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Rum Tasting with Havana Club at The Whisky Exchange

One nice thing about my new job is that as we hold tastings at our Vinopolis shop there are occasionally a few spots for us head office lot to go and visit. Extrapolating that a bit found me on a tube train at the end of my second day at TWE heading towards London Bridge and a rum tasting with Meimi Sanchez, UK brand ambassador for Havana Club. Meimi was born in Cuba, but due to a stint of working in Scotland, including some time at the rather excellent Bramble (which I still haven’t visited…), currently has a Scots accent, which caused a little bit of confusion at first.

I didn’t know much about rum, other than the fact that I like sticking it down my neck in various forms, and Meimi started off the evening with a presentation of a bit of the history of rum in Cuba. Things start back in 1550, when the first sugar cane mill was built in Cuba. Sugar growing itself had been brought to the Carribbean by the European powers due to the climate being right to grow it and along with being one of the initial test beds, Spanish Cuba became one of the biggest sugar cane producers.

Sugar processing was quite simple – the cane was crushed to release the ‘guarapo’, sugar cane juice, which was then boiled down to become molasses. As the molasses cooked sugar would crystallise and be skimmed off. At the end of this you were left with molasses with a sugar content such that no more crystallised sugar could be easily extracted and this was dumped in pits. These pits attracted wild yeasts and over the space of 8-10 months they fermented, producing a low alcohol molasses ‘beer’. As people realised that they could brew with the sugar waste they started getting it to ferment deliberately, including dumping in rotting materials (including animals…) to give it a kick start.

As often happens with fermented liquids when there is a of knowledge stills around, people started distilling the fermented molasses to produce a drink originally called tafia. This was a rough poor quality rum due to the impurities in the molasses and general lack of expertise in the distilling. As rum production became more official, with molasses being fermented in a more controlled fashion, higher quality spirits started to appear and it’s this stuff that should probably be called rum. Eventually as production moved on through the 1800s rum started being aged in wood, giving rise to the range of rums that we are more familiar with today – as with whisky, rum is clear when it leaves the still and older rums pick up there colour from the wood they are aged in (and maybe a bit of spirit caramel colouring to even out the hue between batches)

It’s about this point that Cuban rum breaks away a bit from the rest of the Caribbean. Most of the distillation was done in pot stills, which produced spirit with quite a heavy character. However in the late 1800s they developed a lighter style of rum, using column stills, due to the Spanish court preferring that style. This change has continued to the present day, even though many other companies also now use continuous stills, and is one of the characteristics of Havana Club.

The company was founded by José Arechabala who moved to Cuba at the age of 15 and started producing rum in 1860. In 1878 he started his own company and produced rums under many different brand names, including Havana Club, which eventually stuck. In 1924 he was shot dead by a worker after not handing over some cash when threatened and the brand went to his daughter Camila. The US Mafia turned up at around this point and started extorting money from Camila, who then fled to Spain leaving the brand to her son José. He was a businessman by trade and expanded the operation, using leftover sugar cane to make paper and furniture, and starting a candy factory which produced rations for the US army. On top of this he set his mother up with a department store in Spain. Unfortunately at this point everything went a bit wrong: the store went bankrupt, the US-Cuba relationship started to fail and the furniture market collapsed. Seeing the Cuban Revolution moving to a communist anti-US stance he packed up his family and left the country, leaving Havana Club to be nationalised in the early 1960s. These days the rum is produced in a joint venture between Pernod-Ricard and the Cuban government. As such you can’t buy ‘real’ Havana Club in the USA, due to their trade embargo, but Pernod-Ricard market a different, non-Cuban rum under the same name over there.

