Juan Carlos González
Before reading this piece, take a bottle of Havana Club 3 and mix yourself an authentic Cuban Daiquiri. Tastes fabulous, right? Well, if we can all enjoy rum this good, it’s thanks to the Maestros del Ron Cubano, the small group of eight Rum masters who are watching over Cuban rum. And at the Santa Cruz del Norte distillery, where Havana Club 3 Años is made, you’ll find Juan Carlos González, one of only two Primer Maestro del Ron Cubano. He recently sat down with BarNews for a chat.
All rum lovers know about great master distillers, but the figure of Maestro del Ron is pretty unique to Cuba. What does it entail?
If I had to come up with a short definition of the Maestro del Ron Cubano, I’d say that he or she is nothing more and nothing less than a guardian of Cuban rum culture. You don’t decide you’ll become a Maestro, it’s basically Cuban rum culture that selects you. We’ve all become Maestros by chance, in a way. Those who came before us gave us this culture. Yes, we have done our part, we have protected it, we have made better what we could make better, but we inherited it, we’ve not invented anything. In turn, it’s our duty to pass it on to future generations. And this is actually one of the most important parts of our work: we have to protect the Cuban rum tradition and make sure it survives.
You’re ‘more’ than a Maestro del Ron Cuban: you’re a Primer Maestro del Ron Cubano. What does it mean?
It’s a title that’s given to Maestros who are older and have a lot of experience. It’s a recognition from the other Maestros, and it goes to someone they think is deserving of the honour. As a Primer Maestro, you have a role of leader within the group, you need to be an example for all. And you also become more involved with strategic aspects of the rum industry, although you never turn your back on the production side of the work. It’s the high point of one’s career.
How do you become a Maestro? What do you need to study?
A Maestro del Ron Cubano is not someone who follows a course, accumulates academic credits over the years and then gets a degree. That’s what universities are for. Aspiring Maestros come with a base and it’s their personal responsibility to acquire the technical knowledge they might lack. What we, the Maestros, do is introduce him or her to the secrets of Cuban rum culture. If they want to become Maestros, they will have to find themselves in a state of communion with this culture, with this tradition. And that’s the toughest part on the road to becoming a Maestro. It’s a commitment and it can take a decade to reach that point. They need to show they’ll never turn their back on this commitment. What we place in their hands is something that belongs to the nation. It’s a tremendous responsibility and the aspiring Maestros need to demonstrate they have what it takes before the Maestros reach the consensus that that person can join our group.
You’re based at the Santa Cruz del Norte distillery, where rums such as Havana Club 3 Años are produced. And yet you can talk at length about other rums of the range, produced in Santa Clara…
Well, until San José opened in 2007, all the Havana Club rules were made in Santa Cruz. But even if it hadn’t been the case, as a Maestro del Ron Cubano it is my responsibility to know what goes on in every distillery in the country. I need to be aware of everything, because that’s our job: we have to keep Cuba’s rum culture alive, and we can’t do that if we only know about the rums we are overseeing. So yes, I can talk about and lead tastings of our extra aged rums too.
And there are many types of rum in Cuba, right?
I believe Cuba is the country with the widest range of rum styles. Our regulations mention many styles, each with its own characteristics and production rule. On top of that, each distillery and each brand has its own take on Cuban rum – as long as they follow the rules, of course. I’m not saying Cuban rum is better – or worse – that rum from other countries. It’s different, that’s for sure.
If you had to pick just one rum, which one would it be?
Oh, it depends. Circumstances, moment… Alone at home after work, well, I might go for Havana Club Máximo. If I meet with friends who don’t have much rum culture – because to appreciate some rums, you need to know a bit more –, then we would drink Havana Club 3 Años. Among other things because a bottle of Máximo is something that has to last for a lifetime, you can’t just drink it like that because you probably won’t get a second bottle (laughs). So yes, Havana Club 3 Años for my friends. It’s seen as a humble rum, but, really, there’s nothing humble about it. It’s quite complex.