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Photo: Unsplash/ Anders Nord
Culture

The Real Story of Rum in the Caribbean & How it Ended Up in Puerto Rico

When people think of rum, they instantly think of the Caribbean. They go hand-in-hand and for good reason. Rum which is a distilled spirit made from sugarcane, was invented in the West Indies, which encompass Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, among several other nations, sometime in the 17th century. The spirit played a major part in the African slave trade during which slaves brought over from Africa were traded to the West Indies in exchange for molasses which was used by people in the American colonies to produce rum which was then traded to Africa in exchange for more slaves.

The early history of the now beloved libation isn’t a pretty one, and honestly neither is its later history, but today that history has yielded the world a beloved spirit that is inextricably linked to Caribbean Latin American culture, island vibes and beachy cocktails. While many Caribbean countries including Jamaica and Barbados are well known for their rums, in the United States at least, Puerto Rico is almost synonymous with rum, thanks in large part to the success of Bacardi.

Growing up in a Puerto Rican family, rum and Bacardi in particular, were a part of every event and family occasion I can remember. From coquito at Christmas to piña colada at summer barbecues, to straight shots once it got late and the dancing commenced, rum has always been something I associate with my Puerto Rican heritage.

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Interestingly though, rum actually started out as a much more Cuban thing. “Shaped by Cuba’s climate, geography, history and people, rum is an essential part of the nation’s culture,” a description on the nationalized Havana Club rum Web site reads. According to a timeline of the history of rum production in Cuba posted on their site, it wasn’t until the country was fighting for independence from Spain in the 19th century that rum became a major industry on the tiny island.

At that point, Cuban rum distillers quickly adopted the most modern methods of production and became the foremost producers of what is now known as light rum, as opposed to the dark rums that were common throughout the Caribbean at that time. Rum producers in Cuba basically pioneered the style of rum that is predominantly associated with Puerto Rico today.

Fueled by wealthy Americans traveling to Cuba during prohibition in the United States, by the 1930s, the industry was booming for popular rum companies like Havana Club. It was founded by the Arechabala family, while Bacardi was founded by Facundo Bacardi on February 4, 1862, in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.
But by the 1950s, political relations in Cuba were tumultuous and in 1960, Fidel Castro and his radical communist government confiscated all of the assets of the country’s rum distillers (as well as other businesses) in an attempt to take down capitalism, entirely shutting down the production of Cuban rum. Cubans including the Arechabala and Bacardi families were exiled and others fled the country voluntarily in order to escape Castro’s regime. Many landed on the neighboring islands of Puerto Rico and The Dominican Republic.

The Cuban government took over the Bacardi building and nationalized the Havana Club brand. To this day, Cuba produces a rum under the Havana Club name. However, the originators of both the original Havana Club and Bacardi moved their operations to Puerto Rico in the wake of the Cuban Revolution. Years prior, Bacardi had opened a distillery in Puerto Rico and the company had shipped several strains of the very specific yeast cells it uses to make its rum to that distillery, so when the Cuban government destroyed what was in Cuba, all hope was not lost.

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Bacardi was able to continue to produce its signature rum in various locations throughout the world. Despite being in exile, the Bacardi family’s operations were now based in Puerto Rico thanks to some hefty tax incentives from the U.S. government of which Puerto Rico was at that point a commonwealth of. By 1965, the business was back on track and positioned for worldwide expansion. It’s presence in Puerto Rico had led to the island currently producing about 70 percent of the rum sold in the United States.

Havana Club did not however have the same luck. The Arechabala family’s rum operations were shut down for decades, despite the Havana Club name’s continued use in association with Cuban rum. However, in 1994 Bacardi bought the long-held Arechabala family recipe and began producing a Puerto Rican rum under the Havana Club name as well. So now, both of the iconic rums are made in Puerto Rico and considered Puerto Rican rums although they are made using recipes established by Cubans in Cuba over 150 years ago, and boast their Cuban heritage on every single bottle.

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Despite the somewhat sordid history of rum, today it is a drink that links Caribbean Latin Americans in the same way that Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Dominican Republic’s shared European, African and indigenous ancestries do. And in the way our traditional foods and music do, and it will undoubtedly be an eternal link between the three countries that have such similar cultures despite their vastly different histories. There are currently about a dozen rum distilleries in Cuba, three major rum distilleries each in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic along with several smaller distilleries in each of those countries.

The ingenuity and creativity of the Cuban people in creating one of the most popular spirits in the world and protecting the traditional methods used to produce it despite facing the adversity of one of the most well-known dictatorial government regimes in history, is certainly something to admire and be proud of.