November 10th, 2016/ BY Tod Stewart

Slow down & rediscover the goodies of Cuba

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.



If France has historically been synonymous (rightly or wrongly) with the world’s finest wine, Cuba has always been regarded (mostly rightly) as the producer of the finest cigars to be found anywhere. Julian Zadorozny is a certified Curso Master, the highest certification granted by the Habanos Academy — essentially the cigar equivalent of a Master of Wine. He was trained in Cuba in all aspects of the cigar trade, and today works as an assistant manager at the Toronto branch of La Casa del Habano in Toronto’s swish Yorkville district. His response, when asked what makes Cuban stogies so unique and complex, even has certain “vinous” overtones.

“The terroir. Iron rich soil and [Cuba’s] consistent hot climate make the region, specifically Pinar del Río province, the best in the world,” he explains. “Specified regions, zones and districts of Cuba have a small amount of first-class fields or plantations that grow the best Cuban Black Tobacco. These regions are under the country’s Protected Denomination of Origin, which means only the best tobacco comes out of here. So, the four factors are: the soil, the climate, the varieties of Cuban black tobacco seed and the experience of the tobacco growers and cigar rollers.”

To take the wine analogy a step further, Zadorozny’s description of Cuban tobacco runs fairly close to a typical description of varietal attributes, and regional regulations governing planting.

“Cuban Black Tobacco is the seed base of many varieties of cigar tobacco in Cuba,” he notes. “In 1907 there was a development of a tobacco called Habanensis. Then, after extensive investigating, a research station was developed in San Juan y Martínez, a municipality and town, in 1937, where different varieties of tobacco were explored. The Tobacco Research Institute has four experimental stations that control the seed that farmers can grow.”

In fact, one of the things that make Cuban cigars unique is that all the tobacco used is of Cuban origin, meaning all Cuban cigars are classified as puro (pure). While a few other cigar-producing countries manufacture puros, most other cigars utilize a blend of tobaccos from a variety of outside sources, particularly for the wrapper tobacco (which, along with the binder and filler make up the three distinct types of tobacco that go into a cigar).

The sweet/spicy smoke from our H. Upmann Half Coronas perfumes the air as Trae Zammit and I discuss the state of Cuban cigars today. As owner of Toronto’s The Smokin’ Cigar, he has, by his own calculation, visited Cuba some 30 times since his first tour in 1997. If Cuban examples represent the top end of the cigar spectrum, where should those interested in exploring the category start?

Zammit says that if you want to really understand what Cuban cigars are all about, you have to do yourself a favour and try a “benchmark.” “The Montecristo No. 4, I would say, is a kind of standardized Cuban, and things go up and down from that point in terms of strength and flavour,” Zammit explains. “From there you can explore different shapes and different brands. Romeo y Julieta tend to be a bit milder. Partagas are a bit stronger. And maybe something in between is a Ramón Allones, which is a great cigar. I try and encourage people to pick up two — or, better, three — different brands so they can see the difference.”

Of course, as with wine, tasting “benchmark Cuban cigars” isn’t exactly an inexpensive prospect. The Montecristo No. 4, Zammit suggests, will set you back about $25. And it’s by no means a huge cigar, measuring just over 14 centimetres. This, however, is a relative bargain when you consider some top-end Cubans can get into the several-hundred-dollar per stick range … or more.

“Look, cigars aren’t cheap … they’re not supposed to be,” Zammit admits. “Cigars are a luxury product, and they’re priced accordingly. I’m not saying price doesn’t matter, but try not to let price be your only guide.”

Of course, in Canada and some other markets, tax is a major contributor to the final cost of a cigar. Cuban manufacturers know this, and, as Zammit notes, they’ve been adapting to this reality by producing cigars in smaller, less conventional sizes. “There are also time constraints to keep in mind,” he says, alluding to the fact that, these days, some of us simply don’t have the time to smoke our way through a Churchill-sized stick. Why not just smoke part of the cigar then finish it later? Zammit doesn’t advise this. Like wine, once a bottle is opened is should be consumed; and once a cigar is lit, it should be smoked.

In any case, a cigar is about relaxation. Slowing down, savouring, and enjoying one with another who is equally attuned to its pleasure. After a fine Cuban-inspired meal, and with a snifter of aged rum in hand, a Cuban cigar is still one of the most civilized ways to bring some warmth into the cold, dark depths of a Canadian winter.



Havana Club Añejo 3 Años ($27)

Pretty complex, with some banana, vanilla, nougat, flower blossom, traces of fresh herbs and just a bare hint of oak mingling together on the nose. Quite full, it shows hints of tropical fruit, cocoa, toasted hazelnut and caramel. Very well balanced with crisp, lemon-tinged end-notes. Will add an extra layer of interest to a cocktail, but can easily be enjoyed on its own.

Havana Club Añejo 7 Años ($33)

Classic Cuban rum — elegant and refined; distinctive and engaging. Caramel, marmalade, tobacco, sweet leather and a delicate smokiness mambo together nicely (and invitingly) on the nose, with no one note overpowering the others. Great neat with your favourite Cuban cigar, but also lends complexity and class to a classic Cuba Libre.

Havana Club Selección de Maestros ($60)

Bottled at 45 percent ABV and composed of rums selected by the master roneros from Havana Club’s choicest aged stock, and finished in specially selected casks, this award-winning amber rum offers up a subtle yet nuanced nose of toasted spice (think nutmeg, cinnamon, clove), with dashes of tangerine peel, toffee, vanilla bean and fresh tobacco. Smooth and polished in the mouth it sports a touch of wood, tobacco leaf and citrus, with a lingering spiciness as it drifts off.

Bacardí Maestro de Ron Grand Reserva ($30)

Filtered through coconut husk charcoal, this is one of those rare white rums that is fine all on its own. Delicate notes of citrus fruit, vanilla, marzipan, and a mild whiff of smoky coconut. Very smooth and elegant, with flavours suggesting vanilla, almond, apple and citrus, it finishes long and clean with a hint of pepper.

Bacardí Ocho Años Grand Reserva ($32)

A great buy for a blend of rums between eight and 16 years old. Fruitcake, toffee, marmalade, dried plum and a touch of nutmeg. Some spicy oak on the palate, along with dried citrus, sultana, caramel and a kiss of sweet oak. Polished, mid-weight and fairly complex. Though not Cuban, it has a distinctly Cuban profile; not overly heavy or overpowering, but poised and multifaceted, with a silky/creamy mouthfeel. For well over 100 years, this was the exclusive blend of the Bacardí family.



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