I recently had the privilege of going where not too many have gone before to see the San José Distillery. I’ll walk you through the tour I took so you can learn, as I did, how Havana Club creates its signature Cuban rums.

Touring the Havana Club San José Distillery

Although there are more than 140 Cuban rum brands, just ten distilleries are operational on the island. At 30 hectares, San José is the largest dark rum production site in the world, with 290 employees (286 Cuban workers here, four French) working here, a huge chunk of the circa 550 total Havana Club employees. Every time the brand releases a limited edition, like its 30 Aniversario edition (marking the Pernod Ricard partnership, we’ll get to that in a second), each worker gets a bottle. 

The San José distillery began operations in 2007 and it’s one of two sites that produces Havana Club. The other is Santa Cruz del Norte distiller, opened in 1977, where the white rum is made.  Molasses, fermentation, yeast, and column stills design are all the same at each distillery but San José specialises in brown rum. It was built in collaboration with Havana Club co-owner Pernod Ricard. In 1993, the state-run bottler of Havana Club and other alcoholic beverages in Cuba, Corporación Cuba Ron, became equal partners in the brand with Pernod Ricard following a meeting between Patric Ricard and Fidel Castro.

About 5 million cases of Havana Club is produced annually across both distilleries, each producing around half.  But there is the potential to double that if necessary. For example, if the US embargo is lifted. While most rum brands are contending with rising costs, energy demands, supply chain woes, transportation costs… Cuban rum brands deal with an added complication. No trade with the United States, who make up 35% of the world’s rum market. That means Havana Club only trades with 65% of the current market. If the embargo was lifted the brand would need to be prepared to sell to the US that day so it plans well in advance.

These distilleries are industrial giants, churning out great quantities of spirit. But quality is assured because Cuban rum has an advantage: regulation, regulation, regulation. Rum is often belittled as being the ‘wild west’ of the spirit world, with no framework to protect the category’s reputation. The likes of Martinique and Cuba demonstrate it’s possible. It might not be glamorous, it might seem restrictive. But Scotch whisky is an example of how a firm infrastructure can benefit a spirit category and good producers will always find ways to be creative.

The Havana Club San José Distillery

Welcome to the Havana Club San José Distillery

How Havana Club rum is made: sugarcane and fermentation

One such law is that all Cuban rum must be made from Cuban molasses. This brings us neatly to production. We were told at the Havana Club Rum Museum the day prior that there are more than one hundred varieties of sugar cane in Cuba. During harvest, or la Zafra, which typically runs from December to April, sugarcane is harvested across the island. Cuba has quite a reputation for sugarcane. Just as its climate and environment is ideal for tobacco production, the cornerstone of its cigar fame, the refined sugar obtained from Cuban sugar cane was known as white gold – oro blanco – during the colonial period thanks to its world-famous quality. By the end of the 18th century, Cuba was the biggest exporter of sugar in the world. 

There are several refineries left on the island, though not nearly as many as there were during the 18th-century heyday, which processes all of the island’s cane into molasses. “The molasses used has certain special characteristics. The molasses honey is stored here and can be here for a long time, from that molasses the process starts,” says our tour guide, Asbel Morales, maestro del ron Cubano (rum master) for Havana Club. 

We approach the distillation plant, a huge sprawling steel structure, entirely outdoors, all pipes, cylinders, stairs, tanks, and stills. At one end are huge short-term molasses holding tanks that can hold 1,500 tonnes and keep the distillery in supply for fifteen days at a time. Then, eight 30ft fermentation tanks, with 11,000 litres of molasses – or miel de caña – foaming and bubbling with the promise of rum. Finally, twice as tall, two skyscraper column stills. It’s not a glamorous sight, but it’s a striking and impressive one. 

“This is where the first part of the process of rum happens, the seed of the rum that we’re going to have, where the first aromas and flavours are created,” Morales says. “Nobody in the world can make a spirit like we do here, we obtain a unique distilled product for our rum”. 

