A tale of two Havana Clubs - the background

Havana Club rum, what’s the difference?

Havana Club rum, what’s the difference?

A brief guide to the story behind the Havana Club rum brand

Walking past the rum aisle in any bottle shop in Australia, you’d be hard pressed not to find a Havana Club in the rum section.  And with good reason – this Havana Club sells more than 4 million cases annually. Yet behind the label of this ubiquitous bottle lies a saga that almost beggars belief, a story that has spanned decades and a battle that pitches one Goliath of the drinks industry against another.

Few may realise that there are in fact two different Havana Clubs in the world - the version sold in the USA alone is made by Bacardi in Puerto Rico and the version sold in Australia (and the rest of world) is made in Cuba and distributed by Pernod Ricard. So which is the real Havana Club?

Like any other scandal, the answer to that question is mired in allegations vs counter-allegations and whose side you choose to take. The roots of the dispute lie in the Cuban revolution in 1959. It has been widely accepted that in the lead up to the revolution, the Arechabala family made Havana Club, primarily for export to the USA. Post 1959, the nationalisation of many of the country's industries saw the government (forcibly) taking over ownership of distilleries previously under the stewardship of families such as the Arechabalas. A state-owned organisation Cuba Ron was set up to manage the country's rum production. In time, Cuba-Ron entered into a joint venture with Pernod Ricard to market and sell Havana Club, which by this time was being produced in Cuba via a collective effort of a group of rum masters employed by the state. Pernod Ricard would come to market and sell the "new" Havana Club globally, with the exception of America (due to to trade sanctions imposed following the revolution).

Having fled the country in exile and without recourse to any facilities, the Arechabalas ceased making rum and crucially, let their trademark for Havana Club lapse when it came up for renewal in 1973 in USA (reportedly because they believed they needed to be producing rum in order to be able to submit their application). Notwithstanding that it couldn't sell its Havana Club in USA at the time, Cuba Ron re-registered the trademark in its name and subsequently assigned the rights to it to Pernod-Ricard as part of their joint venture agreement.

All remained calm until the late 90s, when the Arechabala family sold their recipe and any claim they had to the Havana Club name to Bacardi. Exiled along with the Arechabalas, the Bacardis had also been producing rum in Cuba before the revolution.  Fortunately for the Bacardis however, they had expanded to countries such Puerto Rico prior to their exile, which allowed them to continue making rum post 1959. It was when Bacardi started selling their Puerto Rico-made Havana Club in the USA that the fuse was lit for a legal battle that would rage for the years to follow. The legal wrangling continues to this day - at the heart of it, the Arechabalas (and Bacardi) insist that they never voluntarily gave up the rights to the trademark whilst the Cubans insist otherwise. Much has been written about the ongoing battles (Both Cocktail Wonk and writer Paul Senft have done detailed write ups here and here) and thus far Bacardi has managed to keep the upper hand. But with the adoption of a new foreign policy by the Obama administration, it seems the day may soon dawn when the Cuban product will grace the shelves of US liquor stores. 

For now, the two versions sit alongside one another (metaphorically speaking) and dramatic stories aside, the real question is: how will they fare in the taste test? Read it here!