Pacto Navio and Other Cuban Rums
On a trip to Cuba earlier this year, I had the opportunity to do some local rum tastings. While I am not typically a big rum guy, I do appreciate rums that have had extended barrel aging, or interesting finishing.
Cuba has had a tumultuous history (for more than just rum!), and this has lead to a complicated history of rum production and distribution. Simply put, all rum production was nationalized after the revolución, but in recent years it has had a global resurgence from partnerships and investments by international drinks conglomerates. I won’t pretend to know the full history, so I am happy to refer folks to these recent articles in Esquire and Forbes for further background.
Cuban rum is typically made from locally-produced molasses. Local sugarcane is harvested and mashed to extract the guarapo (juice), which is then boiled to create local molasses. This molasses is combined with water and yeast to ferment in tanks before it is distilled in copper-lined columns stills. It is typically aged in extensively well-used American oak casks (as with Canadian whisky).
First up in the recommended tasting order was one I had heard a lot about:
Havana Club Selección de Maestros
This “Masters Selection” amber rum was a popular member of the Havana Club line when it was available at the LCBO and SAQ. Missing for the last couple of years, it used to retail for ~$60 CAD, and can still be found in Cuba today for the equivalent ~$40 CUC ($40 USD).
Masters Selection features an unusual finishing step (for a rum). As mentioned above, pretty much all Cuban rum is aged in well-used, American white oak barrels. Once the barrels are selected for this release, they are blended and then finished for a period of time in young, fresh oak casks for some active wood aging. This should impart some extra woody notes.
The bottle has a quality presentation (nicer than other Havana Clubs), and comes in a protective tube sleeve. It also is bottled at higher proof, 45% ABV.
Nose: Caramel, with a light, sweet bourbony character. I am definitely getting some oaky notes (more than typical for a Cuban rum). Orange rind. Ginger. A touch of tobacco and nuts. It’s a nice mix, with no off notes.
Palate: The oaky notes are more prominent now, definitely woody, with tobacco leaves and some leather. Helps offset the sweet caramel. Cinnamon and nutmeg show up. It is very light in the mouth, lighter than I expected for 45% ABV. Honestly, the texture is a bit of a let down.
Finish: Medium. Some spicy tingle, with cinnamon notable. Some dried fruits. Sweet, but also a bit of an artificial note, which is surprising.
This is nice, but not quite what I was looking for – bourbony, and a bit woodier than I would like. To be honest, it lacks the rum character I was expecting from the rich amber colour – it does indeed seem like a younger rum that has had some extra fresh oak finishing. The higher proof is appreciated, but that also seems like it was necessary here, given the lighter mouthfeel.
A good bourbon-drinker’s rum. I would give it ~8.3 on the Meta-Critic scale.
Ron Santero Añejo 11 Años
I must admit, I knew nothing about this rum (aside from recognizing the name of the producer), when my host suggested it for the line-up.
This 11 year old is bottled under proof at 38% ABV. It sells for ~$40 CUC in Cuba ($40 USD). It is apparently known for the distinctive character of the soil where it is produced, with a high mineral content (or so I was told).
Nose: Getting a lot more classic rum notes, with heavy molasses. Very earthy, with lots of tobacco and old leather. Something different here, with a slightly funky off-note (but it is not off-putting)
Palate: Rich rum molasses to start. Some oaky bitterness is also present. Cinnamon and nutmeg. Minearality and a meaty character, making me think of sulphur. Mouthfeel is impaired by the below-proof 38%, but still seems richer somehow than the HC Maestros.
Finish: Medium. Getting candied fruits now, which I didn’t notice earlier. Nice sweet finish, with that “meatiness” lingering in the background.
There is certainly different about this one – I would be more likely to peg it as sulphur, but “minearality” would also do. This is a hard one to score. On one hand, I like the distinctiveness of the earthy notes, as it adds some character. But it also makes it not your typical rum.
Despite the low proof, I would give this a slight leg up on the Maestros – say ~8.4 on the Meta-Critic scale. I was tempted to pick up a bottle.
Havana Club Añejo 15 Años
A classic of the class, all spirits in this Havana Club bottling have been aged for at least 15 years. I am not entirely clear about how barrels are selected for this rum, but I gather repeated blending and re-gauging of casks is involved, using standard old American oak casks.
Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for 150 CUC ($150 USD), which seems rather steep to me.
Nose: Liquid caramel, honey, and brown sugar. Fruit blossoms. Very nice, classic rum notes.
Palate: Moves into heavier molasses notes, plus some vanilla. Dark fruits, dried (figs in particular). Relatively light mouthfeel, but no bitterness.
Finish: Medium long. Brown sugar comes back, and some light cinnamon spice. Nice lingering sweetness, no bitterness.
This is what I was expecting from a Cuban rum – a sweet, uncomplicated experience. No heavy wood influence, but the extended aging does comes through as a general enrichment of the sugarcane sweetness. I like the caramel and fruity notes. Not particularly complex, but a satisfying dram none-the-less.
I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. A bit too steep in cost for me though.
Finally, I went back another night to try one that I hadn’t gotten around to the first evening – and I’m glad I did.
The name of this rum literally means shipping treaty, and is a cute nod to the history of trade between France and Cuba. After the Napoleonic wars ended, a treaty signed in Europe allowed the freer flow of trans-Atlantic goods. Casks holding Sauternes (a sweet white wine from Bordeau) were shipped to the New World, where they were emptied and refilled with local spirits (including rum) for the return voyage.
So this serves as a convenient backstory for what is simply a young Cuban rum that has been finished for a period of time in French Sauternes casks. The rum come from the newest distillery in Cuba, in San José de Las Lajas, near Havana.
Bottled at 40% ABV. It sells for $45 CUC ($45 USD).
Nose: Light and sweet, with simple spun sugar (think cotton candy). Caramelized plantains. Peaches, plums, and apricots. Candied rum raisins. Light wood notes, like nutmeg. No real off-notes, very nice.
Palate: Caramel comes up clearly now. Banana bread (with nuts). A touch of citrus. Relatively light mouthfeel, but not bad. Some faint rye-like spices, giving it a bit of zing.
Finish: Fruit returns, but definitely candied – like wine gums. Artificial sweetener note shows up now. Turns a bit astringent on the way out, but not bad.
While still fairly simple, it has a nice mix of sweet fruity notes (more so than the other rums I tried), with banana and a nutty character being fairly novel here. This one would best suit a scotch drinker with a sweet tooth (which I suppose would best describe me).
Of all the ones I tried, this was my favourite – I would rate it ~8.6 on the Meta-Critic scale. Indeed, I liked it enough to pick up a bottle as a souvenir of my visit.