When a bottle of rum can
call itself Cuban
in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 19,
Is it geography or chemistry that gives
different rums their distinctive taste?
Is it the sugar, the soil and the climate?
Or is it closely guarded recipes for distillation?
Those questions are at the core of a lawsuit
in a Paris court brought by Pernod Ricard,
a French drinks group, against Matusalem,
a small Miami company selling rum it claims
Since 1993, Pernod has operated a 50-50
joint venture with Cuba's communist government
for the international marketing of Havana
Although its sale is banned in the United
States under the trade embargo against the
island, Havana Club is now the second-biggest-selling
rum in the rest of the world. Its suit claims
that its hooch is "the only authentically
It is seeking damages from Matusalem for
falsely claiming Cuban origin.
Like all disputes involving Cuba, this
one is steeped in politics and history.
A company named Matusalem was founded in
Santiago, in eastern Cuba, in 1873. It produced
Cuba's top añejo, or aged dark rum.
"How can anyone claim our rum has no
Cuban heritage?" asks Claudio Álvarez,
the company's boss and the great-grandson
of its founder.
Like many wealthy Cubans, Álvarez's
family fled Cuba after Fidel Castro's 1959
revolution. They started making rum in the
Bahamas using the formula smuggled out of
Cuba, but they struggled to build the brand
internationally. Meanwhile, Cuba's government
launched its own version of the Matusalem
After Álvarez, a Miami doctor, took
over the firm he shifted production to the
Dominican Republic (to a town also called
Santiago) and relaunched the brand. The
company now produces almost 2 million bottles
a year; its Gran Reserva, a 15-year aged
dark rum, has proved a hit with connoisseurs
in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.
That may be what has alarmed Pernod. The
French firm is no stranger to battles over
rum with Cuban exiles. Last year it persuaded
the U.S. Patent Office to throw out a trademark
challenge brought by Bacardi, a spirits
firm now based in Bermuda and the maker
of the world's biggest-selling rum. It was
seeking to cancel the Havana Club trademark
in the United States, to protect its market
domination after Castro has gone and the
embargo is lifted.
Bacardi also had begun selling its own
version of Havana Club in the American market.
It was forced to halt production after Pernod
successfully argued that this rum could
not be marketed as "Cuban."
Rather than its trademark rights, Pernod
contests Matusalem's slogan, "The Spirit
of Cuba," emblazoned across the bottle.
The fine print explains that the product
is made in the Dominican Republic. Nobody
can dispute Matusalem's Cuban past.
But given the store that French winemakers
set by terroir (roughly, "taste of
the soil"), the country's courts might
well decide that only Cuba can make Cuban
2005 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.