THE BLOG
09/24/2014 09:38 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Geeking out With Bacardi's Brand Master About the New Facundo Rum Collection

Bacardi is far and away the most popular brand of rum in the world, and according to the company, it's also the world's most awarded spirit. It also has a bit of an image problem. The Bacardi name is largely associated with an inexpensive, light, almost vodka-like rum that's meant to be mixed in mojitos, more a party drink than a rum for serious connoisseurs. And sure, Bacardi's Ron Superior -- the light rum in question -- is the cornerstone of the brand, its best-known and best-selling expression.

What's often overlooked is the fact that Bacardi also makes some fantastic higher-end sipping rums, including Select and 8 Años. And with their new Facundo Rum Collection, made from rums culled from the Bacardi family's private reserves, they've pulled out all the stops. These aren't just the finest Bacardi rums in recent memory, they're up there with the best rums I've ever tried, period.

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The collection, which has been slowly rolling out in select US cities for the last year, consists of four rums. Neo (suggested retail price $45) is a rich, velvety light rum that's been aged up to eight years, making it one of the oldest light rums around. It's perfect for sipping or mixing (a Neo daiquiri is heaven in a glass, believe me). Eximo ($60), aged up to 10 years, is a mix of lighter and heavier rums that's actually blended before aging. It's got strong notes of walnuts and tropical fruits, along with a fair amount of wood and spice on the back end. Exquisito ($120), aged between 7-23 years, is only finished in sherry casks for a month or so, but it really picks up a lot of the dark fruit notes associated with sherry, along with toffee and dark chocolate flavors. And Paraiso ($250), also aged up to 23 years (with an emphasis on older rums) and finished in French oak casks, is incredibly dark and deep and rich, with hints of coffee beans and roasted nuts. It's perfect for anyone who still needs to be convinced that rum is as serious a sipping spirit as whisky or cognac.

Interestingly, the Facundo Collection (named after Bacardi's founder, Don Facundo Bacardí) keeps its connection to its parent brand on the down-low. In fact, if you saw these bottles (which are as gorgeous as the liquid inside), you might not even know they were made by Bacardi. To find out why -- and to generally geek out about the collection a bit -- I talked with Bacardi Brand Master David Cid. What follows is on the long side, but if you care about rum (and if you don't, why have you even read this far?), then hopefully you'll find what David has to say as interesting as I did.

TS: What differentiates the Facundo line from the high-end Bacardi rums?

DC: There's a few areas of differentiation, but to try to connect them briefly, the connection is that what you're seeing in the Facundo collection is rum that is made with [our] very highly guarded and well kept proprietary yeast. And the techniques that are applied to the Facundo collection are the techniques that have come down from [Bacardi founder] Don Facundo himself, and from the master blenders that inherited the knowledge from him.

So is that the same yeast strain that was grown in Cuba?

That is correct. To our knowledge, this yeast strain was isolated by Don Facundo himself, it was handed down to every master blender, and today we keep it in Puerto Rico. We kept it in the Bahamas for a long time after our exile from Cuba, but it currently -- for about the past five years -- it actually resides in Puerto Rico. Everywhere we make rum, you have to go to the mother strain first, and we propagate in [the size of] literally, the tip of a pin, that's what we extract from the mother strain. And then we propagate that, and that is what's given to the master blenders for each one of our facilities. And every X amount of time, they have to come back and get a fresh propagated strain.

So where it starts to differentiate is the fact that all the rums come to us from the family reserves. Basically, the family gave the master blenders access to the family reserves -- which they always have, to create special blends. We've done limited releases in the sense that it's a one-time release of a special product that was very expensive, never to be bottled again. This time we're introducing something that's actually going to be released on a year-to-year basis, coming from that reserve. And obviously, if we want to sustain this, we have to create a separate reserve just for these rums.

How much of the family reserves are you using to create the Facundo line?

We don't have a huge allocation of these rums. A good example of that is, say, for example, Neo. Immediately, because it's a light rum, you'd probably think, well, they could make a lot of that.

But it's aged up to 8 years.

