Havana Club’s “El Museo del Ron”
Old Havana, Cuba
Story & Photographs by Les Noteworthy, Senior Staff Writer
As an “un-educated consumer” and never having studied Spanish, I would look at a bottle of rum, for example Bacardi, and see that the label read, Ron Bacardi! I saw many other labels that also bore the name “RON”. I thought for years that everyone making rum was named RON!
A few years ago, I learned that Bacardi’s first name was actually Don Fecundo Bacardi and not Ron, at all! I was crushed! For all these years, I thought Ron Bacardi was a real guy! Then, I learned that RON was Spanish for Rum, and not the first name of the producer. Well, I felt like an idiot. That is when I began to research Rum, or “el Ron.” It was this research that brought me first from the idiot grade, to an informed consumer, and on to an aficionado of fine rums.
Clearly, this transformation did not occur overnight, but as I began to study the spirit, I realized it was rum that I
would enjoy before most other spirits. Rum wears many hats, and enjoys countless variations. A friend, who manages a restaurant with an exceptional collection of rums, offers those resembling fine single malt Scotches, to Bourbon-like, Cognac-like, even smooth, sweet and Port-like, and everywhere in between. But how can that be? How can one spirit be so vastly diverse in production styles and finish? In my research, I learned that it stems from the terroir (sense of place or soil components), the process of rum making, the treatment, the aging, the barrels used for the aging, and ultimately the blending that governs the style, quality and characteristics of the finished Rum.
In Old Havana, Cuba at the corner of Sol and San Pedro, which runs along the waterfront, there stands a distinguished 18th century mansion, with a small, yet official looking governmental sign post outside the entrance identifying this establishment as the Havana Club Foundation’s Museum of Rum. This amazing, yet unpretentious building, is operated by the Havana
Club Foundation, begun in 2002 for the purposes of presenting the history and tasting of rum as a tourist attraction. There is a small cover charge for the guided tour. The site also contains a small restaurant, featuring authentic Cuban Creole (Criolla) specialties, a full bar (with live music all day and night), a retail store and a replica of the original Havana Club bar from the 1930’s. Entering the central courtyard of the museum you will find a stand offering “Guaravana” available ONLY at the Museum of Rum. It is a blend of Guarapo de Caña (freshly squeezed cane juice) and Havana Club Rum, mixed with a splash of freshly squeezed orange juice. Both juices are squeezed at the stand. It might be a little rough for some, but it was a great treat for my palate. It is also something to do while waiting for the tour to begin and yet another step in the education of the aspiring rum aficionado.
The Museum tour spans all 3 stories of the harbor front mansion, utilizing stairwells, landings, corridors and several large rooms. Displays are everywhere, some replica pieces, some authentic…including a small locomotive used in cane transportation from around 1902. One of the highlights of the tour is the diorama, including an operating model train. It depicts a cane production facility from Cuba’s past. Although little more than a king-sized model train display, it has won several international awards. It shows the process of cutting, transporting, pressing, cleaning and cooking the cane into molasses, the starter aggregate of Rum. Even the accommodations, chapel and dining facilities are concisely displayed.
After the diorama, guides explain how sugar is separated from the heavier molasses, then fermented by adding yeast and water. It is put into what is called a “wine”, then sent to the distillation process. Once old copper alembic pot stills were used, but now mostly column stills, which allow for greater volume and efficiency.
The tour then moves into a replica of a storage room, showing how the newly distilled rum, now resting in pre-used charred oak barrels, is racked for a pre-set minimum time frame. They are periodically moved, raised to higher racks, or lowered, turned, rotated and tested for its maturation process. Visitors also can see early filtration systems, used to filter the water for the boiling process, as well as the rum itself, after the distillation process. In all, it is an interesting way to become educated about rum.
During the tour I learned another interesting set of facts. The Bacardi line began its long history in Cuba in 1862, and left during the Nationalization of private enterprises after the 1959 Revolution, I learned that Havana Club did not simply “take over” the Bacardi plants, as many people have surmised. Havana Club, as a brand, began in 1878 by the Arechabala family, producing quality rum from a different section of Cuba. Similar to Bacardi, the Arechabalas also left after the Revolution, returning to Spain, then to the United States. Bacardi had already registered their trademark and all rights to the name and products outside of Cuba prior to the Revolution, and left taking their international patents and trademarks with them. Havana Club did not hold any international patents on their products, and therefore was subsequently “nationalized” by the Cuban Government. Their Rum is produced from many plants around the island, including some of the old Bacardi plants. The brand is currently owned by the Cuban government in partnership with the European Spirits giant, Pernod Ricard, responsible for its massive worldwide distribution.
Havana Club produces a variety of Rum levels, starting with the Silver or dry, and moving upwards in age to a 3 year, 7year, 15 year and a pair of blended masterpieces, including the “Maximo Extra Anejo”, which is packaged in a
beautiful crystal bottle, retailing in excess of $1700.00. However, the Havana Club “Selecçion de Maestros” label, more reasonably priced, repeatedly wins awards internationally as one of the world’s top rums.
All things considered, the “Museum of Rum” tour might be a little overpriced and overrated, yet it offers those who know little about rum, some educational information in a country that lives and breathes the subject. Rum is everything in Cuba…everything that Communism doesn’t offer the people, and then some! It provides a diversion from the day’s chores, life’s hardships and society’s failings. It is an elixir, an escape or reward, and even a reason to carry on.
Enjoy Havana Club Rum whenever possible. It is a line of fine products, and if ever in Havana, make time for the Museum of Rum tour. Even if you don’t enjoy the history of the spirit, you will probably enjoy the measure of Havana Club 7 Year aged dark rum that is complimentary at the end of the tour.
In the 1978 film, “The Deep”, the actor Robert Shaw spoke a great line…”Rum isn’t drinking…it’s surviving!” In Cuba, it is exactly that! Drink well, my friends…and drink rum!