Dueling Blancos - Cuba’s Havana Club vs Puerto Rico’s Havana Club

HC AB vs HC AB-RG1a

Products of:  Cuba and Puerto Rico
Aged:  1 year (both rums)
Price: Cuba - $15.99; Puerto Rico - $17.99
Alcohol: Cuba - 37.5% ABV; Puerto Rico - 40% ABV 
Sugar: 0-5 g/L 
(estimate for both rums) 
Context:  White Rum

Two Heavyweight Distillers duke it out in this taster’s evaluation.

2016 was exciting.  In the same year that President Obama relieved restrictions on US citizens from buying Cuban Rum, Bacardi expanded distribution of its own Havana Club brand of rums produced on Puerto Rico.  Win-Win?  Let’s find out.as two Anejo Blancos from decades-old political enemies, duke it out in The Rum Gallery’s tasting room. 

While neither distiller has an undisputed slam/dunk case for why they should own the brand, both sids offer seemingly valid points in their protracted trademark battle.  Yes, it takes two to tangle.

Tired of the public and international courtroom bitch-slaps these two otherwise dignified rum makers have engaged in over the past several decades, I decided to settle the debate for myself on a purely personal preference level.  So enough of lawyers.  Let’s adjourn to own kind of bar and judge the better of the two rums.  Below are RG's tasting notes accompanied by opinions of Rum Gallery’s guest tasting panel.

Appearance
Cuba - after swirling, several rum beads form, then surprisingly many legs, and long-lasting at that.
Puerto Rico - fewer and thicker legs run slowly
Round One: Cuba

Aromas
Cuba - bright white rum distillate, slight flour pastry and butter, slightly more rum smell within the clean sweet alcohol in the aromas.
Puerto Rico - bright mint bouquet, almost as if Bacardi is trying to make a mojito-kit-in-a-bottle , notable for its paucity of aromatic power
Round Two: Cuba

Taste and Flavors
Cuba - compared to Puerto Rico’s combatant, this rum has a deeper, richer more buttery flavor, some off-dry sweetness and a heavier-weight body.
Puerto Rico - nice, somewhat vapid, starts a bit tart, good balance of sweet and bitter, then more sweetness appears which lingers at the tip of the tongue, the fresh minty characteristic noted in the aromas is carried into the flavors, though it is minor (as are any flavors in these two rums).
Round Three: not much action; Tie.

Body
Cuba - slightly heavier mouthfeel, likely due to the slight buttery pastry texture and not to the lower-spec 37.5% ABV (vs. 40% for HC-Puerto Rico). Puerto Rico - Light, low density, feels exactly like 40% alcohol / 60% pure water.
Round Four: Cuba

Finish:
Cuba - dry, short lived, slight lingering creaminess
Puerto Rico - dry, short lived, but pleasant with no off notes.
Round Five: not much action; Tie

Sipping: In a blind tasting, while the two rums are close in aroma and flavor, they are not identical.  Neither can be considered a sipper, nor are they intended to be.   However, the Cuban HC smells and tastes like it has more potential to age in a cask, given its marginally greater depth and flavor.  Of course, as with this style of rum, the barrel often does most of the taking about the final aged rum anyway.
Round Six:  Tie

HC Daq vs HC Daq-RG2-USE

The Daiquiri Challenge
We evaluated both rums in a classic shaken daiquiri made in exactly the same way, with the same ingredients, ratios etc.  Rum Gallery’s tasting panel was unanimous in its its preference for the Cuban Havana Club when served this way.  The Cuban Alejo Blanco cocktail had a depth of flavor that complemented, and was complemented by, the lime and sugar of the Daiquiri.  The Puerto Rico version of this classic cocktail was lacking in a couple of significant ways.  First, it tasted like it would have been more at home in a newbie rum drinker’s blender drink with some artificial fruit flavor.  Second, the mint flavor was accentuated in the Daiquiri, causing one taster to wonder if Bacardi’s attempt was aimed at making a mojito rum.  The final nail in the coffin came from our female taster, a world class chef in her own right, who remarked: “It’s like that lip gloss that ends up in the back of the drawer.  You can’t throw it out, but you never use it.”  Daiquiri Champion: Cuba.