Morales then takes us through the fermentation process. “We have a unique yeast that is only used for Havana Club, we do not share it with anyone. The fermentation has three stages, planting of the yeast, pre-fermentation, and the fermentation as such, a very particular process that is controlled. Here that’s 24 hours, which gives a ‘wine’ (vina de caña) of 6-7% ABV, already giving you some sensorial products and is the aromatic base of our rum flavour”. In Cuban rum law, there is no minimum or maximum fermentation duration. But shorter fermentations are typical. A cultivated yeast is required and it is specified that the molasses must have a low concentration of acids and cannot contain sulphur dioxide because of its destructive impact on the rum’s aroma.

the Havana Club San José Distillery

Where the rum is made

How Havana Club rum is made: distillation

Every four hours, another 11,000 litres completes its fermentation, the yeast is centrifuged out and then the wine can be distilled. Cuban rum is made through a continuous distillation process, which means the fermented liquid is constantly fed into a column, continuously separated into its components by heating and cooling, and the purified fractions are collected simultaneously. 

“The double-column setup meets national requirements and regulations, it has to have copper, but that particular design is very specific for our production and exclusive to Havana Club. We don’t share why with anyone in the world,” Morales explains. “In that column, there are 25 plates, the 20 lowest are steel and then five top are copper. The fermented wine goes inside, and the steam goes up and in that meeting, the lighter components go higher with the steam until it goes out at the top of the column. They are condensed to transform the steam into the spirit, about 74-76% ABV. All this happens with very strict control of temperature, the concentration of sugar and acidity. That spirit is a fresh one”. 

A clear glass spirits receiver captures a flow of distillate for sampling. What you would taste here is aguardiente (Spanish for ‘fire water’), one of two column distillates produced in Cuba. The other is destilado de caña a redistilled spirit made to a higher proof and is light and adaptable, used for blending purposes, serving a similar purpose to grain whisky in Scotch. Aguardiente, by contrast, comes off the still at 74-76% ABV and is a sweet, grassy, flavourful spirit not unlike agricole rhum. Santa Cruz del Norte makes both, here at San José aguardiente is made. It’s a beautiful spirit, one I’d happily drink neat or aged and presented without blending. That’s just not the Cuban way, however. I also love that column stills and short fermentation can produce big, flavourful spirits.

the Havana Club San José Distillery

There over 200,000 barrels on site here

How Havana Club rum is made: ageing

While the spirit that comes off the stills here is tasty, the true flavour of Cuban rum is created through ageing and blending. The site boasts nine warehouses, or bodegas, and we entered one to see barrels stacked high, five pallets containing two rows of four barrels stretching up to the ceiling. There’s more than 25,000 barrels here, with over 200,000 in total. They’re mostly ex-whisky barrels, which first contained bourbon and then either Scotch or Irish whiskey. Given the Pernod Ricard connection, we can guess that Chivas and Jameson previously filled a good majority. 

It’s compulsory in Cuba to use white oak, but that can be North American or European. For Havana Club, the European oak is mainly from France and typically aged wine or whisky. Moraleses says the barrels often arrive with 10-15 litres left in them, so they wash it out fresh for the rum. He also says they cannot use virgin barrels in Cuba, and that they want them to have already been used for 15-20 years. “For us it’s new,” he says with a smile. “We don’t look for wood in the barrel or the rum. We look for a soft ageing process”. Some of these barrels are a century old. The more aged the rum is, the older the barrel it’s aged in, so only the finest rum goes into these. 

To understand the art of Cuban rum ageing, you have to appreciate the difference between extractive and oxidative ageing. The former is the spirit taking on the characteristics of the wood. Oak has a lot of vanillin, hence vanilla, so a virgin white American oak cask gives a bourbon a lot of flavours of vanilla. But oxidative ageing is about the process of flavour developing due to prolonged exposure to evaporation (or the Angel’s Share) and oxygen. A new barrel gives you a lot of extractive ageing. But an old barrel is better for oxidative ageing and it’s common for a Cuban rum to be rotated through a number of barrels, as blending rums from multiple barrels and re-barreling the blend keeps reintroducing oxygen. “We do not use the solera ageing. It’s a total ageing,” Morales summarises. 

Once the rum is aged, it needs to go through what Morales calls a “purification process”, which means filtering with active charcoal. Carbon filtration is a legal requirement in Cuban rum and while the exact makeup of the different charcoals used for filtration are closely held secrets, it occurs in huge silver tanks we see near the bodegas. Once it is filtered, it is not finished, though. It’s then ready to blend. 

the Havana Club San José Distillery

There’s a real craft to Cuban rum

How Havana Club rum is made: blending

Another key feature of Cuban rum production is the creation of ‘base rum’, which is just a constant supply of aged rum. By Cuban law, you need to age rum for at least a year, but at Havana Club, the basic minimum requirement is two years. But that’s not yet what Morales describes as the “commercial rum”, the finished product. That’s just a fresh base, treated as one spice on a great wooden spice rack. He says they make 15-20 different bases all from one distillate that are all sent to the blending area. 

