Taste Test had not called on FT Weekend’s private jet since a coffee tasting in Arezzo last spring. The Pope’s recent trip to the Caribbean reminded us there’s more to sample than communion wine in those parts. So it was off to Havana, Cuba, for a rum tasting. Cuban rum is intriguingly distinguished from the rest by being distilled from molasses rather than fermented sugar cane juice. And in the capital, we would be able to explore the local spirit at the same time as the “paladar” restaurants, businesses in private houses now tolerated by the communist regime.
First, we booked ourselves into La Guarida, a Havana restaurant concealed on the top floor of a magnificent, apparently derelict, 19th-century mansion. It has been open for 16 years and has just about survived any number of punitive taxes, and even a ban on lobster and steak, as the regime attempted to stifle private enterprise. We were there to taste dark rums but, by way of induction, the proprietor, Enrique, prepared a mojito for us. This innocent mixture of soda, syrup, mint, ice and white rum is more powerful than it looks. Within three minutes it invaded my nervous system like a general anaesthetic. As I attempted to steady myself, I discovered Cuban eateries are not the only ones beset by petty regulations. An American at the next table explained that because of a bizarre Republican-inspired law, US citizens are only allowed to travel to Cuba with “educational or cultural groups”. He was a Californian Jew who had signed up for two weeks of Catholic devotion with a coach party of Papists just to get here. A surreal opening to our rum odyssey.
“At the Havana Club … all rum-drinks were free,” Our Man in Havana tells us. It seems someone is still reading Graham Greene. Hubert, owner of La Esperanza, the next paladar on our list in the Miramar suburb, sent word: “Go to your hotel reception and look for the fat man.” We found the fat man who ushered us discreetly to a 1952 Chevrolet and drove us along the Malecón seafront to an exquisite 1939 art deco house. After an excellent dinner, Hubert was true to Greene’s dictum and brought a complimentary seven-year-old Havana Club dark rum. This is the dominant brand in Cuba, once state-owned and now the subject of a joint venture with Pernod-Ricard. It’s a complex spirit of which we learnt more when we visited the Havana Club museum the next day.
At El Museo del Ron Havana Club we were told how the rum is derived from fermented molasses, distilled at least four times and matured in American oak barrels previously used for bourbon. We retasted the seven-year-old and spotted the vanilla on the nose from the oak. This blend of different rums has a pleasant caramel tone along with a hint of apricot. We then tried the 10-year-old Selección de Maestros, which is more of a “single malt”, unblended. This has a sharper nose but is sweeter and more aromatic, owing even more to the bourbon barrels it matures in.
At our next paladar, La Moralejo, I challenged the owner, Regino, to bring us his favourite aged rums. He is a former bartender and knows his stuff: we tried Arecha, a 15-year-old with a more ancient taste, but a surprisingly aggressive spirit, and Santiago de Cuba, a 20-year-old with a thinner, mineral nose and taste. But a 25-year-old from Santiago de Cuba was more benign and had a smokier flavour.
In the southern city of Trinidad, we had our last rum before flying home. At his corner bar we met Hectore, who is half-Italian and half-Cuban. He had just fled his restaurant in Rome saying Italy is finished. Cuba is the future, he assured us, as he poured out the seven-year-olds. He was confident that an intoxicating blend of rum and tourism will continue to deliver economic growth. His enthusiasm was infectious, so I didn’t add the obvious: yes, as long as the Republicans lose the presidential election and the thaw continues between Miami and Havana.
Back in the UK, I tasted three aged rums available here: Ron Zacapa from Guatemala, Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados and Havana Club Selección de Maestros. Ron Zacapa is a blend of rums of between six and 23 years old, matured in both American whiskey barrels and Spanish sherry casks. It’s mellow with a complexity from its different barrel flavours. Mount Gay Extra Old is aged in Kentucky oak and thus has the most obviously buttery/vanilla taste. And the Havana Club Selección de Maestros, true to its molasses origins, has the most caramel taste and a more subtle hint of vanilla than the Mount Gay.
Take your pick. But the best way I’ve found to drink this noble spirit is neat, save for a single cube of ice that helps release the aromas as it melts. If you favour another approach, get in touch.
Havana Club Seleccion de Maestros
Ron Zacapa from Guatemala
Mount Gay Extra Old from Barbados