Varadero comes highly recommended as Cuba’s main beach resort and features prominently in most tourist guides, but many of its attractions are still unknown to many a visitor. This is the case of the Rum Factory "Eladio de Marcos", formerly called the Jose Arechabala Factory S.A., and officially known as the birthplace of the famous Havana Club Rum.
You will find the origins of this special Cuban rum in the nearby town of Cardenas, about 20 minutes by car from Varadero. Born in 1934, this rum has enchanted many people in Cuba and around the world.
A little background history
The origins of this factory go back to 1878, when Basque immigrant Don Jose Arechabala opened "La Vizcaya" distillery in Cardenas.
Don Jose Arechabala arrived to Havana at the age of 15, from the city of Bilbao in the province of Vizcaya, in Spain’s Basque Country. Soon after his arrival in the Cuban capital, he moved to the city of Matanzas, where he started working with a relative. In 1873, the Marquess of Alava named him proxy holder of his businesses in Cardenas. He, then, settled down with his family and tried to raise a fortune in this town.
As I mentioned earlier, Arechabala set up his own business in 1878 and founded "La Vizcaya", an alcohol distillery and sugar refinery, part of the Arechabala Company S.A. Located by the sea, in the Bay of Cardenas, this must-see factory started as a schnapps and alcohol distillery for domestic use, also producing derivatives like molasses and raw sugar.
In 1888, the company was so profitable that it continued to flourish despite the losses suffered as a result of the damage caused by a very strong hurricane and the inevitable effects of the War of Independence against Spain (1895 – 1899), which led to the collapse of local industries and businesses and saw Arechabala lose over than $50 million Cuban Pesos.
Despite these initial setbacks, "La Vizcaya" was, at the beginning of the 20th century, a very successful business. During its expansion, it diversified its products with the support of a growing cargo-ship fleet. In 1903, Arechabala opened a sugar cane refinery which, by 1953, produced a million pounds of sugar per day.
Very few people know that in 1902, Don Jose Arechabala brought to Cuba his nephew and godson, José Fermin Iturrioz y Llaguno, known as a brilliant 17-year-old young man who, soon after, also proved to be an excellent businessman.
In 1921, the business changed its named to José Arechabala Company, S.A. By then, the company made use of the most modern equipment of the time, with large fermentation areas, warehouses and every necessary facility and means to produce and store refined and raw sugar, jams, syrups, alcohols and molasses. The company also had a refinery, a distillery; and an export freight terminal.
In 1923, its founder died, but the company continued growing and diversifying with dozens of new products. Three years after Arechabala’s death, in 1926, his nephew Iturrioz, also proprietor of the well-known Josone retreat in Varadero (which I already talked about in a previous blog piece) took charge of the business.
Iturrioz partnered up with a young and brilliant engineer, Manuel F. Arias, and both took the business to unprecedented levels in the Cuban economy during the 1930s and 1950s.
The rise of Havana Club Rum
In 1934, they started to produce and commercialise the Havana Club Rum, together with other rums and liquors, among which the "Arechabala 75" stood out as the best aged rum of the time.
In 1935, the company opened a private bar and moved the company´s headquarters to the Palace of the Counts of Casa Bayona, in Havana´s Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral). Built in 1720, this majestic building, currently the Museum of Colonial Art, sits right across from the Cathedral.
In 1936, they opened a confectionery factory, and the pure alcohol they distilled since 1943 was sold under the name of "Alcoelite". An interesting fact is that, in 1950, the distilling plant alone had a daily capacity of 125,000 litres of rum, many of which were uniquely special and aged to perfection.
The Arechabala´s were also sugar stock brokers in the world market and, when the company was nationalised soon after the triumph of the Revolution, they produced, among others: anisette, schnapps, creams, cognac and gin under the "Arechabala" brand name; "Relicario" and "Tres Arbolitos" cognac brands, and Havana Club Rum, whose production was later moved to the rum factory of Santa Cruz del Norte, in Havana. They were also representatives of Chivas Regal, Martin´s V.V.O. and other imported jars and liquors.
Havana Club at present
At present, the Havana Club brand has a wide umbrella of products, the most popular of which is the "Añejo Blanco" (Aged White) mostly used in the making of cocktails. There is also the "Añejo 3 Años" (Three-year Aged), the "Añejo Especial" (Special Aged), the "Añejo Reserva" (Aged Reserve), the "Añejo 7 Años" (Seven-year Aged), the "Selección de Maestros" (Masters´ Choice), the "Añejo 15 Años" (Fifteen-year Aged) and the most exceptional of all; the "Máximo Extra Añejo" (Extra Aged Maximum). The latter was launched in November, 2006 and it’s an artisan blend of aged and rare rums with a sublime taste.
Its newest product in the market is "Havana Club Unión", which I haven´t yet tried so can’t recommend. At the beginning of this year, they also launched the limited selection Havana Club Tribute Collection 2016. For those who enjoy experiencing new sensations, my advice is to purchase a bottle of "Añejo Blanco" to make your own "Mojito" or "Cuba Libre" at home. You can also use the Havana Club 3 Años, a less strong rum. However, if you prefer it straight or on the rocks, and do not want to spend a fortune, I suggest you go for the "Havana Club 7 Años".
If you want to give a special present to someone dear to you, or want to treat yourself, you’re best off getting your hands on a bottle of the exclusive Havana Club Selección de Maestros (Masters´ Choice).
Buying Havana Club Rum and many of the other well-known Cuban rum brands is relatively easy in Cuba. Just go to one of the many shops or markets throughout the island, or buy it in the duty-free shop at the airport before leaving the country.
Finally, if you want to learn more about the history and manufacturing of this rum, you can visit the Havana Club Rum Museum, in Old Havana, right across the Havana Bay.
Cuban rum: past and future
Cuban rum, as we know it today, was born in Santiago de Cuba and became famous shortly after thanks to its association to the Bacardi family. As the original creators of rum, the Bacardi came to be the best-known brand around the world. It expanded very fast throughout Cuba, and was the recipient of numerous national and international awards.
Nowadays, one of Cuba’s largest rum-making companies is the Cuba Ron Company S.A., which manages different Cuban factories. With their "Perla del Norte" (Northern Pearl) rum, they aspire to reach the same level of national and international acceptance as other well-known national brands like Santiago de Cuba, Havana Club and Cubay.
I hope that this background story (and many others you might find along the way), will encourage you to sample some of the finest rums while you are in Cuba, and take after my advice to visit the "Eladio de Marcos" Factory in Cárdenas, the cradle of the famous Havana Club Rum.
Address: Pinillo Street between Carrillo and Sáez streets, Cárdenas.
A place worth visiting by those interested in Cuba’s industrial heritage and sampling Cuban rum right at its birthplace.
Not to miss: The ageing depository and the bottling plants.
Hours: Monday through Sunday, from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00