You might be surprised to find something labeled “Havana Club” on American shelves, since there’s been an embargo of Cuban goods ever since the Castro regime took power on that island nation (over half a century ago). And with the big names leaving town after the revolution (Bacardi, Cohiba, etc), in some cases the Cuban government simply just kept making the same products with the same names — just under government control. This has set up a number of situations where there are now competing products: one made by the original owners in exile, and one made by the Cuban government. Today we’re looking at the best example of a rum caught between two worlds: specifically, the American-produced version of Havana Club.
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 to find 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 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 and became known worldwide.
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.
- Learn More: What Is Rum?
This version of Havana Club claims to use the original 1934 recipe for the product, with the only difference being that it is made by Bacardi in Puerto Rico rather than in Cuba.
Cuban rums are a little different in that they are actually two rums that are married together during the maturation process. Bacardi’s Havana Club doesn’t detail the specific steps they take, but it sounds like they follow this pattern pretty closely.
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 distiller states that this rum is aged for “up to three years” in that first maturation period before being re-blended and aged again for at least three months. That leaves a lot of wiggle room in the maturation times.
The bottle here is a cool, pseudo-art-deco 1930’s era design, trying to wrap that admittedly brand new production with the storied history of the brand.
As for the bottle itself, it’s pretty bland and unremarkable, which is about on point for the time period. Much like a wine bottle, there’s a cylindrical base, a gently tapered shoulder, and a relatively short neck. The whole thing is topped off with a wood and cork stopper.
The label is where the real branding is happening, though, going with white and metallic gold colored ink on a black background. There isn’t much really going on here, the “Havana Club” name features prominently alongside the family logo in the center of the label. Also nice and big are the words “Puerto Rican Rum” at the bottom just to make sure you aren’t going to mistakenly confuse this for the Cuban produced version.
It’s certainly a beautiful dark rum, but whether that hue is from the barrel aging or some added caramel coloring, I’m not quite sure. Pouring a bit in your glass, there are the usual rum aromas of marshmallow and caramel, but you also get some extra vanilla, lemon citrus, and just a hint of nail polish remover. (Which isn’t always a bad thing, and in this case I think the solvent aspect gives the rum a bit of an aromatic lift that helps balance out some of the richer and darker aspects.)
Taking a sip, the first thing I get is molasses, like a viscous mouth-filling texture accompanied by this sweet brown sugar caramel flavor. That’s followed pretty quickly by some baking spices and vanilla, turning it almost towards a sweeter tasting bourbon only without the actual sweetness. As the flavor develops, I start to get some more fruit notes like pears, coconut, and mangos, and an eventually developing milk chocolate note that lasts into the finish.
It’s smooth and rich, without any bitterness or bite I can detect, despite the solvent note on the nose.
Usually, a bit of ice is good for a spirit that has some faults, but in this case there aren’t many to cover up. The only thing that can happen here with the added dilution and colder temperature is that we start to lose some flavors, and I think that’s unfortunately what happened in this case.
This is still a pretty rich and delicious drink, it just seems to be a bit simpler. Up front, there’s a clearer banana and coconut or tropical fruit note that is quickly followed by the caramel, vanilla, and baking spices that dominated our tasting note for neat. Once all that is in place, things don’t really progress, though, with the flavors just maintaining until they fade into the distance on the finish.
Fizz (Dark and Stormy)
This is fine. Really, it’s okay. It gets the job done. But it isn’t knocking my socks off as much as I expected.
Usually, with a darker rum, they have a tendency to do much better in this situation. All of those heavier barrel aging (or spiced) flavors tend to shine in cocktails and this is their moment. With this Havana Club Anejo, it doesn’t have quite the force that the other dark rums carry. It’s a lighter, more delicate version of the iron fist you see in those other examples, and so while it works and balances out the ginger beer nicely, it isn’t quite as delicious as some of its counterparts.
I’ll be honest — I drank the whole damn bottle while writing this review (apologies to my wife and editor).
This is a damn delicious rum that hits all of the notes I’m looking for: rich flavors from the raw materials, good balance and complexity in the overall flavor profile, and doing it all with a subtlety and even handed approach that makes for a very sippable rum. I don’t think I would necessarily use this as a mixer, but if you’re looking for something to pour into a glass and drink all on its own, this will definitely do the trick.
|Havana Club (PR) Anejo Classico|
Puerto Rico, United States
Aging: No Age Statement (NAS)
Proof: 40% ABV
Price: $19.99 / 750 ml
Product Website: Product Website
Overall Rating: 4/5
A worthy champion to continue the brand name from abroad.