“Only once it is blended is Cuban rum ready to be bottled,” Morales states. “If you ask me, what makes our rum unique? Type of yeast, the spirit we obtain, the ageing in stages. You fill up the barrel, age it, and extract all the volume of the barrel, and you put another fresh base to age. You never mix bases inside of the barrel”. 

He continues: “Everything is humidity and temperature from the Cuban climate. That favours the ageing that happens quicker than in Scotch whisky, for example, four or five times quicker. The angel’s share here is about 6-8%. The humidity is very high, which favours the evaporation of the alcohol over the water. ”.

More humid and hot climates accelerate spirit maturation in barrels by increasing the rate of chemical reactions and the interaction between the spirit and the wood, leading to faster flavour development and ageing. The Denominación de Origen Protegida, Cuba’s rum legislation, underlines how crucial it is:

“The climate of Cuba is characterised by an air temperature with small temperature variations (from 20 to 35 degrees Celsius in 90% of the year). This means that the final honey [sugar cane molasses] from Cuban sugarcane differs from molasses from other regions due to the characteristics and particularities of the Cuban climate. Also, the high sugar concentration decreases water activity and guarantees great stability”. 

Ageing bodega at the Havana Club San José Distillery

The climate in Cuba has a big impact on the rum’s character

The maestro roneros

Morales is a maestro ronero, a master rum blender whose role entails overseeing the entire rum production process, from selecting the raw materials to ageing and blending the final product. In Scotch whisky, anyone can set up a distillery and that day declares themselves a master blender or distiller. Not in Cuba. It takes years of training and experience to become a Maestro Ronero. You don’t pass a specific test, the other members deem your worthiness and new recruits are few. 

There are only nine across the whole island, five here at Havana Club. Well, technically four officials and one apprentice, Manny. He’s worked at San José since 2007, but it was only in 2021 he was introduced to the maestros circle. Together they all set the standards and uphold them, preserving their cultural product across brands and distilleries. They represent Cubaron the organisation and Cuban ron, the spirit. They have proposed to the government to further legitimise the status. Havana Club’s Selección de Maestro celebrates them all and is made with input from every Cuban Maestro Roneros, regardless of their distillery or brand.

“History, culture, tradition, geographical intricacies, chemistry, food… there are many things here that you cannot learn at university, this is more than an academic degree,” says Morales. “We have ultra-modern equipment nowadays to ensure the rum is about the standard. But we rely on sight, nose, not the taste. You may say ‘How come?’. These techniques have been harnessed for 150 years. Parts are computerised, but the one who decides if the rum is true is the human. The spirit is not only alcohol, it’s other elements, the body, and the aroma, that will define the rum”.

They have a ritual for testing aguardiente, rubbing it in their hands and feeling the texture and then nosing the spirit on their hands after it has been aired by swinging their arms back and forth. “Different alcohols unify and form a very oily fine layer, and according to the thickness you feel in your hands, you may decide whether it’s good enough. The aromatic composition must take you to the fresh sugarcane. To the field. When you feel the harvest. A fresh aroma of grass, different wild herbs… it must take you there. You decide then if you can pass it to the barrel,” says Morales. “Forget about all the sophisticated equipment at that moment. If you get this wrong, you can age it for 100 years, you can never get a Havana Club rum. We only have hours to make this decision. It requires a lot of experience and training”. ⁠

Rum at the Havana Club San José Distillery

Sipping rum at the Havana Club San José Distillery is one hell of an experience

Concluding our tour of the Havana Club Rum Distillery

Fresh from a Cuban rum masterclass, we leave the bodegas and head to an embotellado room, where one of many bottling plants resides. Every Havana Club rum is bottled by them on-site. 

That day they’re bottling Havana Club Máximo Extra Añejo and somehow one bottle finds its way into our glass. Morales generously shares the bottle’s content and leads us into several Cuban toasts. It’s a celebration of an unforgettable experience. Cuban rum is a fascinating spirit, full of detail and dedication. Drinking it knowing how much craft, legacy, and love has gone into makes the rum taste all the richer for it. Or maybe I’m just thirsty. It really was very warm.