The day after the Ministry of Rum festival, there was a rum event put on for bartenders that involved a boat ride sponsored by Bacardi followed by a debate from multiple rum producers in Oakland.
I learned a couple things about Bacardi rum on the boat before things got tense:
- Bacardi Superior (white) is a blend of two rums, one high proof and fairly neutral; the other distilled to lower proof with more flavor. In Puerto Rico rums have a minimum of one year aging before bottling. The two rums are distilled and aged separately then combined in some ratio at bottling time to make the final product.
- Bacardi Solera is an aged blend. The "solera" isn't anything like a traditional solera system (I am beginning to think that it's not in any rum brand that puts the word on the label), but is blended rum that is "married" in another cask before bottling. I believe this product is made in Mexico.
- Three countries in Europe accept sugar beet distillate as rum. In the US and in most countries, to be called rum it must be distilled from a sugar cane derivative.
- Puerto Rico put into place minimum aging laws after WWII. During the war they ran out of aged rum so people started selling basically moonshine fresh off the still. Laws were put into place to protect the quality of rum after this period. From the discussion that followed it seems that the law initially required several years of aging then it was reduced down to one year.
Then Things Got Interesting.
But the point of the cruise seemed to be to address the negative perception of Bacardi by top bartenders and rum connoisseurs. I am not so sure the cruise was successful at changing peoples' minds, but it was a step in the right direction.
"This is the most transparent Bacardi has ever been," said David Cid, Bacardi Brand Master Apprentice.
True enough, I learned that some of the rum is made in Mexico, that some used to be made on another Caribbean island, and a few other pieces of information that might have been previously glossed over. Cid says the press kit in the most extensive in the brand's history as well.
But the discussion went south when once again they tried to assert that the product is exactly the same as it was when it was made in pre-Castro Cuba before moving to Puerto Rico, and thus if bartenders are making classic rum cocktails they should make them with Bacardi.
The bartenders pointed out that the still was once a four-column still and now it has five columns, that they buy molasses on the open market, and that the product is bottled with local water in different markets and at different proofs. Also, some of the bartenders have tasted vintage Cuban Bacardi and say it tastes different than it does today.
Cid said that the product is distilled differently for bottlings of different proofs- it's not just a matter of adding more water. He also acknowledged that because distillation technology is better they would have to filter less now than they did previously to achieve the same flavor. He did a good job at explaining how Bacardi white could be the same as it used to.
At the end, the bartenders would not concede that the product is the same today as it once was. Cid would say that it is "scientifically possible" that the product tastes the same now as it did.
I think this could be mostly solved with a minor change of phrase. Perhaps Bacardi could state that it is an accurate recreation of the product as it was made in Cuba produced with today's more efficient, consistent, and environmentally-friendly technology. Then the bartenders could choose to believe it or not.
In any case, this boat trip was a case of another brand dipping their toes into the new model of transparent business practices. Patron tequila seems to be doing the same thing by bringing people to the new distillery and bringing around the master distiller for interviews.
It's a tough place to be for companies that have relied on secrecy (and many would say disinformation) in the past and have built up a lot of distrust in connoisseurs of their categories. It will be interesting to see if and how these companies can work to change their reputations and working relationships with bartenders.
Important business relationships happen on the front lines- between the sales, PR, and brand ambassadors and the bartenders and consumers. In the newer business environment fostered by the advance of social media these relationships are becoming even more significant, and now some business decisions result from front line interactions rather than meetings in corporate boardrooms.
So hopefully the higher-ups at Bacardi will listen to front-line conversations like this one on the boat and keep taking steps toward increased transparency.