Tipple for the rum connoisseur

Put aside for a moment all your favorite rum cocktails, the mojitos, the daquiris, the cuba libres. What about a taste of premium-quality rum? Intended for rum connoisseurs, with a price to prove it, Havana Club’s Maximo Extra Anejo may not be meant for wide consumption, yet it carries with it all the well-known traits of the popular Cuban culture it represents. At a recent presentation held at a local hotel, Don Jose Navarro, Havana Club’s «primer maestro ronero» (leading rum expert) who is responsible for the making of Maximo and flew in from Cuba for the occasion, unveiled its magic. A sip of the drink proved him right: The dark-colored rum, which goes through many different phases of aging, carried a rich and powerful aroma with touches of dried fruit and its taste was at the same time sweet and dry, with spicy undertones. Packaged in a hand-blown crystal decanter, which in turn is placed in a wooden box similar to those used for cigars, the Maximo exudes a refined quality. Made from Havana Club’s oldest rum reserves which have been aging in the company’s cellars for decades, it is best appreciated when consumed slowly, in a relaxed atmosphere and neat. It can be found in selected wine stores, at an average price of 1,500 euros. As Navarro explained to Kathimerini English Edition, rum, Cuba’s «national drink,» is closely connected to the country’s vibrant culture and history. The first type of rum ever produced was nothing like the rum we know today – it was much rougher and its use was associated with pirates and buccaneers. In the 19th century, following the instructions of the Spanish Court, a much softer version was produced in Cuba, which appealed to an entirely different type. «When people got together in Havana’s bars, rum became the center of religious, philosophical and political discussions,» said Navarro. As the use of rum spread and developed even further, all the famous rum-based cocktails were born, gaining a strong fanbase. «Rum became a symbol of culture. It inspired poets, even [Federico] Garcia Lorca, as well as singers and other artists. We also have folk songs about rum,» said Navarro. How can anybody forget Ernest Hemingway’s famous motto: «My mojito at the Bodeguita and my daiquiri at the Floridita?» (referring to two well-known bars in Havana). The Havana Club rums, which range from young, light rums to darker, aged rums, are only produced in Cuba, an island whose climate and temperatures – an eternal summer – are ideal for the cultivation of sugarcane, rum’s main component. The stages of aging and blending, which differ according to each rum, are supervised by the maestros roneros, all of whom have gone through extensive training and only use traditional methods to guarantee an authentic and natural product. What is their secret, other than the recipe? «It’s not something we can write in a book in the form of a recipe. It is something that has to be passed on from generation to generation, it is the very taste of the Cuban people,» explained Navarro. Other than the experience and instruction which is transmitted from the maestros roneros to the trainees, the secret also lies in the mix. «People can call us crazy for our obsession with blending again and again. You have to know our culture to understand that. In Cuba, we are multiracial. We believe that the ‘mezcla’ (mix) is the best. Our rum is as mixed as our culture. Cuban culture has been described as an ‘agiaco’ [a dish consisting of many different ingredients] and, with great respect to Fernando Ortiz [a distinguished 20th century ethnologist and anthropologist], I would call Cuban rum a ‘cultural agiaco.’ Our ancestors mixed the rum because it was in their culture to do so. They didn’t know they had come up with such a great technique that gave such results. We studied that technique scientifically and our products are 100 percent natural. There are no additives of any kind.» Given that all things considered «Latin» – from music and dance to the drinks – have been enjoying steadily growing popularity lately, it should come as no surprise that rum consumption is also on the rise. Since the 1993 establishment of Havana Club International, a joint venture between Cuba Ron and the French Pernod Ricard Group, Havana Club products have seen an impressive growth worldwide. The Havana-based company currently exports to 124 countries except, of course, the USA, because of the ongoing embargo on Cuban products. Navarro, who has been working for Havana Club since 1971, feels very passionately about rum and has great respect for it. His wish is for people to feel the same way. «People should learn not to drink so much. There should be many people drinking a little, not few people drinking much. I would also like to call on all rum producers to save the culture of rum. By doing artificial things, the rum culture will die and it will be too late to save it. We should not deceive consumers either. Every product and its country of origin should be respected. Rum is made out of sugarcane. Those insisting on making it from other ingredients should not do so, I am asking them to respect the identity of rum. It is a good way to show respect for people’s cultures. Commerce can be rebuilt, but culture cannot.»