Exactly. Even Bacardi 8, which is around $30 a bottle, you can only bottle around 100,000-150,000 cases. It's not a big allocation of rum to begin with. Bacardi 8 is at a reasonable price point, and we can't make too much of it, and it has a price point that's actually pretty high for your average rum. You have very few rums that fall between $30-50. So when you take that, and look at Neo.... It has 1, 3, 5 and 8 year old [rums]. Then you're talking about a very special filtering technique to attract and remove the hardier color contributing flavonoids, or flavor contributing compounds, while leaving behind almost all the others that actually give you the identity of a 5 and an 8 and a 3 year old, so that you can identify them. That's the proprietary filtering technique. Then, in the family reserves, we have even less 8 year old [rum] than we do in the regular reserves for the Bacardi rum line.

But that's where you see the differentiation. The scarcity of it, the additional techniques that are applied to it, and then the fact that it's coming from the family reserve.

When the rum was laid down -- some of them were laid down as far back as 1990 -- was there a plan for what to do with them at that point?

Even though they [the master blender and his apprentices] may not have identified the rum in 1990, for example, as, this is going to be a 23 year old rum, they certainly knew they wanted to make something special, because that rum was meant to be something that was for the family. And for the family, it's always been sipping rums that were meant to celebrate something important, be it an anniversary of the company, a celebration of something historical within the family, a celebration of something that happened in Cuba that the family was involved with, or the case of 1999-2000, the change of the century, which was a limited release called Millennium.

So every time there's been a celebration of something, the family had enjoyed sipping some sort of specially blended sipping rum for them. So it's hard to say it was identified as, this will be a limited release for X amount of bottles.

So nobody had the crystal ball.

Absolutely. But we did see some very creative blending take place back in 2012 with the 150th anniversary blend [the limited edition Ron Bacardí, de Maestros de Ron, Vintage MMXII], and that's where this whole thing stems from with the Bacardi family. They certainly had a goal of, this is going to be something special.

Are there any family members that say, hey, what are you doing with the family reserves, that's for the family? Do they object to it being released to the public?

I think that for the most part -- I won't speak on behalf of the whole family -- but I can tell you that the chairman of the board, Facundo L. Bacardi, he became kind of the emissary of the family. And the family presented the challenge back at the 150th of, like, you know, would it be possible to have something for the public to see what we've been enjoying outside of the regular Ron Superior.

And according to the chairman, yeah, there might be a few family members who are not too fond of dipping into the reserves. But for the most part, a lot of family members and a lot of company employees are excited because Bacardi -- I love Bacardi rum, and the family does as well. But ... Facundo [Collection] gets to showcase the consistency and quality of the achievements that the Bacardi rum line has always presented. To have them stand alone, we are able to focus on what makes them unique a little bit easier.

Why is the Bacardi connection downplayed?

Within the Bacardi rum collection, if I were to release something special, it might get lost in the fact that, well, I'm used to Bacardi. So, all right, let's make a line that is a tribute to our founder, and has some of the additional practices that we don't normally see in the Bacardi rum collection, and that way we can really focus on talking about these attributes that no one has really enjoyed on a year-to-year basis from us. We've used some of these techniques that we use in the Facundo collection in the past, in limited releases. And the question was, now that we have it here, can we do it every year? Can we focus on that? And I think that's something that Facundo can do that the Bacardi Rum family will benefit from, but may not be necessarily the best to do it within.

Will there be different ages and expressions coming out as part of the Facundo line?

Our goal is to be able to bottle the collection every year. We're currently at around 12,000 bottles for annual release with all four variants. And 12,000 bottles is not a lot of cases -- between 1300-1500 cases, something like that. So it's a very small production run. If everything's working right we can definitely keep this around and do an annual release. With that, we expect the products will repeat, in terms of their profiles. So Paraiso today will taste the same as the Paraiso that will be released two or three years from now. In terms of special variants or modifications to the variants, it's a little too soon to jump to that just yet. I think our target will be to remain consistent with the [flavor] profiles. I think everyone would agree that if we start playing around with releasing different flavor profiles as limited releases within the collection, it might get a little too confusing. It's still developing its legs.

How do you blend Eximo before aging it and figure out what you're going to have in 10 years?

It's a little mind-boggling, and it's kind of intuitive, you know? There's a few factors to that. So the very first factor is that at Bacardi, one of the reasons why we've become successful and one of the reasons why our reputation was built is because we have what's called a parallel distillation process. That we're aware of, our founder was the first person to introduce this technique. You'll find it across other rum brands today. It's basically, you make two very different distillates at the distillation and fermentation levels. These distillates are aged separately, and they don't come in contact with one another until you're ready to blend. We use a single column approach and we use a five column approach.

