Brow Beat

Now You Can Legally Drink Cuban Rum—but Should You?

A worker checks bottles at the Havana Club factory in San Jose de las Lajas, Cuba.  

Photo by ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP/Getty Images

Guy walks into a bar and says, “Isn’t there a bottle of Havana Club here?” Bartender purports not to know what the guy is talking about. Goes and gets the owner. Owner says, “How dare you come into my establishment asking for contraband!” Owner retreats to a personal storeroom, returns with bottles of three of the seven rums currently produced by Cuba’s foremost distillery.

This is last night, Wednesday night—a night after a day when the U.S. reestablished diplomatic relations with Cuba and lifted a trade embargo: “Licensed American travelers will be able to import … up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol”. This is the time to make tasting notes on the official rum of Castro’s Cuba.

Havana Club Añejo 3 Años This is a white rum smoother than Bacardi’s. But then so are some mildew removers. (N.B. A few years back, Bacardi—a company exiled from Cuba during the revolution—won a legal battle to use the Havana Club trademark in the U.S., and Bacardi’s fake Havana Club white rum is even unsmoother than its marquee product.)

The white Havana Club will make perfectly adequate daiquiris and mojitos, and its strong note of citrus makes me wonder how it’d do in a Jean Harlow.

Havana Club Añejo Reserva This is a dark rum. Its label seems deliberately vague about the nature of its aging. With its nutty sherry-like dryness, the Añejo Reserva is interesting enough to be unforgettable, but not good enough to merit active remembrance.

Havana Club Añejo 7 Años This is not bad—a dark rum with a caramel richness recalling the excellence of Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum. Of course, it doesn’t have the same heat:  Smith & Cross is 114 proof, which is “Navy Strength,” and the Havana Club is 80 proof, which is more like “Ensign’s Bloodstream.” Speaking of which: the Añejo 7 Años acquitted itself well in a Daiquiri variation called the Captain’s Blood.

Comprehensive Verdict These rums are perfectly decent, but nothing to write home about. Unless you are writing a postcard from Varadero Beach. For the length of the embargo, the appeal of Havana Club was its exclusivity, its exotic aroma of a duty-free escapade, and the glamour of the desire for the forbidden—plus the tropical haze of myth traditionally adhering to anything remotely connected to Martha Gellhorn’s alcoholic first husband getting hammered at El Floridita. The bar owner is sad to see that era end, nostalgic for the fading of an amateur smuggling endeavor driven by nostalgia itself. Still, he agrees that Havana Club rums just aren’t great.

But, to repeat, they’re not bad, no. The Slate Drink department hereby reminds you that the ugliest experience to be had with an adult beverage produced under a government hostile to the U.S. involves Pyongyang Soju, which tastes like Winston Smith’s Victory Gin in 1984: “The stuff was like nitric acid, and moreover, in swallowing it one had the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber club. The next moment, however, the burning in his belly died down and the world began to look more cheerful.”