Cuba blockade no barrier to rum style

The island nation of Cuba remains an enigma to most Americans.

Blocked off from the one-time Caribbean playground by a U.S. political and economic embargo that is nearly a half-century old, we're more familiar with its athletes, its cigars and rum, and the iconic face of Fidel Castro than any other aspects of Cuban culture.

St. Martin, Antigua and Puerto Rico have better resort facilities. Honduras produces cigars many aficionados say are just as good. And rum comes from so many places you may not think of Cuba first anymore.

But that has not stopped producers of Cuban-"style" rum from building their latest consumer marketing plans around the legendary old mystique.

Grand Havana and Marti in particular are taking on the likes of such established brands as Bacardi and Captain Morgan (Puerto Rico), Angostura (Trinidad), Myers's (Jamaica), Gosling's (Bermuda), Demerara (Guyana), Pyrat (Anguilla), Cruzan (Virgin Islands), Malibu and Mt. Gay (Barbados), Montecristo (Guatemala) and numerous others.

Since rum is made from molasses, a derivative of sugar cane juice, it usually is produced in sugar-growing countries. However, respectable brands also come from such non-Latin American countries as Bermuda (Pusser's, Gosling's), Australia (Inner Circle, Bundaberg), Canada (Lamb's), France (Rhum Chauvet) and Nigeria (Rhum Nigeria).

Grand Havana has a strong, legitimate Cuban link. Although it is being made on the Caribbean isle of Grenada by Cuban-Americans from Miami, they are descendants of Don Tirso Arregui, a Cuban businessman whose rum distillery operated on the outskirts of Havana in the late 1800s.

The Arregui family, who fled to the U.S. after Castro came to power, set out to create small-batch offerings under the Grand Havana name. At their distillery, which boasts old-fashioned copper kettles, they double-distill the rum, then age it in sherry casks bought in Spain. Each bottle is numbered. In a private tasting of the super premium reserva excellencia ($30), we found it pleasantly oaky, as smooth as a fine Scotch or bourbon, with a gentle, ephemeral finish.

Marti, despite being named for the 19th-century Cuban rebel leader and poet Jose Marti, actually was developed by the New York company Chatham Imports, working with rum makers in the Dominican Republic to craft a basic rum recipe. Their products are bottled by the Marti Autentico Rum Co. of Lewiston, Maine.

Most of the rum companies make a variety of flavored spirits to satisfy the ever-expanding consumer demand for sweet drinks and cream drinks. The aforementioned Cruzan is a good example of the genre, offering banana, coconut, pineapple, orange and citrus rums ($14-$17). In addition, its rum cream ($15) is a thicker drink I find offers the consistency of eggnog and a pleasant layering of rum, cream liqueur and subtle flavorings.

By contrast, Marti also offers a variety of flavors, including a coco suave ($14) -- its premium rum infused with a pleasing jolt of natural coconut flavor. But it is capitalizing more on the mojito drink craze with its Marti Mojito ($14), a lime- and mint-infused premium rum.

The mojito cocktail, popular in the warmer months, is one of those many workingman's drinks that have gone up the social ladder in the Americas. It was a popular drink among Cuban farmers and sugar cane workers in the late 19th century and was nearly as popular as beer. These days, it is pushing out cosmopolitans and the like in American bars.

Purists who like making things from scratch might not warm up to the Marti mojito, with its mint and lime flavors already infused, but I found it a satisfying way to make a quick Cuba Libre (3-to-1 Marti mojito and Coca-Cola) or an easy mojito cocktail (Marti over ice, or mixed with club soda for a spritzer), especially appealing when entertaining a crowd.

Brand line extensions are popping up all over to meet the demand for something beyond basic spirits, no matter how good the basics may be. Malibu has added a passion fruit alcohol. Absolut has added peach-flavored vodka. Jose Cuervo is launching a ready-to-drink margarita. Bacardi has introduced a new drink called Island Breeze, and signed up "Sex and The City" actress Kim Cattrall as its celebrity spokesbeing. It's a calculated switch from the cosmopolitans she helped push into the national consciousness by regularly drinking them on the HBO series.

Lest you think these all are pop-spirits makers, even the iconic Moet Hennessey wines and spirits group is getting in on the act by introducing 10 Cane, its premium rum brand, to the U.S. market.

(All prices are suggested retail prices for 750 milliliter bottles.)

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