We hosted our first tasting of the year on January 18th, and thought this would be a good excuse to start a blog.
Just for fun.
We had the joy of having Peter Thornton come down from Leeds with all the knowledge you could possibly need on Cuban rum production, and it was a lot. We were left with more questions than we had before he started, however, so imma need that presentation off you, Pete, if you’re reading this.
In the words of HRH Julie Andrews, let’s start at the very beginning. Here’s a play by play of how the evening went down. Rum nerds, please forgive me if I miss anything; we had lots of rum on the day so it could all be utter bollocks tbh.
SUGAR PROCESSES IN CUBA
We started with an in depth chat of the introduction of sugar into Cuba.
It’s widely stated in all the history books that Christopher Columbus was the first person to introduce sugar to the Caribbean, but I think we know this isn’t entirely true. He played a large part in the mass production and introduction of farms/plantations in Cuba in the early 1500s, but it wasn’t until the early 1600s that the first sugar mill was brought in.
The President of Cuba at the time had to write to the King of Spain to ask if they could introduce a mill to speed up production of sugar as it was such a massive commodity, at one point being worth more than gold. (Cuba was under Spanish rule at this point, and it is the most fought over country in the Caribbean due to its land mass.)
Sugar production grew exponentially over the 1600s, by the end of the century there were 90 mills across Cuba. By the end of the 1700s there were 1,000 mills, and Cuba was producing 1,000,000 tonnes of sugar per year. An astonishing amount, considering sugar production is only possible 5 months of the year.
WHERE DOES RUM COME IN?
Rum was, of course, being made and drunk by Cuban locals before Cuba was “found” by the Spanish. (Massive eye roll.) It may not have been the refined product we get today but people were definitely sticking sugar by-products and water out in the sun with some water and getting blind on it. Maybe also quite literally.
Cuba was a little late to the party when it comes to the first stills being brought in, but they became the largest exporter/transporter of rum in the world, leading to an embargo being put in place by the Spaniards because Cuban rum was outselling Spanish brandy tenfold. The embargo lasted decades, but eventually the Head of Cuba decided to do something about it; they were losing so much money in comparison to other Caribbean countries due to lack of technology with the embargo. A national competition began to set the standard for Cuban rum, and start competing with other countries’ exports.
Here’s where Pete made a really good point, that I must stress. “Rum has no rules” has been thrown around a lot since I started in the rum game, but it is unequivocally incorrect. There are multiple Geographical Indicators (GI) for different countries, mostly based on tradition of the country. This means there are processes that must be adhered to, to gain a GI sticker on your bottle, but also just general practices that are played by even if they aren’t official rules, dependent on region.
Google Barbados for the news on this, but I am sure we will cover the Barbados GI debate at some point this year.
Of course, rum’s main rule is that it must be distilled from sugar cane juice or molasses, but you will find a very different rum on Cuba than you would on Martinique, for example. There is also a lot to be said for the colonisation of the Caribbean, but we try to stay away from phrases such as “French style” or “Spanish style” because why would we compare now independent countries with their own practices to the traditions of colonisers that can, quite frankly, get in the bin.
Anyhoo… This national competition was to effectively establish rules for Cuban rum and it lasted for years. Eventually one man came up with the best recipe and it was totally out of the ordinary, being an aged rum, where most people were entering aguadientes (which we'll cover in a sec) into the comp. This was Don Facundo Bacardi, who you may have heard of; he’s done pretty well for himself.
The prize in 1860 was equipment and a distillery funded by the state, and in 1964 Cuban rum law was introduced.
Here’s where shit gets confusing and I will probably miss a couple of bits, and/or get them wrong.
