Saturday, May 26, 2012

The taste test: Cuban rums

Last updated: May 26, 2012 12:05 am

The taste test: Cuban rums
By Peter Bazalgette

The best way to drink this noble spirit is with a single cube of ice
that helps release the aromas as it melts

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

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.

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