HC AB Cuba Label-RG1

What’s in a name, or a label?
Mind you, the battle referenced here is solely for the USA market.  Havana Club (Cuba) long ago won Worldwide legal acceptance - sin Los Estados Unidos - as the legitimate title holder of the brand and trademark.  The final battle is for the the USA – largest single national market.  You need just one look at the Havana Club labels on each company’s bottles to see the battle lines.  Cuba stands proud, as if the victor (they are, albeit for one country), with limited space devoted to text stating “Rum made and aged in Cuba” in both Español and English; whereas Puerto Rico flanks its bottle with two labels that offer a synopsis of their legal argument.

Opinion
In my humble opinion, Bacardi’s Havana Club Añejo Blanco is not intended to win a market, it is intended to spoil one.  The Puerto Rican Havana Club Añejo Blanco is a poor excuse for rum.  I find it hard to believe that it is true to the precious recipe the Arecabala family sold to Bacardi many years ago.  This rum is what we get when lawyers step away from their bar and are consulted on the product's definition.  

HC AB PR Lf Side Label-RG1HC AB PR Rt Side Label-RG2a-USE

Apparently, Bacardi’s competitive strategy is two-fold:
1. Spoil the panache associated with Cuba’s Havana Club brand as a preemptive strike to counter their entering the USA market;
2. Abandon the Havana Club brand if the embargo on Cuban goods continues.  Your Añejo Blanco rum won’t gain any followers, so you’ve nothing to lose.

If Bacardi wins the protracted trademark dispute and gains unchallenged access to to the American market, then USA rum drinkers lose. 

Note to Bacardi: As the World’s Number 1 rum brand, you have the money, the Arechabala family recipe, distilling facilities, barrels, master blender and POS dominance to defeat any rum challenger, yet you give us this?  No wonder you omit the Bacardi family name from the bottle labels.  Grow up.  Move on.  Give us better rum.  Make Bacardi Superior truly superior, rather than a cane neutral spirit.  You can do better. That’s how you’ll win.  

Note to Havana Club: If and when the US embargo on Cuban rum is lifted, don’t bother bringing your Añejo Blanco to these shores.  You’ll get lost in a market already saturated with unremarkable highly-rectified molasses-based white rums.  Go for the win and enter the US market with your priced reasonably priced Tres Años.  it’s got more Cuban soul.

Bottom Line
Neither of these rums is a keeper. There are far better blanco’s for making daiquiris, mojito’s and any number of other fine cocktails that reward a flavorful white rum.  Choose instead Santa Teresa Claro, Havana Club Añnejo 3 Años, Owney’s, Diplomatico Blanco, Denizen, Caña Brava 3 Year Old and Papa’s Pilar Blonde - all staples of the Rum Gallery bar.

RG Ratings:  Cuba 5; Puerto Rico 1.5

Reviewed: December 2016 at The Rum Gallery, USA

Full Disclosure: I have several respected Cuban ex-pat friends on both sides of this equation, all associated  with rum.  True to their Cuban nature, these ladies and gentlemes have not sought influence over my opinion.  As ever, I strive to apply objective rigor to what, by its nature, is a subjective evaluation, using the senses of smell, taste and sight to select.  You might do the same, and your opinion is as valid to you as mine is to me. Meanwhile, I’ll continue traveling and buying the real Havana Club worthy of my money, the Cuban.

Want More?
Eurasia Review posted an opinionated yet accurate editorial about the genesis and current battle between Bacardi and Havana Club/Pernod-Ricard here.

For a well-researched article on the historic saga and current dilemma these two competing brands of the same name present to rum consumers, see David Montgomery’s piece in The Washington Post.

And CBS Network’s broadcast an edition of their popular television show 60 Minutes called “The Rum War.”  T see the transcript and photos, click here

© Dave Russell 2017