SO. There is no specific sugar cane variety needed to make the molasses for Cuban rum, they’re not fussy. As Pete said: what happens if you make a tomato soup with loads of tomato varieties? It just tastes like tomato soup…
You have your zafra, which is the late summer/early autumn harvest of cane, and where it isn’t exactly prohibited to use fire before the harvest, to get rid of the tops and the leaves of the cane, it is greatly frowned upon and isn’t really practice in Cuba at all. Cane growth starts in November in the Caribbean, and finishes around May. In countries such as Guyana, I’ve been told that they get 2 harvests a year, but they have recently stopped growing as much sugarcane as they used to.
After the cane is harvested, it is shredded in a mill where all the fibres are pressed, then dropped down, then squeezed again twice more. The third time they’re sprayed with water and pure ethanol to ensure all possible juice is squeezed out of the cane. The juice can then be fermented as its juice state, which is practice for cachacas, clairins and agricoles. Cuban rum, however is all molasses based. There may be a Cuban rum out there that has been made with a cane juice base but as a rule, it isn’t.
To get the molasses, the juice is heated and then spun really fast in a centrifuge, where the crystals and the syrup will split and you’ll get the by-product of sugar production that we love. If you haven’t tried molasses before, it’s basically treacle. Did anyone else’s mum have that red tin of treacle in the cupboard for their whole childhood? This is then fermented by adding yeast and water to the molasses, and Cuba has two fermentation steps.
The first step is high heat, really quick fermentation, and the second one is low and slow. The slower your ferment the more big flavours and esters you’ll get in your rum. This is where my knowledge may be off because I had to pour out some rum for people, but the fermentation for Cuban rum is generally very short at around 24 hours. If you’d like some context, some tequilas ferment agave for around 8 hours, whereas some rums will ferment for weeks, so it all depends on what you want out of your origin product.
Cuban rum is nearly all distilled by multi plated column stills, distilled up to 96 – 98% and diluted to 40%. This is your aguadiente and is the very beginning of the Cuban rum process. The whole room went “Uhhh WhUt?”… what do you mean the beginning, Pete you’ve been talking for 45 minutes at this point. Here’s where the confusing bits come in. According to Cuban rum law, your rum MUST be aged for at least 2 years. However, you cannot call it a rum until your aguadiente has been aged for 2 years. If you want to sell your 2 year old aguadiente you can, but it will not be classed as a rum, it can be sold as an aged aguadiente. Most aguadiente will be filtered through a mixture of paper (thicc paper) and charcoal, after being aged in 200L American white oak barrels.
The law is that your aguadiente can be blended with previously aged stock, and rested to marry the rums, and blended with pure alcohol or water to create your Madre Base, or Mother Base. Like a sour dough I guess? This is what can be sold as aged aguadiente or you can move your rum and put it back in an aging warehouse to leave to become rum legally. Use It or Move It.
There are many other factors that come into the aging process post aged Aguadiente. It will need to be aged for another minimum of 2 years to become a rum, however if the temperature is lower than 15 degrees for more than 4 consecutive weeks, then that year doesn’t count in the aging process. I did want to ask if this had ever actually happened in Cuba but got distracted by booze.
I should probably give you some tasting bits, really.
Of the six spirits we tried, the aguadiente was my favourite, but I’m particularly partial to a Clairin or unaged “clear” rum. I prefer the grassier notes for sipping but it is also heavily dependent on my mood. My personal opinion is that it would have been excellent at 46-50% abv, but that’s just me and that’s not how the Cubans do. (Note GI). Next up was the Super Dry, and contrary to popular belief, this is in reference to the lack of sugar. It was widely thought that Cuban rum had an absolutely no sugar policy, however this is not the case. Sugar is allowed to be added, as long as it is all natural, which is how Black Tears has managed to become the first ever Cuban spiced rum.
PROHIBITION AND THE 1900s
Everyone knows about that small thing that happened in the States in the 1920s. Prohibition on booze was massive for Cuban rum production. The Florida coastline to Havana was 90 miles long and became notorious for being the “booze cruise”. Havana became America’s Playground and all of the best cocktails that we know and love burst onto the scene. Your Pina Coladas, Mojitos and Daiquiris all came out of Prohibition, although some were said to have been created way back in the 1500s, their big break came from American escapism during the booze ban. Cuba’s rum production was massive until 1933 when Prohibition ended but it was really almost jeopardised when Cuba’s government was overthrown by Fidel Castro.