Now, what happens here is [we get] aguardiente -- the heavier one -- and the [lighter] redistillate. I'm not going to get too technical, but the aguardiente has been between 140 and 160 proof when it comes out of the still. It's very harsh -- and it's not the Colombian version of aguardiente, which is a finished product. Aguardiente in our world is basically the white dog. It's raw off the still, it hasn't been filtered, it hasn't been aged yet, it's very hot. But it's very flavorful, it's aromatic. And then the redistillate is the 5-times distilled one, so it comes out at 180-190 [proof], and that's going to be very, very clean.

So that's pretty close to vodka.

Yes, very close. It may not get to vodka, because if it's closer to 180 [proof], it's going to have a very very light flavor contribution. But yes, very clean, very close to that neutral point in comparison to the aguardiente. And that's the beauty. They're blending distillates with different attributes, and achieving a flavor profile at the distillate level. Which is very hard, because you're working with something that's going to be very harsh. So obviously they're blending, they're diluting, they're nosing, they're tasting, and then they're achieving a balance. And they have all this knowledge of, all right, we know what happens during aging in Puerto Rico. We've been aging in Puerto Rico for the better part of 70 years, almost. So we know exactly how nature manipulates our barrels.

Obviously there's going to be a window of variables that are going to shift from barrel to barrel. But you also have a range that you can target within a certain period of time, and that's exactly what our master blenders did. They knew that, you know, if I let it sit eight years, I'm going to achieve more or less this profile. Within the family reserves, they had already applied this technique. So it wasn't like they were experimenting with something new. They already had a base experience of how to age a pre-blend.

Now, this is the tricky part. How do you replicate that profile? How do you ensure that next year's Eximo is going to taste the same? There's a few techniques you can apply and still keep the rum from being blended post-aging. And by the way, Eximo does have, in that pre-aged blending, a very small amount of 2-year-old was added to the base blend. It kind of rounded off the distillates a little bit, and then they aged it for ten years. [And] when it comes to Eximo, you can still kind of... it's not single cask, it's single batch. So you can still blend within that ten year old batch.

So that ensures a little more consistency.

Exactly. And that's where, you know, I've run into that question in the past, and that's the eureka moment. Just because we've made, I don't know, hypothetically speaking, 200 barrels of this 10-year-old, that you have to use all 200 of them. So you probably use 100, because this is going to be a window to allow you to replicate it. Because if, next year, you have another 200, you can choose 100 to try to replicate and then have another 100 you can choose from that can help you balance it out and try to target the profile. So they're still blending, but blending within the batch, which is going to assure us that next year's batch will taste as close to identical as humanly possible as last year's.

Is there a special spot in the warehouses for [aging] the Facundo rums?

They have special areas where they keep the family reserves, and in this case the Facundo collection.

Could you tell me about those gorgeous thick bottles used for the collection?

The bottle is made of Shaver glass, which is right now, I believe, the most expensive glass you can buy for bottles. But at the same time, you don't just want to use an expensive glass for the sake of using it. Because of the artwork we wanted to put on the bottles, it just made sense to go in with a higher quality glass. And then, tying it in with the cap, all of the caps are metal plated. In the case of Eximo, that's silver nickel, our plated cap. The connection there is that Cuba, for the most part, has a rich heritage of mining of metals, so why not use metals to sort of highlight that aspect of our heritage in Cuba. So we're communicating quality through the bottle, through the cap, and in the meantime, tying in our heritage through every single aspect of that bottle.

Was the aging process for these rums started in the Bahamas? And is there still any Bacardi presence in the Bahamas at this point?

No, not at this point in time. At one point, I believe, we had nine different facilities across the world, that participated in some form of the production aspect, be it bottling or aging or anything of the sort. And if you have a distillery in Spain, and another one in Puerto Rico, and another one in the Bahamas, and another one in Mexico, where are you really from? So that creates a challenge just from a heritage perspective.

