slightly upscale store brand liquor, rather than a bottle with such an interesting and long history.
While the branding might be a runaway success for the Cuban version, I want to call out that I won’t be weighting this specific category heavily when it comes to the final comparison. It’s an interesting data point, but in my opinion, the way the actual product performs is way more important than the bottle it comes in.
This is a situation where I think the simpler, but better executed, flavor profile wins. And that’s the Cuban Havana Club… but just by a hair.
In the Puerto Rican Havana Club, there are far more flavors in the mix when you sip this neat. I get brown sugar, baking spices, vanilla, cocoanut, pears, mangoes, and even some dark chocolate. It’s a lot of complexity in a single bottle. The downside is that there’s just a bit of industrial alcohol flavor in there as well, though, which is a bit distracting.
Compare that to the Cuban Havana Club, which has a much simpler flavor profile. There’s really just brown sugar, vanilla, and a hint of tropical fruit like a banana. I describe it as a creme brulee, and that’s exactly how it tastes (if you just had a bite of banana beforehand, that is). The flavor is smooth and delicious without any bitterness or bite or negativity around it. Just a really chill and enjoyable flavor.
Honestly, the winner here could go back and forth depending on the kind of mood you find yourself in: dark and fruity or sweet and creamy. The Cuban edges out a win by a hair.
Finally, we get to a category where the Puerto Rican version shines, and it isn’t even a close race.
We saw a lot more of the darker and richer flavors being expressed in the Puerto Rican Havana Club, which stands up much better to things like added ice and dilution. Those flavors carry over into the mixed drinks and cocktails, adding some complexity and interesting components that a standard rum just doesn’t. Plus, as an added bonus, the mixers cover up that little bit of industrial alcohol perfectly.
Compare that to the Cuban Havana Club where the spirit just completely falls apart in any other way but neat. The flavors aren’t complex enough or rich enough to really make a difference and that shows in the cocktail preparations. It just doesn’t do a good job as its newer competition.
This is going to be a bit controversial, I’m sure… but I actually like the Puerto Rican version better.
The Cuban rum wins when it comes to the branding for sure, but that’s a very minor aspect of the product. We don’t rate Ferraris based on the crate in which they are shipped — and so neither should we rate liquor based solely on their container. I’ll still call it out as a great label but, at the end of the day, it’s what’s in the bottle that counts.
In those flavor-based categories, there’s a pretty clear winner. The two rums perform fairly closely on par when taken neat, with the Cuban version edging out a small win. But then the Puerto Rican rum blows it out of the water when mixed into a cocktail and steals the show. I do prefer the Cuban Havana Club neat — but, on balance, I’d rather suffer through a Puerto Rican Havana Club taken neat than a cocktail with a Cuban Havana Club.
Winner: Puerto Rican Havana Club