Hunt for Havana Club yields Cuban-style rums worth the effort
"You've never tried Havana Club?"
My friends were incredulous. Killing time on a stopover in Paris, we headed to famed expat hangout Harry's New York Bar for an eye-opener. Over the years I'd sampled hundreds of rums, but apparently, my education was incomplete without a couple of ounces of this iconic Cuban brand, dating back 80 years.
A glass was pushed my way, down the polished plank of the bar. Redolent of vanilla, brown sugar and pecan pie, I was hooked from the first delicious sip, and a new obsession was born.
But as I soon found out, it's exceedingly difficult for Americans to get: The 50-year trade embargo between the U.S. and Cuba meant that it was illegal to import Cuban-made goods here, including rum. This could all be changing in the new future.
It had been difficult, but not impossible. While you'll rarely see a bottle of Havana Club on display, quite a few U.S. bartenders keep a bottle under the bar -- bottles they've procured on trips overseas, in duty-free airport shops, or purchased in Cuba and smuggled home.
Even if you happen to miraculously possess a bottle of Cuban rum, you still can't legally sell it. It's considered an "illicit alcoholic beverage," Ryan Malkin, principal attorney at Malkin Law, P.A., explained over email. However, some barkeeps are happy to gift a few precious sips, if you spend well and ask nicely.
The joy of an illicit off-menu pour presents a moral gray area, this I admit. But when it comes to matters of love and rum, sometimes boundaries blur.
After that Paris trip, I made it my mission for a while, knowing that Havana Club was secreted away in bars across New York City. It began to feel like a boozy scavenger hunt.
I started at The Eddy in Manhattan's East Village: "Do you have any Havana Club rum?" I asked. The bartender, Kelvin Uffre, thought about it for a moment: "No, we used to but we ran out. Why don't you try Bathtub Gin? I heard Owen brought back a bottle."
Giddy, I raced cross-town, only to find neither Owen nor Havana Club in house. "Havana Club?" the clearly green bartender parroted back, puzzled. He consulted his iPhone, and sent me to The Rum House, in Times Square, where they seemed to have every other rum in existence, but no Havana Club.
As I consoled myself with one of the best Hemingway Daiquiris in the city, I got a hint to check Cienfuegos; one of their bartenders was in Cuba, and would be back next week, possibly with a bottle in tow.
Rum yesterday, rum tomorrow, but never any rum today.
What was it about Havana Club that I couldn't seem to shake?
I finally contacted Francisco "Don Pancho" Fernandez about what exactly goes into making the product. He was one of the famed Maestros Roneros ("rum masters") who used to work with Havana Club in Cuba and continues to make rum today.
"You see this gray hair?" he said, motioning to a thick shock as we talked via Skype from his office in Panama, where he moved in the 1990s. "I spent more than 50 years working on rum."
He gave me a Cuban rum primer, detailing a heritage that stretches farther back than Havana Club. In the 1800s rum distilleries mushroomed to satisfy Spanish royalty's newfound thirst for the molasses-rich spirit; by 1860 the Caribbean island housed more than 1,000 distilleries.
According to Don Pancho, these are the distinctions for Cuban rum:
• The base ingredient is molasses (true for most rums; only rhum agricole uses fresh sugar cane juice instead).
• It's made in a continuous (column) still -- not a pot still, which yields a more robust spirit. Irishman Aeneas Coffey pioneered the continuous still in the 1830s, and Spanish immigrant Facundo Bacardi Masso (of Bacardi rum fame) is credited for adapting it in the 1860s to a multicolumn model suitable for refining rum into a lighter, smoother spirit.
• After distillation, Cuban rum must spend a minimum of 2 years in casks. By comparison, some other rums are aged as little as 6 months.
• Those casks holding the rum should be American oak casks previously used to age bourbon. (Rum producers in other countries may age their spirit in French oak casks that previously held brandy, or new oak barrels. "Whatever they get they will use," Don Pancho scoffed.)
At this point, you have Carta Blanca or white card, aka white rum, which will be at least 2 years old. It's the starting point for all good Cuban rum, he notes. From there, gold or dark rum will be at least 5 years old; anejo (Spanish for "old") will be at least 7 years old. Most rums contain a blend of ages, but that will be the youngest in the blend.
Havana Club has become something of a holy grail for American rum-drinkers, if only because it's so hard to acquire. But Don Pancho and others have been creating new rums that nod to Cuban origins or reveal Cuban influence in one way or another.
Not only are they a lot easier for U.S. consumers to obtain, some of them are even better than Havana Club. At the top of my list are two bottlings from Don Pancho's newly launched Origenes line. The 30-year-old Reserva is a toffee-like stunner with a superlong finish.
"This is what I used to drink in Cuba, what I drink in my household," Don Pancho told me. After a lifetime of making rums to others' specifications, this line is all his own -- especially that limited-quantity 30-year-old bottling. "I don't care if it sells. I'm still happy."
Don Pancho's 18-year-old Reserva is also pretty good, a bit lighter and less rich than the 30-year-old, but it's one well-worth sipping slowly on a blustery evening.
Meanwhile, rum giant Bacardi released its Facundo line earlier this year, four special edition rums honoring founder Facundo Bacardi and the company's 150 years of rum-making, which started in Cuba. According to the label, the spirit is made in The Bahamas, but the gorgeous bottles pay homage to Havana, featuring images of the original Bacardi distillery and the famed Art Deco-style El Edificio Bacardi in Havana.
Of course, it's what's inside the bottle that really matters.
Packaged in a less flashy bottle, the Facundo Eximo Rum was the one that got my attention. It's a made with a blend of rums aged 10 years -- a very different strategy from how rum typically is made. Usually, rums are aged and then blended; these are rums that were blended first, and then aged for 10 years.
"We let nature do its job," Manny Oliver, Bacardi's head blender explained to me -- a risky proposition because you can't predict what the end result will be. In this case, it's all about big, sweet notes of brown sugar and hazelnut and a notably silky, luxe feel.
Discovering exquisite Cuban-style rums didn't slow down my hunt for Havana Club. By now, it had become something of a sport, if not an outright compulsion.
And after a great many wrong turns, I finally found Havana Club at The NoMad Bar, a place I'd been to many times before. There it was, on the rare and vintage Reserve Menu: the Jungle Bird, made with Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros, a 1960s bottling of Campari, Cruzan blackstrap, pineapple and lime. The cocktail sells for $62; a pour of Havana Club alone isn't listed on the menu, but a 1-ounce pour was priced out for me at $45 -- more than an entire bottle of many other rums. "We brought it in from Europe, and we don't have a lot of it," the bartender explained.
At the bar, I cradled contraband between my palms. It was rounded and boozy, intense with toffee and oak. A sip or two in, and a surprising black cherry note emerged, too.
And yet, that Havana Club didn't yield the same satisfaction I'd hoped it would. Elusive and illicit -- what greater thrill could I expect to find in my glass? Only one way to explain it: In matters of love and rum, sometimes the thrill of the chase trumps all.