Book tells story of Bacardi rum and Cuba
(LPP Archive - "The Best Way To Feel The Touch") -Tuesday, August 26th 2008, 9:52 AM
Bacardi is the world's top-selling rum with annual sales of 20 million cases in more than 150 countries.
With thorough reporting and an eye for rich, often quirky detail, veteranNational Public Radiocorrespondent Tom Gjelten traces the story of the Bacardi family, whose product helped shape Cuba's soul until Fidel Castronationalized its company's facilities in 1960.
"We just didn't think to register the Bacardi trademark, so we lost it," Castro said years later. "We had the factory that produced the real Bacardi rum, but we couldn't keep the name."
Facundo Bacardi was the first Cuban mayor of Santiago and helped pioneer Cuban style rum, known for its light, dry, smoothness.
He devised a charcoal filter system and began aging rum in oak barrels.
Bacardi racked up international awards after 1900, and soon its rum became known as "the one that has made Cuba famous."
Prohibition in the United States sent Americans scurrying to Cuba, thirsty for Bacardi. A contemporary advertisement featured a Bacardi bat — the company's corporate logo, which Gjelten notes is somewhat creepy — carrying an Uncle Sam figure clutching an empty glass across the Straits of Florida to Cuba.
Eager to export to the American market without import duties, the company set up a distillery in Puerto Rico in 1936.
According to Gjelten, Bacardi discovered that the key to consistent flavor was Cuban molasses.
Through tweaks in the distilling process, however, engineers corrected discrepancies so that rum with identical flavor to that produced in Cuba could be made elsewhere.
The Bacardis opposed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and supported Fidel Castro, even granting some workers leave to join his rebel forces.
Vilma Espin, late wife of Cuban President Raul Castro, was the daughter of a Bacardi accountant and one Bacardi family member even knitted caps and stockings for Castro rebels fighting Batista's forces.
The rebels issued a decree that Bacardi facilities were not to be attacked, and the company's chief executive, Jose "Pepin" Bosch, accompanied Castro on his first trip to the United States after taking power in 1959.
Bosch ducked out early, however, already afraid of where Castro was leading the government.
After nationalizing Bacardi, Cuba eventually began producing Havana Club rum, a brand it usurped from the Arechabala family, Bacardi competitors who did not fight to keep their trademarks after nationalization.
Bacardi eventually bought the naming rights to Havana Club from the Arechabalas and began selling its own version of Havana Club in the United States, touching off more legal battles with Cuba that have yet to be fully resolved.
The case is complicated but, as Gjelten notes, its underlying issues are simple: "When could Cuban rum be sold in the United States, by what company and under what label?"
Like so many facets of U.S.-Cuba relations, answering those questions is far from easy.
"Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba" (Viking, 365 pages, $27.95), by Tom Gjelten.