Today’s production process hasn’t changed all that much. The sugar cane harvest (la zafra) occurs between December and March, and the canes are processed to extract the guarapo. It is boiled to molasses (also known as miele, ‘honey’), cooled and skimmed of crystallised sugar until it is about 55% of its original volume. The molasses are then mixed with water and a cuban yeast, and then left for about 24 hours to ferment into a 5-6% sugar cane wine. Havana Club have 3 copper column stills and distill to produce two different spirits: the 76% ‘aguardiente’ and the unromantically named ‘extra fine distillate’ at 96%. The aguardiente is aged in steel vats for at least 2 years at which point it is referred to as La Madre – the mother. La Madre is then further mixed with water and some extra fine distillate before being aged in ex-bourbon/whisky barrels. Getting the barrels is not as simple a process as for many companies due to the US embargo, which gets in the way of importing bourbon casks. Luckily Pernod-Ricard use their international connections and the barrels are funneled from Wild Turkey through Jameson and Chivas whisky companies, often leading to them being used for Scotch and Irish whisk(e)y maturation in addition to bourbon. When the barrels arrive in Cuba they are washed and sun dried, and not recharred. The aguardiente is left in the barrels for various lengths of time and on reaching the end of its maturation it is rested in vats for 24 hours before being charcoal filtered and bottled.

The first of the rums we tasted was Havana Club Añejo Blanco, a 3 year old white rum. I’m not certain how this rum is quite so light after 3 years of maturation, I suspect a combination of tired casks and charcoal filtering as well as the 2 years of initial maturation in steel counting towards the total, but Havana Club use the whisky style ‘years in the barrel of the youngest spirit in the mix’ approach to labeling their rums’ ages (which seems to be a Cuban regulation). On the nose it had cut grass, grape spirit, a hint of pepper, sweet vanilla and maybe a touch of agave syrup. Its taste started with a burst of rich sweetness, leading to a vegetal middle and a lightly green woody finish with a hint of sourness. We were also served up the blanco in a cocktail with an accompanying canapé – A beetroot daiquiri with chicory, blue cheese and walnut. The daiquiri was earthy and sweet with a hint of citrus and when tasted after a nibble on the chicory/cheese/nut combo picked up more of a citrus bite.

Next up was Havana Club Especial, a golden blend of 5-7 year old rums and specially created as an accompaniment to Coke, all the better to mix a good Cuba Libre – rum and Coke with a fancy name. From what I can gather from in between the lines of marketing bullshit (especially from Bacardi) the Cuba Libre seems to have originated in Cuba around 1900, the year that Coke arrived in the country. I’ve been drinking rum and Coke for many years and only recently realised that like The Screwdriver it was a cocktail simply by virtue of having a name. That said, the important addition, in my opinion, to turn a rumandcoke into a Cuba Libre is lime – a good chunk squeezed into the drink and a nice wedge jammed in amongst the ice. It’s not much, but Coke, rum and lime is three ingredients so it’s sort of a cocktail. Anyways, back to the Especial – on the nose it was spicy and buttery and my notes simply read, “like cinnamon toast”. To taste it was sweet and tannic, with caramel, sweet grapes and a light new spirit taste. It didn’t have much of a finish, which is part of the intent as that might get tangled up with the Coke and lime in the glass. Rather than stick with a Cuba Libre, Meimi made a punch using the Especial, mixing in mango, orange and lime juices with some sugar and ginger beer. She matched it with some chorizo, goat’s cheese and membrillo (spanish quince jelly). The cocktail was spicy and sweet, with the ginger adding a nice zing, and brought out the goatiness of the cheese, which in turn turned the dial down on the ginger.

Moving on we had the first of the properly dark rums, Havana Club 7 Años, aged, as the named suggests, for a minimum of 7 years. On the nose it had sweet dark chocolate, coffee cherries, dried sweet cherries and fruity tobacco – a lot of dried fruit and planty flavours. To taste it was much lighter than the nose suggested, with butter, cream and a little bit of light spice. This was matched up with a Mulata cocktail. This drink appeared during the 1920-1950 era when Cuba was a cocktail mecca and traditionally consists of rum, lime and chocolate liqueur. One story of its invention is that Constantino Ribalaigua came up with it in 1924 at El Floridita in Havana, a bar frequented by Hemingway and the birthplace of the frozen margarita, and named it in reference to the skin colour of a girl he liked who came in to his bar to drink chocolate daiquiris. The version we tried used Mozart Dry Chocolate Spirit, a clear sugar free ‘liqueur’ made by redistilling neutral spirit that has had cocoa beans steeped in it. It’s high proof and unlike any chocolate liqueur I’ve tried, tasting much more like the cocoa nib gin I tasted at the Sipsmith distillery (made in the same fashion but with a base of gin rather than neutral spirit) and my own version of that (which wasn’t redistilled as I don’t have a still – just steep cocoa nibs in gin for a couple of days. Tasty). With the flavours of the drink all mixed together it tasted just like chocolate limes – lime candy filled with cocoa powder heavy chocolate. It was matched with a piece of high cocoa content chocolate, which rolled on more chocolatey goodness but also made the booze of the rum more noticeable.

