The Latin quartet pumped a sultry groove. Rum-based cocktails were sipped, slurped or chugged depending on the constitution of the imbiber (and the outcome desired). Food — plate after plate of Cuban-inspired epicurean delights, all served “family style” — hit the tables, wave after wave, in a deluge of visual and aromatic glory. Pickerel (to add a native twist) ceviche, tostones with vaca frita, garbanzos, chorizo and herbed crema, fall-apart slow-cooked oxtail in a rich red wine reduction, citrus-laced roast pork, classic traditional moros, roasted whole snapper, fufú de plátano. The air pulsated. Diners ate, drank, laughed, swung, swayed and toasted. Just another celebration of the fine, simple things life has to offer on a warm night in Old Havana.
Except we weren’t in Old Havana, and outside it wasn’t exactly balmy. We’re talking late October, in the rather buttoned-down Hogtown. Which explains why there was nary a Cuban stick sparked up. Famous for its legendary cigars, and rum (both of which we’ll get to), Cuba’s cuisine is also starting to appear on the gastronomic radar screen.
The funky Cold Tea bar, located in — more or less — an alleyway in the equally funky Kensington Market district of Toronto, had been converted into a two-night pop-up aimed at serving a Cuban-inspired, multi-course feast. While “Cuban cuisine” may not be quite as delineated as Cajun or Mexican cuisine (or any other cuisine we might attempt to delineate given the infinite regional variances one encounters), it tends to be a sort of amalgam of Spanish, African, Caribbean and Native American fare (though, interestingly, Italian food is hugely popular in Cuba).
Chef Eileen Andrade, of Miami’s Finka Table & Tap, was flown up to combine her Cuban culinary knowledge with the skills of local chef Matty Matheson of Toronto’s Parts & Labour. As noted in the opening paragraph, the merger turned out rather well.
The whole shindig was dubbed the Bacardí Paladar. In Cuba, paladars denote home-based restaurants that offer a diversion from the more ubiquitous state-run operations. Bacardí, distiller of the eponymous — and world-famous — line of rums, adopted the paladar concept to introduce a new expression, the Gran Reserva Maestro de Ron, and relaunch an older brand, the Gran Reserva Ocho Años, to the media and public. Andrade and Matheson served up the eats, while Bacardí provided the rum that served as the base for the cocktails accompanying each course.
Though no longer producing or selling its rum in Cuba (the family’s assets were seized without compensation during the Cuban Revolution), Bacardi’s roots are unquestionably Cuban, and the rum it makes today is very much Cuban in spirit, if not technically a Cuban spirit. In fact, the proprietary yeast developed early on in Cuba by company founder Facundo Bacardí Massó is the same strain used today and represents the heart of the fermentation stage of production.
Originally a Spanish wine merchant, Massó immigrated to Cuba and began producing rum in 1862 with the aim of elevating a then rather pedestrian firewater into something more palatable and refined. To say he succeeded would be a rather monumental understatement. Today, Bacardí Limited is a global spirits giant, with over 200 brands in its portfolio and close to 30 production facilities around the world.
So if rum is the spirit of Cuba and Bacardí is distilling Cuban rum in spirit, who is actually producing Cuban rum in Cuba?
There are quite a few brands. However, production levels are such that they aren’t typically seen outside of the country. The one rum brand we do see frequently is Cuba’s largest: Havana Club.
“Havana Club is the biggest brand of Cuban rum, which is why it’s able to be exported worldwide, and it is the third largest selling rum in the world, even without the US market,” confirms Donnie Wheeler, Brand Ambassador for Havana Club.
Wheeler points out that Havana Club is authentically Cuban. “It’s made by Cubans, in Cuba; it’s aged in Cuba, and bottled and drunk there.” He notes that the unique climate, the local sugarcane, proximity to the sea and distillation method all combine to give Cuban rum its unique character. Unlike numerous other styles that are often blends of fairly assertive pot still rum with more delicate ones taken from column stills, Cuban rums are strictly the products of column stills. Generally speaking, this gives the rums a gentle, elegant profile with a decidedly dry edge. Like the majority, Havana Club uses molasses rather than cane juice as its base.
Where things get particularly interesting in the production process is with the aging of Havana Club rum. Barrels used to age island rum are typically of the ex-bourbon type, in other words, American. In other words, not available to Cuban distillers. Yet Havana Club uses American barrels. More or less.
“The Havana Club brand is a 50/50 partnership between the Cuban government and Pernod-Ricard [the French distilling giant],” Wheeler reveals. “Pernod-Ricard is also partnered with Irish Distillers, the makers of, among others, Jameson whiskey. So a lot of our barrels are ex-Jameson barrels, which were originally ex-bourbon barrels. So before they retire in Cuba, the barrels have held both American whiskey and Irish whiskey. You’ll see barrels in our cellar marked Jim Beam or Jack Daniels. That’s where they began their journey.”
While on the subject, rum, as a category, is still pretty “wild west” when it comes to aging regimes (as well as ingredients and production techniques). There are no real hard and fast rules (though this may be changing), so distilleries set their own standards. When it comes to age statements, Wheeler says Havana Club follows the United Kingdom liquor laws, meaning the age on the bottle represents the youngest spirit in the blend.
“Rum is due for a resurgence,” Wheeler concludes, and Havana Club has been waiting patiently for the embargo on exports to lift so it can tap into the market that consumes 60 per cent of the world’s rum.
Canada, of course, has never taken issue with Cuba or Cuban products. Like rum. And cigars.