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Rumble Brewing over 'Real' Cuban Rum

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Bacardi Company today announced it will soon start selling a new version of Havana Club Rum, a brand that originated in Cuba more than 70 years ago. The company that originally made Havana Club was taken over by the Cuban government in 1960. A Cuban made rum by that name is still sold in Cuba and around the world, though the U.S. embargo has blocked its distribution in this country.

As NPR's Tom Gjelten reports, the competition between the two Havana Club rums may foreshadow some of the battles to come in Cuba's future.

TOM GJELTEN reporting:

Back in pre-Castro Cuba, Bacardi and Havana Club were the two best known brands of rum on the island. Both were made by long established Cuban families, the Bacardis and the Arechabalas. John Gomez, the marketing director of Bacardi USA, says the Bacardis regarded Havana Club as a competitor to their own rum.

Mr. JOHN GOMEZ (Bacardi USA): This is a brand that was served in the hottest night spots in Havana. It was a favorite of American and European tourists there. And it was also sold in the U.S. from the 1930s until 1960.

GJELTEN: In 1960, both family companies were taken over by Fidel Castro's government. Bacardi had operations outside Cuba and was able to regroup. The Arechabalas were not so fortunate and got out of the rum business.

The Cuban government, however, continued to make rum at the Arechabalas' old factory, selling it under the Havana Club trademark, mostly to countries in the Soviet block. Thinks stayed that way until the early 1990s, when Cuba started looking for new markets. The French liquor firm Pernod Ricard began a joint venture with the Cuban government to market Havana Club Rum internationally.

The Arechabala family then sold its claim to the Havana Club trademark and its old rum recipe to Bacardi. There followed a long legal battle over who had the right to make and sell Havana Club. Bacardi ultimately won, but only with respect to the use of the Havana Club trademark in the United States. Again, John Gomez of Bacardi.

Mr. GOMEZ: Right now, we own the rights to this brand and we felt that this was the appropriate time to leverage the brand to take advantage of some of the hot trends that are taking place and to give the consumer what they're looking for.

GJELTEN: Havana Club Rum made by the state-owned Cuban company is now sold around the world, but not in the United States, where the trade embargo excludes all products made in Cuba. But now the Bacardi version of Havana Club will go on sale, a premium white rum based - according to the company - on the Arechabala family's original rum recipe. The product has been in preparation for more than three years, so its launch this week at a time when Cuba is back in the news is coincidental. The rum is made in Puerto Rico and the bottle will say so in large letters. John Gomez of Bacardi says the product will be marketed simply as a top quality white rum.

Mr. GOMEZ: Super premium rums were growing, but most of those rums were dark rums. And we felt that there was an opportunity in the marketplace for a super premium white rum. And that was one of the reasons we felt the time was right for Havana Club.

GJELTEN: The Bacardis' Cuban roots are still important, however. The company is still almost entirely owned by Bacardi family members, and they have not forgotten how Fidel Castro essentially forced them into exile. Beverage analyst Tom Pirko says the company's strong feelings about its Cuban heritage may be one reason it has moved to associate itself with an identifiably Cuban brand.

Mr. TOM PIRKO (BevMark LLC): They're trying to capitalize upon this extraordinary energy that is invested in Cuba and the changes that are taking place and will take place in Cuba. And so it's a business decision. However, that being said, anyone who looks at this company is looking at a culture that is this highly emotional and has a certain view of itself. Their attitudes in terms of what they do are uniquely Bacardian.

GJELTEN: The contest to see which Havana Club Rum will triumph is a fight that has much to do with the future of Cuba as well. Once Fidel Castro's regime is replaced by a democratic government and the U.S. trade embargo is lifted, made in Cuba products are likely to flood the United States. With its right to the Havana Club Rum brand now seemingly secure, Bacardi may have blocked the rival Havana Club product from getting a U.S. foothold.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten
Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.