Washington (AFP) – It’s a fight over ownership, heritage, revolution and rum.
It’s a dispute that has lasted for decades over who is a “real” Cuban, and pits US rum powerhouse Bacardi against French spirits giant Pernod Ricard and its association with the Castro regime to produce Havana Club, the best known Cuban brand.
It involves court battles over trademarks, legislation in the US Congress, and deep feelings of nostalgia and loss.
Bacardi has launched an all-out marketing offensive to stake its claim to the US market for its version of Havana Club, made with the original recipe purchased in 1994 from the brand’s founders, the Arechabala family.
But Pernod Ricard insists its Havana Club is the authentic version since it is distilled in Cuba with 100 percent Cuban ingredients.
“Pernod Ricard joined forces with the government in order to get profits from that stolen property,” Bacardi brand executive Roberto Ramirez told AFP.
Bacardi began selling its Havana Club in 1995, produced in Puerto Rico and sold in the US market with the slogan: “Forced from home. Aged in Exile. Forever Cuban.”
The Arechabala and Bacardi families were forced from home in the aftermath of Castro’s revolution and had all their assets seized, including their rum-making factories.
While Bacardi had already established distilleries offshore, including in Puerto Rico, the Arechabalas, who had been making Havana Club since 1934, and distilling rum for decades before that, did not have the resources to start over, so their US trademark lapsed in 1974.
The Castro government’s Cuba Ron SA swooped in and registered the name with US authorities, but because of the US trade embargo against the island nation could not sell Havana Club to the key American market.
Since 1993, the Cuban company has been co-owned with Pernod Ricard, the world’s number two spirits maker, which sued Bacardi for using the trademark.
The firm dismisses the Puerto Rican version as an upstart and says Bacardi is misleading consumers with “false claims” they are the original Havana Club.
– Don’t tell us we’re not Cuban –
Bacardi has hit back hard, defending its Cuban roots and its authentic recipe. It also has the support of legislators from Florida who proposed a new law to ban the US from recognizing trademarks stolen by the Castro government.
In January, the rum maker released a campaign featuring a Cuban-American walking through Miami’s little Havana — or real Havana? — reciting a poem about home.
“Forced to leave home, but home never leaves us. Wherever exile takes us… We walk carrying the musica of our island and the amber rum born from it,” the poem says.
“Don’t tell us we’re not Cuban.”
And Bacardi has launched an interactive theatrical experience and tasting called “Amparo” to tell the story of the Arechabalas and the “legacy that the government tried to erase.”
It was shown in New York on Tuesday, and the goal is “to tell the real story of how the real Havana Club was founded, and how that property was stolen,” Ramirez said.
Amparo Arechabala, who lived the events that were the inspiration for the show, said it was emotional but a proud moment.
“My husband Ramon insisted and insisted for so many years that he wanted to give it to the world, the real Havana Club,” she said.
– Marketing tool –
But which is the real Cuban rum: the one made in Cuba or the one made with the original family recipe?
Ramirez said the recipe “is part of the magic.”
London-based rum expert Ian Burrell agrees the recipe certainly matters since the rum masters — the maestro roneros — mix different batches and even different yeasts to create their own “unique style of flavor.”
“So there is a really big difference between the two products,” he told AFP.
“To me as a bartender, both rums can be used in different ways as a base for cocktails that showcase their qualities.”
But neither version is like their pre-Castro ancestors — which he has tasted and compared — so the fight also is about using the Cuba designation which is “quite an important part of marketing,” he said.
“For me, looking from the outside, it’s an important marketing tool in the fight against their rivals Havana Club.”
The Bacardi family “want to retain their Cuban heritage” and “still see themselves as Cuban,” Burrell said. But Pernod Ricard is “rightly aggrieved” it cannot use its trademarked product in the US market.
Bacardi late last year sued the US government over the retroactive renewal of Cuba’s export trademark registration, which “violated well-settled United States law,” Bacardi’s lawyers at Kelley Drye & Warren said in the complaint.
The company also argues that a trademark must be used to be enforced — something the Cuban version has not been able to do for 60 years.
Ramirez said the company has asked the courts to clarify and “we’re confident” in the outcome.
Meanwhile, Pernod Ricard also has trademarked the name “Havanista” to sell its rebranded Havana Club rum in the US — should the embargo be lifted.