The Magazine

Cuba's Gift

Building the market for rum, and a brand name.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba

The Biography of a Cause

by Tom Gjelten

Viking, 480 pp., $27.95

Anyone interested in drinking knows that Bacardi is one of the world's great brands. It's the third largest spirits company in the world, and owns not only Bacardi rum, but also Martini and Rossi,
Dewar's whiskey, Bombay Sapphire gin, and other products. But it's also a secretive family-owned multinational corporation; the company's current president, Facundo Bacardi, is the great-great grandson and namesake of the firm's founder.

Any family-owned firm that has lasted for more than three generations has a story worth telling, and Tom Gjelten, a correspondent for National Public Radio, has decided to use the family chronicle of the Bacardis as a way to tell the history of Cuba.

If this volume were a cocktail, it would comprise two parts Cuban history to one part corporate history. But Gjelten's book would have been more successful if the proportions were reversed. He spends far too much time and energy describing Cuban politics before Fidel Castro and not enough space discussing Bacardi's history. In particular, he gives minimal space to the technical advances that ensured that Bacardi rum became one of the world's great brands. So while Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba is worth reading, it would have been stronger if it devoted more space to business and less to politics.

The Bacardi story begins in 1862 when the company's founder, Facundo Bacardi Massó, decided to open a distillery in Santiago, Cuba's second largest city. Rum makers are among the world's oldest enterprises; some Caribbean firms have been making rum since the 18th century. But these old rums were dark beverages that often acquired off-flavors. Bacardi's was different. It was the first light, or "silver," rum. It's not certain why Bacardi came up with his innovation, but he was the first rum maker to char his barrels and to use American white oak for the barrel staves, which ensured that rum aged in the oak barrels had a light, crisp taste.

Whatever the reason for its creation, Bacardi's light rum proved popular. Bacardi was an excellent marketer, and his talents at marketing were exceeded by his son-in-law and successor, Enrique Schueg, who expanded Bacardi Rum's presence overseas, including an important expansion into Puerto Rico. Finally, Bacardi Rum was helped when its chemists discovered, in the 1940s, that they could duplicate the flavor profile of high-sulfite Cuban molasses in any Bacardi distillery. This ensured that Bacardi could be consistently made anywhere, making it more of a rootless product like lager beers than older rums, single-malt whiskies, or fine wines that are tied to a particular place.

Gjelten also shows that Americans did a great deal to ensure Bacardi Rum's success. The Rough Riders who charged San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War of 1898 came home with a taste for rum, and brought the daiquiri and the Cuba libre (rum and Coca-Cola) back to America with them. In the 1920s thirsty Americans fled Prohibition for Havana to spend their days downing potent Bacardi-based cocktails at Sloppy Joe's and the
Plaza. In the 1950s a third generation of Americans flocked to Havana to gamble and take in shows, mostly in Mafia-controlled nightclubs.

In his best chapters, Gjelten shows what happened when the Bacardi family was caught in Castro's takeover of the country. In the 1950s Bacardi Rum was the second largest company in Cuba. Many Bacardi heirs dabbled in radical politics and Bacardi's president, Jose "Pepin" Bosch, thought of himself as a political liberal and his firm as an enlightened company that provided its workers with good benefits and high wages.

Of the Bacardis who dabbled in radical politics, none was as fervent as Vilma Espín, daughter of Bacardi Rum's chief accountant, who quit the company, joined the revolution, and subsequently married Raúl Castro! When Raúl, Fidel, and their fellow guerrillas ousted the dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, the official Bacardi company magazine editorialized that "today we Cubans are happy. We have faith in our nation, and we hope that our country can be organized for the benefit of all and not just for the few."