Cuban rum and cigars seem to have become the souvenir of choice for U.S. visitors to the island.
Marvin Peña, who works the counter at La Barrita del Ron Caney, a bar and store that adjoins the Santiago Rum Factory, said that the end of the limit on rum and alcohol purchases as well as this year’s arrival of the Miami-based Fathom cruise line, which calls in Santiago every other week, have really perked up sales.
The Obama administration’s opening to Cuba has included reestablishing diplomatic relations and allowing more travel and commerce with the island, but the rule change most consumers remember involves tobacco and alcohol.
Prior to October, U.S. travelers could bring back only a combined total of $100 in tobacco and alcohol products. That limit meant they couldn’t even buy a full box of premium cigars. Brands like Cohiba Espléndidos, for example, cost about $20 a pop. Ultra premium rums also were out of the question.
But now there are no limits — as long as a traveler brings them back for personal use and pays appropriate duties. So don’t expect to find Havana Club or Santiago rum distilled in Cuba or Cuban-made Montecristo cigars in American stores any time soon.
The embargo precludes such sales in the United States.
The use of the Havana Club rum trademark in the U.S. is also the subject of a long-standing battle between Bacardi and Cuba Ron, the Cuban rum company, and its distribution partner Pernod Ricard. Cuba currently holds the trademark because it registered it with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office after the original owner let the registration lapse. Bacardi claims it is the rightful owner of the trademark in the U.S.
La Barrita sells a variety of rums, but only two brands are produced at the Santiago factory: Santiago de Cuba and Caney.
“Santiago de Cuba is considered one of the best rums in Cuba,” Peña said. It’s also the best seller at La Barrita.
Cheaper bottles are aged from three to five years, but rum aged 20 to 25 years also is available, and the price goes up accordingly.
Among the most expensive bottles for sale are Isla de Tesoro (Treasure Island), available in a special ceramic jug and packed in a wooden chest, and Siglo y ½ , made to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the city of Santiago.
Isla de Tesoro sells for 650 CUCs (about $747), and Siglo y ½ , which was produced in a limited edition of 3,000 bottles, retails for more than $1,000.
“These are rums that you won’t find everywhere or even all over Cuba,” Peña said.
There’s also a Bacardi connection to the rum factory in Santiago. It’s the old Bacardi factory, which was expropriated by the Cuban government on Oct. 15, 1960, along with the company’s Santiago headquarters. The day before, the Bacardi sales office in Havana was nationalized.
Bacardi, which is now headquartered in Bermuda, had made rum in Cuba since 1862.
Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi