SAN JOSE DE LAS LAJAS, Cuba – Due in part to the longstanding US trade embargo and endemic currency crises, shortages of all different types of goods intermittently occur at Cuban supermarkets.
The lone exception is rum, which is continually mass-produced no matter what economic problems arise.
“Our export volume is huge, and this ensures that all of the authorities prioritize our production,” Sergio Valdes, market development director for Cuban rum maker Havana Club, told EFE when asked why that product never disappears from shelves on the Caribbean island.
At the San Jose rum distillery in the western town of San Jose de las Lajas, where Havana Club’s renowned dark rums are produced, machines operate around the clock to fill, label and seal thousands of bottles of Añejo Especial, Añejo Reserva, Añejo 7 Años, Seleccion de Maestros and other blends.
Founded in 1993, Havana Club International is a joint venture between state-run Corporacion Cuba Ron and French alcoholic beverage maker Pernod Ricard, whose brand portfolio includes Absolut Vodka and Chivas Regal.
“There are companies in the world with shareholders and that’s what Havana Club is, a corporation with shareholders ... two in this instance, each with a 50 percent stake,” Valdes said.
Annual sales totaled less than 300,000 (nine-liter) cases in the first year after the joint venture was formed, according to the market development director.
But steady growth in production resulted in a record 4.7 million cases being produced in the most recent full fiscal year (July 2018 to June 2019).
Valdes said Havana Club ranks as the world’s third-biggest rum brand and 23rd-largest spirits brand despite not having access to the US market due to Washington’s decades-old embargo on the Communist-ruled island.
Even so, a limited amount of Havana Club rum has made its way to the US since 2016, when then-President Barack Obama eased the embargo by allowing travelers to purchase Cuban rum and cigars in any country where they are sold as long as they are for personal consumption.
Havana Club International exports around 75 percent of its annual production to more than 100 countries and still remains hopeful of gaining full access to the US market (one of the brand’s rum masters said in 2016 that the company would be ready “tomorrow”).
Germany and France are the biggest markets for this Cuban rum brand, which achieved double-digit growth in Spain last year, Valdes said.
While the company’s leadership roles are shared between French and Cuban executives, those responsible for producing the rum - known in the industry as master blenders - are all natives of the Caribbean island.
“This is because you don’t become a master rum distiller in two days or two years or even in five years. The ones we have finished university, began working in the rum industry and worked their way up, and today they’re rum masters,” the market development director said.
He added that unlike in family businesses in other countries in which that position is passed down from generation to generation, master blenders in Cuba are selected and trained in a merit-based process.
“When a person identified as a potential rum master in the coming years is identified, he or she undergoes a thorough training process, works in different production areas and finally becomes a master of rum,” Valdes said.