Havana Club vs Havana Club

Havana Club Rum Bottles
Photo by Meg Baggott

You would think that Havana Club Rum would be made in Havana, Cuba. But mainland U.S. consumers may come across a new rum on the shelves: Havana Club Puerto Rican Rum. That’s right: Puerto Rico, not Cuba. The bottling with an austere navy-blue label is made and distributed by Bacardi, which produces the rum in Puerto Rico. And it’s causing a stir in the spirits industry right now.

Here’s why: Rum-lovers have been following the loosening of trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba and anxiously awaiting the return of Cuba’s Havana Club to the States.

Progress has been steady, but slow. If you’ve spotted a bottle with a cheery red circle on the label at your favorite bar, odds are that the bartender personally carried it back from Cuba.

Havana Club Pouring
Photo by Meg Baggott

So, what’s the big deal? The iconic Havana Club name is at the swirling center of a major trademark dispute. In brief, Pernod Ricard, which currently produces the Havana Club made in Cuba, is battling with Bacardi over rights to the brand name.

It’s a complicated situation. Many decades ago, Bacardi was the producer of Havana Club in Cuba, buying the brand from the Arechabala family, who founded Havana Club in 1934. Both rum-making families fled Cuba in the 1960s after the government nationalized the island’s distilleries; the Arechabala family let its trademark lapse in 1973.

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The Havana Club clash is one of the most heated trademark disputes in recent history. It’s been going on for two decades now—and it’s become even more heated now that trade restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba are lifting.

U.S. rum sales generated $2.3 billion in revenue for distillers last year, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. And whichever entity owns the iconic brand name stands to gain a significant chunk of that rum revenue.

But it goes deeper than just commercial concerns. On one hand, Bacardi family members are eager to take back their distillery legacy from Cuba’s government. On the other, vocal rum-lovers and nationalists insist that Havana Club should be made in Cuba—not Puerto Rico.

Havana Club Wooden Sign
Photo by Meg Baggott

Pernod claims that a 1993 deal with the Cuban government gives it the right to sell the Cuban-made rum under the Havana Club name worldwide—including the U.S. Of course, Havana Club produced in Cuba has been blocked from sale in the U.S. since the start of the trade embargo in 1962.

We’ll let the liquor companies duke it out in court. In the meantime, we have one burning question: How is the rum?

In April, Wine Enthusiast visited Havana on a rum-seeking expedition—look for an in-depth feature in our November issue. It will come as no surprise that we tasted a lot of Cuban rum, most of it made by Havana Club.

The Cuban-made Havana Club Añejo Especial (Pernod Ricard, approximately $25) is what you’ll find in Cuba Libres and other mixed drinks that call for something other than a blanco rum. It’s fine, a mid-range rum with plenty of robust caramel and oak, and just a touch of underlying richness.

I found the Selección de Maestros much better (also made in Cuba, approximately $40), which has strong notes of chocolate, caramel and sweet tobacco. It’s a bottle to snap up if you see it in the Duty Free shop.

By comparison, the Puerto Rican-made Havana Club Añejo Clásico (Bacardi, $22) is made from a blend of rums aged from one to three years. The vanilla and oak scent is roughly comparable to the Cuban namesake. However, it feels lighter than most Cuban rums and is fairly oaky, without the sweetness and richness that usually makes rum such a joy. It’s fine for mixing.

If you really want to see what Bacardi can do, seek out a bottle from the Cuba-inspired Facundo line, like the brown sugar-tinged Eximo ($60). It has me wondering if this is a closer facsimile to the pre-Castro Cuban rum under Bacardi’s reign.

Frankly, I had been hoping for a more spectacular bottling to emerge from the trademark turf wars. In the meantime, my recommendation is Caña Brava Reserva Añeja (Panama; The 86 Co., $45). Aged seven years, it’s a maple-and-spice sipper made by a Cuban-born master distiller, Francisco “Don Pancho” J Fernandez, in the traditional Cuban method. Or, budget and travel visas permitting, go visit Cuba. You’ll find an array of astonishing, mouthwatering rums, including many that don’t bear the Havana Club label at all.

Published on July 19, 2016
Topics: Rum