Cuban Rum Before Bacardi: Aguardiente

In the 18th century, pirates drank fiery rum that burned going down but took the edge off a rough life. Cuban rum before 1862 was this same primitive aguardiente, or fire water – a drink so harsh that many Cubans preferred to use it medicinally rather than for drinking. Soaked in a towel, aguardiente was believed to alleviate headaches and speed the healing of wounds. Many used it as a disinfectant, using it to wash their hands or even splashing it on their faces. The time was ripe for a new kind of rum in Cuba, and a fortuitous confluence of events paved the way for Don Facundo Bacardí Massó’s eventual success.

Around the turn of the 19th century, Cuba’s sugar trade exploded and the country became a top global sugar producer by 1850. Cuban aguardiente derives from molasses, a byproduct of refining sugar. While the United States imported much of Cuba’s molasses for its own rum distillation purposes, demand had dropped off by 1850 as Americans’ taste turned to grain spirits like whiskey. Abundant molasses suggested the need for an in-country rum trade.

To make aguardiente, distillers mixed molasses with water and left it to ferment, sometimes adding additional yeast to the natural yeast that developed. As this byproduct heated, the alcohol boiled off first, collected in an alembic and was allowed to condense. The dark liquid that dripped from the tap was 85% alcohol.

The British and French colonies of Jamaica, Martinique, and Haiti produced more refined rums due to those islands’ access to advanced distillation techniques. By contrast, Cuba’s Spanish colonial government had enforced a ban on rum production until 1796, effectively quashing the industry. This may not have helped early Cuban rum drinkers, but it worked in Don Facundo’s favor. Just as his business interests turned to rum-making, the Spanish Crown began actively promoting competitions for the creation of a more delicate type of rum.

Don Facundo began experimenting with distillation techniques shortly after returning to Cuba following the devastating earthquake of 1852. When he finally produced a rum worthy of sophisticated palates, favorable market factors proved fertile soil for his fledgling company and the popular rum gained an enthusiastic following.