Rum has always tended to favor and flavor rebellion, from the pirates and buccaneers of the seventeenth century to the American Revolution onward. In addition, sugar and rum pretty much introduced globalization to a waiting world, tying together Europe, the Americas, Africa and the Caribbean in a complex alcoholic web of trade and credit. Not until oil was any single commodity so important for world trade. So it is not surprising that the Bacardi Corporation has become one of the world’s first transnationals.
Even before Fidel Castro took power, the Bacardi family moved its headquarters from its Cuban home to the Bahamas, allowing it to get British imperial trade preferences, while opening a large distillery in Puerto Rico to allow penetration of the American market. Now its management is mostly living in exile in Florida, monopolizing the local markets across the Caribbean and the world with its bland, branded spirit. Fifty years of marketing have made Bacardi almost synonymous with rum in much of North America, and as Thierry Gardère, maker of the acclaimed Haitian rum Barbancourt, pointed out with a pained expression to me once, “They always advertise it as mixed with something else.”
In Prohibition-era America, lots of thirsty Americans went to Cuba, and what they drank there, in keeping with the ambience, was rum, usually in cocktails and often in bars favored by Fidel’s onetime fishing partner, Ernest Hemingway. He made a clear distinction: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.”
Cuba made great rums and had some of the world’s most renowned bars. Bacardi had really risen to prominence after the American occupation, or “liberation” (sounds familiar?), of Cuba, at the turn of the twentieth century, when the island became the playground for its northern neighbor. Barcardi built its market position during Prohibition, edging out the old New England rum. When the Eighteenth Amendment took force, Bacardi USA sold 60,000 shares, closed down the company and distributed its assets, coincidentally 60,000 cases of Bacardi rum, to the stockholders.
During the dry years the company’s order books would suggest that there were unquenchable thirsts in Shanghai, Bahamas and tiny islands like the French enclave of St. Pierre and Miquelon, off Newfoundland. But of course, shiploads of Bacardi went to rendezvous with the rum-runners just outside American territorial waters. As soon as repeal was in sight, Bacardi litigated all the way up to the Supreme Court to open its business in Puerto Rico, where it was eager to get Caribbean costs combined with American nationality. Its rivals in Puerto Rico used the same style of targeted retrospective legislation that Bacardi later did against Castro’s Cuba in an attempt to keep Bacardi out. In the first year after Prohibition, Bacardi sold almost a million bottles to the United States. But soon it was not selling it from Cuba. Despite the family’s overt and noisy Cuban patriotism, the company pioneered outsourcing and supplied the United States from Puerto Rico. Cuba’s share of American rum imports dropped from 52 percent in 1935 to 7.3 percent in 1940.
In 1955 Bacardi moved its trademark to the Bahamas, perhaps in gratitude for the islands’ help in keeping the product moving during Prohibition, and also because that made it eligible for British Commonwealth preferences. Its offshoring from Cuba proved very prescient when Castro nationalized the Cuban operations in 1960, which was as much a shock to Bacardi. The Bacardi building had greeted the arrival of Fidel, Che and the compañeros with a banner saying simply “Gracias, Fidel!” In common with some other rum producers, they had supported the rebels financially. In 1959, Castro’s trade delegation to the United States had included Juan Pépin Bosch and Daniel Bacardi, two of the family’s heads. Neither side dwells on these happy days any more. The company is still held by 600 descendants of the founder, so it does not have to file financial statements or submit to valuations as if it were listed on stock exchanges, and in any case, with sales in 200 countries adding up to 200 million bottles, no one could be sure which stock exchange it would list on.