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Bacardi: The Story Behind Cuba’s Legendary Liquor Brand

If you like rum, you’re going to love this video because today, we’ll be covering the history of one of the greatest rum distilleries in the world, Bacardi. Our story begins way back in the early 19th century in Cuba. Now, back then Cuba was still a Spanish colony, and so emigration from Spain was happening all the time. That is exactly what Facundo Bacardi did in 1830, when he was just 16 years old. He was originally from Sitges, a port city in Northeastern Spain, but the bad economic situation forced him to try his luck in Cuba. He landed in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second largest city, and found work at a local distillery.

It was owned by a man called John Nunes, and it was actually one of the city’s first rum distilleries. You see, the Spanish Crown had originally banned the production of rum in its colonies in order to protect its expensive wine industry. The ban had only been reversed in 1796, and John Nunes was one of the first rum producers to get back in on the action. Of course, the rum back then didn’t have a lot in common with the rum we know today. It had been produced the same way since the 16th century, and the people of Cuba called it aguardiente, which literally means fiery water.

It was made by mixing water with molasses, the byproduct of refining sugarcane. The resulting mixture would be left to ferment, and it would later be boiled off into an alembic and condensed, producing a dark liquid that was 85% alcohol. Aguardiente was so harsh that most Cubans didn’t use it as a drink, but as medicine, soaking it in towels to alleviate headaches and to treat wounds.

Essentially, it was a drink for buccaneers, and what it lacked in reputation, it more than made up for in throat-burning capacity. Facundo spent many years producing aguardiente in John’s distillery, but he dreamed of creating a more refined beverage. His first step to realizing his dream came in 1843, when he married Amalia Moreau, the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who had served in Napoleon’s army. Using his wife’s capital, Facundo was eventually able to buy John Nunes’ distillery for $3,500 in 1862, thus giving birth to the Bacardi distillery. The property Facundo bought came along with a colony of fruit bats, which are symbols of good fortune in Cuba and would later come to symbolize the Bacardi brand. With the distillery in his control, Facundo spent months perfecting his production method. He tried various strains of yeast, different concentrations of molasses and water, and adjusting the distillation procedure itself. You see, the fermentation of molasses produces several different alcohols, each with its own unique chemical composition, taste and boiling point.

The lighter alcohols are the first ones to evaporate during the boiling process, and they’re mostly a mixed bag: Esters give off a fruity aroma and were nice to have, but methanol is toxic and not fit for human consumption. The heavier alcohols, called fusel oils, are a similar story: They’re responsible for the distinctive taste of aguardiente, but are also to blame for the nasty headaches that follow. Although Facundo probably had no idea about the chemistry behind the whole thing, after months of experimentation he finally figured out which alcohols he wanted to keep. The end result was rum of exceptionally high quality: the liquid was very light, almost transparent, and was free from the foul odors of aguardiente. At first people would come to his distillery to fill up their jugs and barrels, but once Facundo saw just how much demand there was for his drink, he started selling it in bottles instead. Marked with the lucky fruit bat, the Bacardi rum spread like wildfire, and by 1868 it was sold across all of Cuba. Facundo was a humble man and had no plans for international expansion, but after he died in 1886, his son Emilio took over and he had much greater ambitions.

Emilio was a fiercely nationalistic man, and in fact he had used Bacardi’s resources to support Cuban revolutionaries in all three wars for Cuban independence. This got him exiled to Morocco twice, but after Cuba became independent in 1902, Emilio returned and became the mayor of Santiago, eventually getting elected to the Cuban Senate. During these years he transformed Bacardi into one of Cuba’s biggest companies, which now owned plantations and distilleries across the island. The Bacardi brand wouldn’t spread its wings internationally until 1910, when Emilio opened a bottling facility in Barcelona, near his father’s birthplace. Bacardi’s obvious international target was the US, but in 1919 the States ratified the Prohibition amendment.

Surprisingly, Prohibition actually wasn’t as bad for Bacardi as you may think. Although the company couldn’t export its drinks to the US, nothing stopped Americans from flying to Cuba to buy them. In the first year after the 18th Amendment got repealed, Bacardi sold over 80,000 cases of booze in the US. They got around America’s expensive import duty by opening a facility in Puerto Rico. The reasons behind Bacardi’s success in the States are two: the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre. These two cocktails were among the first to showcase Bacardi’s excellent use as a mixer, and they are still exceedingly popular to this day. The end of the 1950s, however, would be a disastrous time for Bacardi. In 1959 the Batista regime crumbled under the socialist revolution of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Facundo’s descendants were actually avid supporters of the revolution and had donated thousands of dollars to the cause. This made it all the more shocking when Castro’s new government turned around and seized all of Bacardi’s assets, which were valued at $76 million. This betrayal left the company in chaos, and it eventually reincorporated in the Bahamas one year later, where it remains to this day. Despite losing their Cuban assets, Bacardi was propelled to record heights by demand from the US. In 1964 Bacardi sold 1 million cases of liquor, and double the amount in 1968. By 1980 it had replaced Smirnoff as the number-one liquor brand in the US with annual sales approaching 8 million cases. Bacardi kicked off the 1990s with the wildly successful Bacardi Breezer, released in 1993.

A few months later, Bacardi spent $billion to acquire Martini & Rossi, the company behind the Martini brand of vermouth, which is also the namesake of the popular Martini cocktail. Heading into the 21st century, Bacardi had bottling facilities across Western Europe and North America, while keeping its manufacturing sites firmly in the Spanish-speaking world. Now this is where we should talk about Havana Club, one of the best-selling brands of rum in the world. It was created by the Arechabala family in Cuba, and they competed with Bacardi up until 1959, when Fidel Castro seized all of their assets as well. Under Castro’s regime, the Cuban government started exporting Havana Club across the globe, earning a ton of money in the process. They couldn’t sell it in the States, of course, because of the Cuban embargo, which led Bacardi to buy the US rights to Havana Club from the now-exiled Arechabala family. Bacardi started selling Havana Club in the US in 1996, and was immediately slapped by a lawsuit from the Cuban government.

The litigation sat at a stalemate until 2002, when the European Union vouched for Bacardi in front of the World Trade Organization. In 2006 Bacardi finally won the lawsuit, and to this day they are the ones selling Havana Club in the US, with the Cuban government selling it everywhere else. There was some panic about what would happen if Barack Obama was to lift the embargo, but with Donald Trump at the wheel, that’s probably not gonna happen. Nevertheless, Bacardi remains dominant, and today it is one of the largest distilleries in the world and one of the few ones that remain private. It is still run by Facundo’s descendants, who have grown the company’s portfolio to over 200 different labels.

Whether Bacardi will continue thriving in the cutthroat liquor business is hard to say, but considering what they’ve survived over the years, it’s a safe bet that they’ll be around for a long time. Thanks for watching! If you enjoyed this video, please consider supporting us on Patreon; that will help us cover the interesting stories of other big companies. You can watch our previous videos in the Behind the Business playlist, and you should subscribe in case you haven’t already. Once again, thanks a lot for watching, and as always: stay smart. .