Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Upsides of Sweden: Trade with Cuba

Ok, so this might be a bigger deal if I enjoyed tobacco, or if Systembolaget didn't charge so much tax on distilled spirits. But, still, this is pretty cool.

In the states, perhaps because of its very unavailability, Havana Club rum is a sort of holy grail. The biggest name in rum -- Bacardi -- was founded in Cuba and fled after Castro's revolution. The same is true of the Matusalem rum brand. Indeed, Cuba was, before the revolution, the home of the world's best-known rums.

The owners of the Havana Club, on the other hand, did not leave Cuba, and their assets were seized by the state. So Havana Club is a Communist product, now marketed by Pernod-Ricard all over the world...or most of the world, with the notable exception of one large nation just north of Cuba.

So, how is it? Well...let's just put things in perspective. Ron Bacardi, as everyone knows, is terrible. It's the worst kind of crap, which gets by on marketing and because it's cheap. It's tolerable in mixed drinks -- make sure you've got lots of ice in there -- but tasted straight, it's actually astounding how bad it is. The main flavor could be described as a sort of burnt, almost ashy taste. I'd rather drink Jim Beam than Bacardi, and I hate Beam.

So it's quite odd that I say this: Havana Club is sort of like Bacardi, but good. It's like it's what Bacardi is trying and failing to be. It's smoky -- the flavor comes from the heavily-toasted oak barrels its aged in -- but the flavors coalesce into something more like a whiskey than into the harsh sensory dissonance of Bacardi. This stuff can be sipped neat like a Scotch (though this bottle, the Añejo Reserva, isn't quite as smooth as a Scotch with a decade of age on it -- the average age of the rums is probably around five years) or makes a great mixer. It's really a little too good for mixed drinks. I was disappointed by the Dark & Stormy I made with it, but that might be the fault of the Swedish Schweppes "American" Ginger Ale I used, which seems to be the only ginger-type beverage allowed in Sweden. (I haven't seen any Barrit's, or any of the Schweppe's Ginger Beer, which is quite similar) However, pour some of this Havana Club over ice and add a bit of Coca-Cola and you've got yourself a true Cuba Libre, easily the best I've ever had. The smokiness and caramel of the rum meld with the Coke perfectly; this is a classy beverage, not the sticky-sweet headache-inducing beverage it tends to become with Bacardi.

So there it is. Just head on over to your local Systembolaget and plunk down your 269 SEK (about $35 at today's exchange rate) then head home and recline with a mojito and some late Hemingway.
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