Next we tried the Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros, the masters’ selection. This is a rebranding of the previously available Barrel Proof which was launched as a trial in 1989. It was very successful and as such 12 years later has finally been ‘properly’ released. This rum came out of a trip by the Maestros Roneros (the master rum blenders) to Scotland, where they toured a number of whisky distilleries. Intrigued by the concept of cask strength single cask whisky they decided to take the idea and do some rum based twiddling with it, eventually coming out with the Barrel Proof, a 10 year old rum ‘in the style’ of a cask strength whisky. They choose specific empty casks, fill them with undiluted aguardiente and then store them upright in clusters, in an attempt to minimise evaporation (the angels’ share – about 5-7% in Cuba). After 10 years they then prepare to taste the casks – this takes 2 weeks of preparation where they refrain from fatty foods, smoking (difficult for a bunch of cigar chomping roneros) and other things that might affect their taste buds. They then select the casks they want, based on colour, flavour and ABV, with the rest going into general blending stock, and then vat them ready to be bottled at barrel strength of 45% (after the traditional 24 hour rest and charcoal filtering). On the nose there was sour fruit, spice, salted caramel, liquorice and dark chocolate. In the mouth it was much oilier than the previous rums and had flavours of sweet and sour grapes, and chocolate limes.

The penultimate rum of the night was the Havana Club 15 year old. This one is a bit simpler in its making, being a blend of rums at least 15 years old, but it’s quite difficult to find as most of the rum at Havana Club is bottled before hitting 15, leaving only a small amount of stock to create the 15 from. As such it is made in batches depending on market demand and is put together to have more of a feel of a cognac. On the nose it had sweet pipe tobacco, dried cherry and sweet liquorice – similar to the 7 años. To taste it was oily, with light bubblegum, foam strawberry shrimps and runny toffee with lightly rubbery edges, leading to a long sour wood finish with icing sugar sweetness.

The last rum that we tried was something rather special -  Havana Club Maximo. A batched rum produced at the rate of 1 batch every 10 years, with only 1000 bottles per batch. The UK ration is small (10-40 bottles per year) and TWE seem to have grabbed most, if not all, of it. It’s made from a range of casks of varying ages as part of a grand plan. Each of the maestros will occasionally select exceptional casks and hide them in an underground cellar, marked for the Maximo, and once every 10 years a few of these are selected and vatted to produce the rum. There’s no age statement on it to describe how old the youngest rums are, but Meimi reckoned the oldest could well hit over 100 years. On the nose it had white chocolate mice, soaked dried fruit, sweet grape and Pedro Ximinez richness. To taste it was very Cognac-like, with an oily mouth feel, dried fruit, milk chocolate and cigar box cedar all leading to a long lightly tannic finish with sugary fruit syrup. An impressive rum to finish the night.

An excellent introduction to rum followed by some interesting drams (or whatever the Cuban equivalent is). I’ve got a bunch more rum stuff on the horizon at work and this was a nice way of starting the ball rolling. All I need to do now is wait for my rum history books to arrive…

Havana Club Añejo Blanco
Cuban rum, 40%. ~£20

Havana Club Añejo Especial
Cuban rum, 40%. ~£18

Havana Club 7 year old rum
Cuban rum, 40%. ~£20

Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros
Cuban rum, 45%. ~£40

Havana Club 15 year old
Cuban rum, 40%. ~£130

Havana Club Maximo
Cuban rum, 40%. ~£1200

As I work for The Whisky Exchange and was meant to be trying to take some photos I didn’t have to pay for my ticket. I also don’t have any pictures above as all the decent ones went to our work blog post, which is over here.

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