No one knows for certain the origins of the word rum to describe this Caribbean spirit. I’d always assumed that the use of the word in English meaning “out of the ordinary” might derive from the behaviour of rum drinkers, but it seems the term pre-dates the spirit. As a result there are some that think the reverse is true and that the drink was described this way to show it as outstanding. Unlikely. Others think the name originates from Dutch drinking vessels, or the French word for Aroma, the Latin word for sugar or a Romani word for potent. It doesn’t really matter. Mention the word now and most people’s first thought will be of sugar based alcohol.
Despite Bacardi’s desertion of the island before the revolution, the production of rum continues to be an important industry in Cuba; it is of course the staple of all those cocktails that I referred to earlier, but Cuba’s official rum, Havana Club, is one of the world’s best sellers thanks to a partnership between the government and Pernod. With the easing of trade restrictions the battle with Bacardi is likely to continue, as there has been a long running dispute over ownership of the brand. Buy a Havana Club in the US and it will be made by Bacardi, which begs the question “How can it be a Havana rum?”. Elsewhere you’re on a safe bet that it’s the Cuban product.
Incidentally the symbol on the label of Havana Club is La Giraldilla, a weather vane that stands atop a watchtower of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. The statue is a symbol of the city.
The island’s history as a producer goes back to the time of slavery and sugar plantations. I had wrongly assumed that rum was produced using the sugar that was also refined on these plantations, but instead it is the waste from that refining that is used; the thick syrupy molasses left over after sugar crystallisation was fermented by slaves to make a drink that was quickly taken up by their entrepreneurial masters.
In contrast with sugar, where for many years the white granules were seen to be the best, most refined product, the reverse is true with rum (or ron as it is known in Spanish, hence ron Collins). The colourless liquid mixed into so many cocktails is the most basic form of the drink. Darker colours and flavours are developed by aging the spirit in oak casks, particularly those that have been used in the production of Scotch or Bourbon whiskey. Bacardi only make one grade under their Havana Club label, the Cubans make several, including a limited edition of only 1000 hand-blown bottles which at the time of writing were selling at nearly £1200 each online.
It’s a rum business.