Here in the United States, it’s a challenge to get our hands on the good Cuban stuff. Cigars, rum, you name it — there’s a tiny bit of an embargo going on that keeps goods from flowing freely back and forth. That, plus a decades long feud between the original owners of companies and the nationalized Cuban versions, makes for the situation we see today: there are two separate Havana Club brands on the market. We’ve tried the Puerto Rican edition so, having obtained a bottle of the Cuban version from a friend, it’s time to compare.
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 and left town fifteen years later in search of a better life in Cuba. Once on the island, he was introduced to a relative in the sugar production and 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 in 1923, but 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 became a huge success with worldwide name recognition. However, 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.
The rum we are reviewing today is the Pernod Ricard-backed version, from the branch of Havana Club that is manufactured in Cuba at the original facility and owned by Corporacion Cuba Ron (the state run rum manufacturing company in Cuba).
- Learn More: What Is Cuban Rum?
While the Bacardi-backed Havana Club might be made by the same family recipe, there’s one thing that they’ll never be able to copy: the terroir of the local Cuban molasses. By definition, a Cuban rum needs to start from that sticky and impure waste product of the sugar production process, using only sugar cane that is grown on the island.
Using molasses isn’t necessarily that unique in the world of rum, but where Cuban rums really diverge from the norm is that they are actually two rums that are married together during the maturation process.
The first step is to make a lower proof (but more characterful) spirit called an “aguardiente”. This rum starts as a fermented slurry of molasses that is distilled to less than 75% ABV, and is then placed into oak containers for a period of two years to age.
Once the first aging is complete, the spirit is removed from the barrels, filtered, and then blended with “superfine cane spirit”, which is basically a neutral spirit that has been distilled to ~96% ABV and made from superfine sugar. This combination is then placed into oak barrels once more for some period of time, the length being up to the distiller’s preference. Sometimes the spirit is even aged for a third time to produce a “dark” rum.
In this case, the finished product is aged for at least seven years before bottling. That’s a pretty long time for a Caribbean produced spirit, given that the hotter climate tends to accelerate the aging process significantly compared to somewhere like Scotland.
There’s nothing incredibly interesting going on with this bottle. It’s a properly functional glass vessel for the transportation of rum, sporting straight sides, a quickly curving shoulder, and a fairly short neck. The bottle is topped off with a metal screw-on cap.
Most interesting is that there’s a plastic insert in the mouth of the bottle that only pours a little at a time. Commonly referred to in U.S. parlance as an “easy pour spout”, it’s something we usually only see with cheaper spirits.
One thing I did find annoying is that the glass of this bottle is colored. It obscures the actual color of the spirit inside, which is something you are going to want to see. It also keeps you from really seeing the level of liquor inside, which is a neat marketing trick for bars but slightly annoying for consumers.
As for the label, it’s certainly not something I would expect coming out of an avowedly communist country. (I suppose I’d expect something closer to the Dharma Initiative food labels from the TV show Lost — bland and uninteresting.) Instead, the artwork on these labels evokes an opulence and extravagance more reminiscent of the roaring 1920s.
It seems purpose made for the export market, which is a bit of a shame. I’m looking for a true taste of Cuba, and instead of getting a realistic look, I feel like I’m being sold a version more tailored to other countries.
This smells like a delicious creme brulee. Front and center in the aroma is some brown sugar (which makes sense considering the dark molasses base) and it’s supported by some nicely incorporated vanilla and caramel toffee notes from the barrel aging. There’s a bit of toasted marshmallow in there as well, which really helps to sell that “torched brown sugar” concept. Added to that is just a tiny hint of alcohol content to remind you that this is, in fact, a rum… and not a custard.
Speaking of that brown sugar note, that’s also the first thing that comes to mind when you take a sip. It’s sweet and delicious with just a touch of an herbal grass aspect that calls back to the raw cane sugar the molasses was created from. That sugary sweetness is supported nicely by some well-rounded vanilla notes, and the flavor eventually develops some fruity aspects with a hint of banana, apple, and apricot. All of those flavors die down near the end of the experience, leaving just the vanilla and brown sugar to linger on in the finish.
I worry whenever I come across a light and sweet rum like this one, because those usually aren’t flavors that will translate very well into a cocktail or even stand up to some ice. And while that’s certainly happening here to some extent, I do think that it’s doing a better job than usual.
Let’s note this right off the bat: the drink is unbalanced. When taken neat, there’s a good mix between the sweet aspects and the richer aspects that makes it a joy to sip. But here, the richness that we saw originally seems to have all but disappeared. It’s a very light and watery drink, unfortunately, especially compared to how we just saw it when we sipped it neat.
The flavors that stick around are primarily those from the raw materials and the distillation process. I’m still getting that brown sugar note clear as day with the slightly herbaceous and grassy shades, but the barrel aging components and the fruity notes are pretty much gone. There’s also very little vanilla left behind, which is what I think is making this feel unbalanced and thin.
Fizz (Dark and Stormy)
This is very close to being a good cocktail. There’s a lot working well here: the brown sugar does a fantastic job balancing with the ginger beer to take the edge off that flavor, and there’s just enough darkness and richness left in the vanilla to make a dent.
The problem, though, is that there just isn’t enough force left in those flavors to take it to the next level. When we added ice, this became a pretty unbalanced and lightweight version of its former self — and that problem is only exacerbated when mixed with a strong ginger beer. Since there’s nothing really darker or richer left to add the “dark” to this Dark and Stormy, this is a resoundingly “meh” take on the cocktail.
I absolutely adore this rum when taken on its own and sipped neat. This is a fantastically delicate and delicious rum that provides all of my favorite flavors in one alcoholic sip. It is well balanced, designed with finesse.
The problem is that, taken any other way, this doesn’t seem to hold up quite as well. On ice, this is a watery and unbalanced acceptable version of a rum; in a cocktail, it does the bare minimum.
I feel like this is a situation where a little bit more time in a barrel would be useful. I can handle a bit more depth and complexity when taken neat, especially when it makes for a more versatile spirit.
|Havana Club (Cuba) 7 Year Old Rum|
Aging: 7 Years
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $29.17 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 3/5
An excellent and delicious sipping rum that I would not recommend for cocktails.