As a Communist state, everything was nationalised. It took six years for them to gain full control, and then they started with all the things that would make them money quickly. (This is the very short version of events.)
Sugar was number one, inclusive of all rum production. Bacardi lost hundreds of millions worth of stock and equipment and famously fled to Puerto Rico along with the Havana Club family (who settled in Miami). Bacardi at this time (1959) had around 5 distilleries globally, so they were aight really. Havana Club made the grave error of not renewing their trademark so the Cuban government took it as their own, using Pernod Ricard as the first ever third party distributer.
BLACK TEARS RUM
In Cuba, there are two governing bodies that control the rum production: Azcuba and Cubaron. Black Tears, La Progresiva and their umbrella Vigia come under Azcuba.
What Pete made a big point of is that Azcuba is the very Cuban arm: it makes Cuban rum for Cuban people, whereas Cubaron is owned by the government and is effectively an exportation business. They make rums for Diageo, Pernod Ricard and Moet Hennessy that are produced on a massive scale. To put in perspective of scale, Pernod Ricard is so huge that there is one distillery that makes Havana 3 year ONLY. Regardless of the scale, however, you still cannot cheat Cuban rum so everything will be made to code. (With arguments against the spiced that I’m coming to.)
The BT distillery currently has 7,800 barrels aging right now including some younger Madre Bases, but my favourite fact is of Marta Lopez: She is Cuba’s first ever female Rum Maestro. The bar and booze industry is very male heavy as it is but rum and whisk(e)y take the lead on that. - Little mention here for Joy Spence of Appleton and Margaret Monplaisir of St Lucia Distillers. - It took Marta 15 years to gain the title of Ron Maestro, where it usually takes a man 10 years, because she had to fight for the recognition.
Black Tears is a fairly new brand in Cuba, and has taken 12 years to get to where it is now. It is officially the world's first ever Cuban spiced rum. “What about Havana??” I hear you probably not ask, but imma tell you anyway. Havana’s new product of spiced “rum” first off… isn’t a rum. Rum by US law needs to be 40% abv, and by EU law needs to be 37.5% where theirs is 35%. So straight off the bat, you’ll notice it says “spirit drink” on the label. It is also spiced in Spain, and even the Cuban locals refuse to drink it because it “isn’t Cuban”. It is against Cuban rum law to adulterate your rum post production, unless it is natural, and probably done in Cuba.
Black Tears is spiced with coffee, chilli, citrus peels and I believe cacao. Once again, I was pouring/drinking some bits at this point so I missed the exact spices. It also has less than 9g/litre of added sugar. I remember in the first tasting that I attended with Pete & BT, he was told there was zero sugar added, which I questioned, because although it is one of the drier spiced rums out there, there is definitely a sweetness that has to be more than just oranges, and now we know.
The name of the brand has been questioned, and I completely understand why. So I feel like I should maybe end with an explanation. Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears in Spanish) was written as a love song by Miguel Matamoros in 1928 and first recorded in 1931, after watching a woman crying backstage. It got so big that he was touring Europe in the 1930s, which is pretty huge. I’ve never been to Cuba, but I’ve been told that it has become something of a national anthem there; it’s everywhere, out peoples’ windows, on the radio, people will be singing it in the street all day every day. This is how the rum has been named.
The rest of the evening went as you may imagine. Much daiqs, much shots, finishing at the Turtle. My notes end here, where I got pretty distracted, but I hope you’ve enjoyed my regurgitation of Pete’s highly informed chat. Come in to try the products we have left from the tasting, and make sure you’re at the next one to get the chat from the horse’s mouth as it’ll probably be much better.
See you in the bar xoxo