Another Cuban revolution in the making

The island nation of Cuba remains an enigma to most Americans, but the current precarious health of dictator Fidel Castro has thrust it back into the news once more.

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 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. Earlier this year, for example, I helped judge a cane spirits international competition in Tampa, FL, that drew rums and similar
sugar-based drinks from more than 60 different producers from around the globe.

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

The latest example is from Bacardi USA which is re-launching the Havana Club brand rum in the United States. It had been making rum under the Havana Club name but pulled it off the market because of legal issues. What it wants to do now is block Cuba from eventually selling the rum to the U.S. market.

The rights to the brand name have always been precious to opposing economic forces. In 1993, Cuba signed an agreement with the French beverage giant Pernod Ricard SA to sell Havana Club rum in 80 countries. Because of the trade embargo, the U.S. was not among the 80.

The Cuban government had acquired the trademark in 1974 when, it said, the original owner let it lapse. However, the Arechabala family said Castro forces that overthrew the government in 1959 had confiscated the distillery and products in 1960 and forced them to flee the island. On the other side of the debate, Bacardi said it purchased rights in the 1990s to the name and recipe from the Arechabalas, who created them in 1935.

U.S. courts recently ruled that the Cuban-French joint venture had no rights to the trademark in the U.S. So, on Aug. 3 this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark office finished the 10-year legal tussle by declaring Cuba’s Havana Club trademark registration is “cancelled/expired.”

Bacardi’s re-launch of the legendary Havana Club brand will mean stiff competition for such comparative high-end newcomers as Grand Havana and Marti that were moving into a vacuum in readily available premium rums in the U.S..

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 also fled to the U.S. after Castro came to power, began last year 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.

Marti, 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.

The resuscitated version of Havana Club is being viewed with great anticipation by rum aficionados. Bacardi has been making it for several years in anticipation of winning the trademark suit. It now is available in Florida in limited quantities, but a nationwide rollout is planned.

“It's based on the secret recipe that we gave to Bacardi so they could make it the same way we used to make it in Cuba,” said Ramon Arechabala, one of the original owners.

The blenders begin with traditional black-strap molasses made from concentrated, caramelized sugar cane, go through a fermentation process three times slower than classical fermentation, distill the liquid five times and age it up to three years in American white oak barrels.

It is presumed Cuba and Pernod Ricard will continue distributing some form of the Havana Club it has been selling. But that doesn't seem to worry the Arechabala family.

In a Miami Herald interview, Arechabala said, "Fidel lacks the formula of the right Havana Club. That's the only thing he couldn't take from me."

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