Havana Club Rum
Cuban angel nectar
There is no way around the rum culture in Cuba. Sugar cane, the base of rum, covers more than 50% of the agricultural land and rum is served in every bar, diner and restaurant. Rum in Cuba means Havana Club, the Cuban rum brand that turned composing rum into a fine art.
The light in the storage space is mostly absorbed by the thousands of piled up dark oak barrels filled with aguardiente and rum. A somewhat sweet scent floats in the air, almost like a visible and tangible haze. Could that be the angels’ share, like the vaporised alcohol from the barrels is called? Should that be the case, thousands of tipsy angels must be flying around my head. And they probably crash against the barrels where devils are enjoying the devil’s cut, as they call the alcohol that is absorbed by the wood of the barrels. In any case, it’s like tasting a piece of heaven when Havana Club’s Master of Cuban Rum Asbel Morales has me taste an ancient rum, which he pours graciously into a glass with a special cup at the end of a long stick. I understand now why all those angels and devils from heaven and hell emigrate to come to live here. It is not at all a bad place to be for the taste buds.
A somewhat sweet scent floats in the air, almost like a visible and tangible haze. Could that be the angels’ share?
We are in the San Jose de Las Lajas distillery, where Havana Club is composed. For many rum lovers, this is the Holy of Holies. Based on the sales figures, about fifty million bottles of rum every year, you can conclude that the prestigious Cuban rum brand has many fans worldwide. In Cuba itself, there is no escaping Havana Club. Not only in the cities, where every bar and restaurant offers the booze in all her stages of ageing, but even driving through the countryside with the waving sugar cane where it all begins.
Sometimes, the good is born from a challenge. Because a challenge it was for the sugar plantations in the 17th century. What in god’s name was the use of the molasses, the residual product that remains after you made sugar out of sugar cane? Here is a little bit of Dutch Pride: it’s almost certain that in 1637, Dutchman Pieter Blower made rum out of molasses for the first time. Probably out of Dutch austerity, because molasses were considered marginal before. He called the booze Keelduivel (Throath Devil), the English corruption Kill Devil is still a nickname for rum. About the origins of the word rum, opinions still differ, but it is possible that it came from the Dutch roemer (rummer), a type of glass out of which the Dutch seamen drank rum. Fact is, the booze was a direct success.
In 1637, Dutchman Pieter Blower made rum out of molasses for the first time
In Cuba the word rum was first used in 1643, where the sugarcane sprung out of the ground thanks to the extremely fertile soil and the tropical weather conditions. They had molasses in abundance. Since that time the Cubans have perfected it bit by bit. With angelic patience, because that’s what this angel nectar needs in order to reach full flavor richness.
Master of Cuban Rum (or Maestro Asbel) Asbel has that necessary saint’s patience. It is obvious from the way he moves, or maybe strides is a better word. A slow, conscious tread which showcases a certain perfectionism. And perfectionism is indispensable, as is patience and a brilliant sense of taste and scent. “The molasses, or as it is sometimes called miel de caña (honey of the sugar), is mixed with our own pure mineral water which we extract from rock layers about fifty meters below the distillery,” says Asbel. “In addition, we add specially selected yeast and let it ferment for twenty-four hours. This sugar wine is then distilled, which makes for aguardiente, which means burning water. And that is where the process begins. The aguardiente is aged for at least two years on the oak barrels you see here. Then we filter it through charcoal, making a basic rum. This basic rum is then aged even further. To get the perfect Havana Club with a consistent taste, we blend different rums of different ages.
This makes it possible for a three-year-old Havana Club to contain rum a few decades old.
Havana Club works with a so-called continuous ageing process. That means that we do not use all the rum of a certain age but have part of it mature further. This makes it possible for a three-year-old Havana Club to contain rum a few decades old. “The secret of the taste of our rum is in the quality of the molasses because Cuban sugar cane is of such great quality thanks to the tropical temperatures and the fertile soil, our yeast, our distillery and ageing process and the blend we compose”. As Master of Cuban Rum, you often work with rums that were initiated by a previous generation of Maestros. That is what makes Havana Club so special.
And in Cuba, a lot of classic cocktails were created with that special spirit. Cuba Libre, Mojito, Daiquiri and Ron Collins, to name a few. All with the nectar of gods, Havana Club, as its base. Ernest Hemingway made famous his two favourite cocktails, the Mojito and the Daiquiri, together with the two bars he liked to visit when he lived in Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana in the thirties, writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. That hotel is situated exactly in between El Floridita; the bar Hemingway praised for its daiquiris, and La Bodeguita del Medio, where Hemingway liked to relish mojitos. Or, to let the master of words Hemingway speak: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.”
“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.”
In both bars, these drinks sell like hot cakes. And with every new bottle of Havana Club that is opened, the barkeeper pours a small amount on the floor. A practice originating in Santeria, a fusion of African rituals and worshipping with the Catholic faith. The souls of the deceased are now angels. And the angels are thirsty too. And since about every Cuban performs this ritual when opening a bottle, it is safe to say the Cuban soil is soaked with Havana Club. Maybe that is wat makes the sugar cane so unique.
Asbel and I walk amid the oak barrels, deep dark and drenched with spirits. Every barrel has a code only Asbel, and his Maestro colleagues can decipher. But on one of them, I can decipher the name of Asbel. “Is this your personal barrel?” I ask the rum artist. I struck the right cord. Asbel’s eyes light up glinting happily. “The oldest rum in that barrel is more than 125 years old,” he smiles. And without saying a word, he grabs his stick with the cup and gracefully pours a small amount in my rummer. He hands me the glass and I take a teeny tiny sip. Oh, my lord. I close my eyes to take in the moment. When I open my eyes slightly, thousands of angels appear to be watching from atop the barrels, and I realize: Havana Club is the soul of Cuba.