by Kenn Gargett
Great rum is a strange beast.
There is no question that rum at its finest is as thrilling a spirit as to be found on this planet. And, yet, that is rarely reflected in the price (a good thing) or discussions among spirit aficionados (not such a good thing).
Sure, there are a few of great age in ornate decanters at mind-numbing prices, but in general in the world of spirits there is no better value than a top rum.
This, of course, leads to debates about just what is the greatest rum ever made. I can’t claim to have tried every one, sadly, but there is a mythical bottling that truly embodies everything that is great about rum: pirates, buried treasure, missing gems, tropical islands, and silver ghosts.
My unintended search for the greatest rum of all time
My search for the greatest rum started nearly two decades ago, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was on one of my early visits to Cuba – friends and I had started to travel regularly to Cuba to chase the silver ghost.
For the uninitiated, “silver ghost” is the nickname given to one of the world’s great sport fish, the amazing bonefish found on the salt flats of Las Salinas. Unlike most sport fish, bonefish are not huge monsters. Rather, they are reasonably small, nosing about the shallows for a careless shellfish.
Their attraction lies in the extraordinary power they have for their size, and the speeds they can reach when hooked. I swear my first bonefish stripped 100 meters off the reel in the first four seconds.
I will confess that we also took time to enjoy the music, rum, scenery, and cigars on offer on that wonderful island, making many friends over the years.
Some of those rums were eye-openers, and on my first trip I returned home with a bottle of the Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo, one of a limited release of 12,000 bottles to celebrate the 485th anniversary of the town of Santiago (who knows quite why it celebrated a 485th?).
It was so successful that Santiago (the distiller, not the town) – for me the leading Cuban producer – morphed it into the Ron Santiago 20 Years, now part of its regular production. It was a revelation: smooth, subtle, and with such persistence of flavors.
On a subsequent visit, I asked a friend, Hamlet Parides (cigar lovers will recognize the name as Hamlet was considered one of the greatest cigar rollers in Cuba; he now works with Rocky Patel in Florida) if there was anything that could compare. As well as a brilliant cigar roller, Hamlet loves his rums. He told me of another and promised to chase it for me.
Hamlet’s chase, including Fidel Castro’s cigars
By the time of the next visit, he had located a rare bottle of the Ron Edmundo Dantès Gran Reserva 25 Years. It was superb. And of course, I did not stop there.
“Anything better?” I asked, more in hope than expectation.
Hamlet laughed and thought about it. “No,” he said, ”unless the legend of the Isla del Tesoro is real.”
“Treasure Island”? Naturally, I had to know more. Hamlet told me the story. But first . . .
Those familiar with the famous Cohiba cigars will know the story of how, in 1963, Fidel Castro was traveling around the island with his bodyguard and friend, Bienvenido Pérez, better known as “Chicho.”
Castro had run out of his own cigars and asked Chicho if he might pinch one of his (you’d have been a brave Cuban to refuse!). The cigar was a Lancero, Castro’s favorite (long and thin – 7 9/16 inches and a 38-ring gauge – for those not familiar, Lancero is a shape popular among genuine cigar lovers, but one that seems to be becoming less and less available as the trend toward big fat cigars continues).
El Jefe was blown away by it but did not recognize it. Chicho explained that it was rolled for him by a friend, Eduardo Rivera – quite a common practice for local farmers, but they rarely have access to quality tobacco and the standards are little more than basic at best. “Farm-rolled” is a common term in Cuba. Don’t buy them, though, except as curiosities; these days, they are likely to be sold to gullible tourists and often contain banana leaves and even newspaper.
Castro asked a few questions and issued instructions: Rivera was to be installed in the beautiful el Laguito mansion, formerly the home of a sugar baron, in the Miramar district on the edge of Havana (only open to tourists during the annual cigar festival, but even the grounds are worth a stop) to roll cigars exclusively for Castro, though very soon some were set aside as gifts for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.
By 1966, the cigars were called Cohiba, an indigenous term for a bundle of tobacco leaves that was ritually smoked.
They received their distinctive gold and black band at a function in Madrid at the Ritz Hotel, but it was not until 1989 that the first Cohibas were made available to the general public. They are still generally acknowledged as the leading Cuban cigar.
How does this relate to rum?
Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone, a similar program was set up with the Santiago distillery to blend a rum without peer, which could also be given to heads of state, though one suspects a fair bit found its way to Castro.
I say “blend,” as this rum was made from very old material, much of it two decades or more old, that was distilled many years before the Revolution. Word did filter out about this mythical rum but, as Hamlet told me, he’d only ever heard vague stories. Neither he nor anyone he knew had ever seen a bottle, let alone tasted it.
I never forgot the story, though I never expected to find a bottle.