The book, “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba” by Tom Gjelten is the dramatic story of one family, its business and its nation, paralleling Cuba’s own development. [scroll down for the video by Tom Gjelten]
The family’s story is a microcosm of Cuban history, originating when the island was struggling for its freedom from Spain and continuing through the rise of Fidel Castro a century later.
The Bacardis of Cuba, builders of a rum distillery and a worldwide brand, came of age with the nation and helped define what it meant to be Cuban. Across five generations, Bacardi family members have held fast to their Cuban identity, even in exile from the country for whose freedom they once fought.
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Here are the opening comments extracted from the video:
It begins in 1862, which is when Facundo Bacardi, who is a Spanish immigrant, opens this distillery in Santiago de Cuba.
Santiago is the second largest city in Cuba. It is on the eastern end of the island. Facundo Bacardi is from the Catalonia region of Spain. The Catalans are famous as merchants. There was a Catalan Colony in Santiago. And he came to Santiago with his brothers and like dozens or hundreds of other Catalan immigrants went into the retail business, had a little general store. He and his brothers had a series of general stores that sort of rose and fell depending on the Cuban economy.
But Facundo was unique in that he was determined to find his fortune. He was determined to become a famous businessman. He was always looking for a way to sort of really put his mark on Cuba. And he came up with the idea of going into the rum business. And it made great sense for a couple reasons. One, because Cuba at the time had, obviously had a sugar economy.
Molasses is a byproduct of making sugar but in the middle of the 19th century the price of molasses was so low that sugar growers were actually feeding molasses to their pigs or even throwing it in the river.
I mean they just had — the cost of transporting it to market was more than it was worth so they really weren’t doing anything with it. So here you have, you can make rum from molasses. So here you have the basic raw element in abundance. The problem was that the rum industry in Cuba was not well developed. There really was — in spite of the fact that Cuban rum is very famous today, in the middle of the 19th century there really was no Cuban rum industry for a variety of historical reasons.
The other thing is the market for rum was really depressed. And what Facundo Bacardi decided….a new style of rum. Rum that was light, that was mixable, that did not have this overwhelming flavor, that he could reach a much broader market. And so that’s what he decided he wanted to go into the rum business because it made sense economically and the way that he was going to do it uniquely was to come up with a new style of Cuban rum. And over the next 20 or 30 years he did that through a real experimenting with filtration technique.
He was the first rum maker to use charcoal in filtering the rum. Charcoal at that time was used for filtering vodka, which is, of course, a very light, clear spirit. No one had thought of filtering rum through charcoal. He did that, he discovered the importance of using white oak barrels for aging, and he also experimented with different yeasts for the fermentation. And as a result of a variety of, over the years, of these experimental techniques, he was able to produce what we now know of as Bacardi Rum which is a clear, light spirit that mixes with fruit juices and sodas and is something that can be drunk by a much broader market than people who had drunk rum previously. That in a nutshell is the explanation for the commercial success of the Bacardi Rum Company and it is just a tremendous commercial success.
However, I have to say that this is in many ways the least important part of my story. Facundo Bacardi to me was not a central character nor is this really a business history. It’s not a book about rum. I have been much more interested in the political side of the story. And in that regard the subtitle of my book is actually I think sort of holds the key to the idea of the book. The subtitle is The Biography of a Cause. And the idea here is that the Bacardi family and their company in one way or another throughout this entire period, the last 150 years, have seen themselves as advocates for Cuba or for the Cuban cause. But the idea of that cause has been transformed over and over again. It meant something different in the 19th century, in the early 20th century, in the late 20th century. It means something different today.