What the New Cuban Rum Laws Mean for Bartenders

Bartender Joaquin Simo behind a bar in Havana, Cuba

Regardless of politics, most of us can agree on one thing about Cuban rum — we want to drink (and serve) it.

On October 17th, President Obama lifted a few more restrictions on the importation of Cuban products, including rum. In 2014, it ceased to be illegal to purchase Cuban rum and bring it back from travels for personal use, but there was a $100 limit for alcohol and tobacco products. Although the government still has state-specific rules for how much alcohol a person can bring home in their luggage, that limit has been lifted. While it doesn’t mark the end of the embargo, many see it as a step in that direction.

In February of 1962, it became illegal for an American citizen to sip a daiquiri made with Cuban rum (even if that American was abroad). In spite of this, Cuban rum has a siren song as strong as the cigars it often enhances, inspiring over fifty years of creative smugglers.

“I think for a significant chunk of the audience within the US, this is a very big deal,” says Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons in New York City. “All the people abroad are shrugging their shoulders and saying ‘What's the big deal? We've been pouring with Havana Club for years.’ If they're watching this, they're watching it slightly amused.”

For Simó, using Cuban rum is all part of the desire for authenticity in ingredients. “This is the obsession with history and wanting to try to understand what these drinks originally were,” he says. “The ability to get Cuban rum and then be able to make ‘authentic versions’ of such iconic cocktails like a daiquiri, like a Hotel Nacional, like a mojito, things that are engrained in us. I think more than anything else the legend of agricultural products of Cuba, in particular tobacco and rum, have persisted for so long and they've grown so big that I think so many people are just going to be curious to see: could this possibly live up to the hype?”

The lifting of restrictions is a nice bonus for Julio Cabrera, managing partner and head bartender of Miami's Regent Cocktail Club. In the last few years, Cabrera has taken over 60 top US bartenders to Cuba to experience the cantinero culture and learn about Cuban rum. “Everybody wants to go, but it's very selective,” he says. “It's not just the best bartenders, they have to be good people as well. Some of the people want to go to hang out, to drink rum, to get wasted. Not with me. With me you have to go to learn, to do professional research.”

For Cabrera, one of the benefits of the new rules comes in the form of education for more bartenders who might not be able to get to Cuba, but have colleagues who do. “When that moment comes and we can import rums from Cuba, I think people are going to be ready for that. Bartenders are going to be more ready because they already know the brands and they're going to realize how good Cuban rum is.”

Nick Detrich, bartender at Cane & Table in New Orleans, already takes a lot of cues from Cuban culture. “Part of the reason I'm so excited is because of the impact that Cuban bartending and the cantineros have had on the United States and the bartending community,” he says. For Detrich, a little trembling at customs is all part of the American experience. “No one has a tradition like the US does, with Prohibition and rum running. Rum smuggling is an American tradition.”

Detrich’s approach, before the restrictions lifted, was to declare a piece of sausage, which he would willingly give over, hoping no one would probe deeper and find the three bottles of Havana Club hidden in the bottom of his suitcase. Simó has heard tell of dummy luggage and two-liter soda bottles. “My wife I think has just recently forgiven me for wrapping up a bottle of Cuban rum in a cashmere dress of hers, all the while assuring her no harm would come to it,” he says. “It provided just enough padding, not a drop was on the dress.”

Although there is a thrill to illicit importation, for a bartender there is usually more to Cuban rum’s allure. “You would go to these lengths, you wanted to bring it back to the bar,” says Simó. “You wanted to have it stashed away somewhere where no one would see it but you could pull it out for your friends, or your colleagues, for your dearest regulars when they would come to visit.” It’s all part of a deep commitment to hospitality. “We have always found a way to get our hands on this, and more often than not it wasn't a monetary thing, it wasn't like, ‘Oh, now I'm going to charge you 20 bucks for this daiquiri because you can't get it anywhere else,’” says Simó “More often than not it was an act of generosity, it was an act of hospitality, it was a way of acknowledging a treasured guest, a momentous occasion, by saying ‘Hey I've got something really special that I'd like to share with you.’”

Detrich is looking forward to exploring a wider variety of Cuban rum, beyond Havana Club, now that more of it will be trickling into the US. “The first time I was in Cuba we drank a lot of Santiago de Cuba 11 year rum. That, for me, is something that's incredibly special because it's something that you can't find easily outside of Cuba.”

Cabrera looks forward to bringing over his collection of vintage Cuban rums. “I was afraid that they would take it away from me at the airport,” he says. “Now I can bring it and put it behind my bar, just to display.”

Cuban rum has such a legacy of secrecy and mystique, it’s easy to wonder what might happen if the embargo is lifted at last. “There would be fewer colorful stories about how many condoms full of the stuff you swallowed on the way in, or whatever devious methods of importing,” says Simó. “You lose some of that, sure, but then the specialness becomes closer to the stories we've always told that link us to the past and that speak of tradition, that speak of family sometimes, of local practices. Our ability to discern and explain that, not in a long pedantic history lesson but rather, if our excitement about why we picked this bottle for that drink can be conveyed to a guest, they too will be excited about it.”

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink for online and print publications. She’s always up for a conversation about cocktail history, preferably over a Corpse Reviver #2.

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