Even if you can't make it to Cuba yet, now is a great time to start drinking Cuban rum. Here's what to seek out—and how to drink it.
American travelers have never been so enamored with Cuba; thanks to direct flights from the States, this Caribbean island nation, while not technically legal for US tourists, is more accessible than ever. And when it comes to souvenirs, visitors have their eyes on Cuba's best: cigars, and even more so, rum.
For good reason. On the ground in Cuba it can be difficult to purchase just about anything—even staples like bottled water and fruit—but rum? It’s available at every corner store.
Like many Caribbean nations, Cuba has produced rum for centuries. Made from molasses, a byproduct of sugar production, rum distillation is inextricably linked with the sugar trade (and therefore, historically, with the slave trade). Rum styles vary dramatically across the region; a funky, fruity Jamaican Appleton is wildly different from a rich, caramel-vanilla Venezuelan Diplomatico Reserva or the Dominican Republic's weighty but beautifully crisp Brugal Extra Dry.
The Cuban style is clean and uncomplicated, making these spirits ideal for cocktails. Blanco rums are well-suited to three of Cuba's classic drinks: the daiquiri (rum, lime, sugar), the mojito (rum, mint, lime, soda) and the Cuba Libre (rum and Coke). Longer-aged rums are more suited to sipping neat, or playing a role similar to whiskey in stiffer stirred drinks like an Old Fashioned.
What and Where To Buy
On the ground in Cuba, two brands dominate the landscape: Havana Club, which is ubiquitous nationwide but particularly in the capital, and Santiago de Cuba, which is more popular in and around the southeastern city of the same name. You'll see a few other brands on offer—Cubay and Ron Mulata among them—but don't expect to discover an upstart microdistillery; they don't exist, or at least not legally or at any scale. (That's not limited to rum. The state still owns, or at least rigorously controls, just about every Cuban industry.)
But in any town, big or small, you'll find rum for sale—from rotgut spirit sold in a cardboard box, to staples like Havana Club 3 Años, to the better añejo (aged) dark rums. Prices are regulated nationally, so you should pay the same whether you're buying at the corner store or an upscale tourist gift shop. And, at least in theory, you're getting the same rum regardless of where you buy it. One tour guide told me that he only purchased from Havana's Museo del Ron (The Rum Museum), a popular tourist attraction in the city, because that's the only place he trusted would sell him the real deal. That sounded like a paid commission to me; after all, Havana Club is partially owned by Pernod Ricard, one of the world's premiere liquor companies, and bottles are shipped and sold with an official seal. But two weeks later in Trinidad, on Cuba's southern coast, I bought a bottle of añejo and stored it in the freezer, shielding it from the suffocating heat. A few hours later it was frozen solid—which is not chemically possible for a genuine 80-proof spirit. Lesson learned: Watch out for counterfeit watered-down booze. Purchase from a reputable source.
Buying the rum internationally, you can have much more confidence you're getting the real deal. So if a trip to Cuba isn't in your future, don't despair. Since other countries don't have the embargo on Cuban goods that the US does, liquor shops all over the world carry Cuban rum, and Havana Club in particular. There's nothing stopping you from bringing a liter back to the States from somewhere else; even most airport duty-free shops outside America will carry it. Sure, you still can't pick up a bottle at your local shop. But as with getting to Cuba itself, finding its rum takes some effort, but it's worth it.
Here's what to look for.
Havana Club 3 Años is the gold standard for daiquiris, mojitos, and the Cuba Libre. Crisp, clean, and easy drinking. Comparable to Bacardi, but with more body; it's less harsh and a lot smoother around the edges. A liter will disappear quickly at any cocktail party.
Havana Club 7 Años is an añejo rum, aged (as the name denotes) for seven years, which lets it pick up significant weight and character from the barrel. With notes of vanilla and caramel, it's a satisfying spirit all on its own, or over a few ice cubes. I also adore it with soda, a squeeze of lime, and Angostura bitters; or as an unorthodox daiquiri.
If you like rum, odds are you like tasting all the variations of it. Aged rums—which, just like a whiskey or cognac, take on color and flavor from the oak barrels they're aged in—are dark, rich, and complex. Havana Club Selección de Maestros is the company's top-of-the-line aged bottle, a spirit best poured near and appreciated for its depth and rich caramel flavor. Santiago de Cuba 11 Años—which my Cuban bus driver dubbed "the best in the world," and is the birthday gift he requests from his wife and kids every year—is dark and woody, less rich than many other long-aged spirits but with complex barrel character.
And while it's no longer in production, if you ever see Havana Club Cuban Barrel Proof, snag it. It's what American rum aficionados and Havana Club would-be drinkers might fantasize about: subtle but fascinating, beautifully balanced, a spirit that rewards sipping and contemplation. To put it simply: there's there there.
There's no doubt that much of the allure of Cuban rum is that it's a forbidden fruit. But that doesn't make it any less enticing‚ or the rums any less delicious.