But at the same time it becomes more challenging to control quality. By being so decentralized, you're only increasing production costs, which means that, had we stayed on that path, [Ron] Superior would probably be $5-6 dollars more a bottle, which wouldn't help the brand, historically speaking. Now we have a very centralized production process, which means that almost 85% of all rum production globally, all of the Facundo collection, is made or kept in Puerto Rico. So all of the rum from the Bahamas was transferred over to Puerto Rico, it's stored in Puerto Rico, [and] the blending took place in Puerto Rico in the case of Neo, Exquisito and Paraiso.

In the case of Eximo, obviously the batch consolidation took place in Puerto Rico but the pre-aged blending took place in the Bahamas. All of the rum was fermented and distilled in the Bahamas, and for the most part, almost all of the rum was aged in the Bahamas fully. Obviously, in the case of some of the older rums, it might have spent one or two years in barrels in Puerto Rico, but for all means and intents, it's not Puerto Rican rum. We cannot call that Puerto Rican rum due to the regulations and laws in Puerto Rico. So we're definitely calling out the fact that it's Bahamian rum in the bottle. That may change in the future as we continue to make the rum, because at some point we're going to run out of the Bahamian and continue making it with Puerto Rican rum. But that's the beauty of Bacardi rum. We make our rum the same way everywhere, so it's just a matter of how nature interacts with it while it ages, and the master blender's job is to make sure that they identify the changes between the regions.

Terroir influences all spirits, and rum too, obviously. Do you foresee a difference between the aged-in-Bahamas rum and stuff that's blended and distilled and aged in Puerto Rico?

That's a valid question, and the answer to that question is, I don't perceive it as any different. The yeast is the same, the quality of the molasses is going to be the same, of the same caliber. For the yeast to work properly, the water is treated the same in all our facilities. So as long as we can get the same fermentation -- which we will -- and the distillation, at the end of the day it does require some art, but distilling is a science. So the variables in distillation can be replicated no matter where you're distilling. I think the key thing there is if the fermentation goes right, we'll match everything we need. The distillation will be identical. And then the big question is, how is it going to age, because that's where the variables really come in.

But to our knowledge -- and this is something we are very vocal about -- to our knowledge, our founder was the first to really scientifically age rum, in the sense of identifying what happened in the barrel. That's a tradition that every master blender has inherited, adding knowledge onto that. So our master blenders know exactly, if we age in Puerto Rico vs. the Bahamas, we need X window of difference between them. And whatever area or small variable is different, you can correct it during the blending process. And that's where Eximo is going to be a little bit more challenging, but not impossible or improbable for them. It just means they're going to have to be much more observant of how much of which rums within that 10 YO batch they're going to combine, and how much room they're going to need to play with to match the profile they've released.

Does the family ever see coming back to Cuba after Castro dies?

I can tell you that, from a company and family perspective, Cuba has always been more than just a business location. It's hard to speak of Cuba's heritage and history without mentioning the Bacardi family at some point. Our founder is still seen as the father of the style of rum that Cuba is known for. Our founder's son, Emilio Bacardi, is probably the most revered Bacardi family member, because he was one of the biggest supporters of the Cuban revolution in the 1800s. His son partook in the actual fighting in the Revolution. Emilio Bacardi was the first freely elected mayor of Santiago de Cuba, he was a member of the first Senate, and then became a philanthropist and built hospitals and museums and contributed to schools. So if you just want to focus on the late 1800s and early 1900s, there's absolutely no way to speak about the Cuban Revolution and not mention the Bacardi family.

Cuba has always been more than just a place of doing business. It's where the family developed their identity, it's what the family helped establish before the totalitarian regime of 1960 took over. So when it opens up, it's definitely someplace that the family and the company would want to go back to in some shape or form, to support the country that they're known for.

For years, high-end sipping rums have been touted as the next big thing in the spirits world, but they've never quite broken through. Now it seems like it may finally be happening. What do you think about the category in general?

In a nutshell, I think the premium rum category is growing significantly. And I think there's two observations to be made about the spirits industry in general. One is, you know, in the past 3-5 years brown spirits have definitely grown in popularity. So obviously the consumers are ready for longer aged, more robust sipping experiences. But in the past couple of years, what we've seen is definitely the American brown spirit grow, and the premium rum sector grow.

I think that having the Facundo collection is going to help us succeed in the whole category. Because it's not just about Bacardi. It's about elevating the category. We want to see people going to their favorite establishment and ordering rum the same way they order their luxury cognac or or their luxury Scotches, because rum has that potential. You have an amazing spirit that has the same quality, probably even more character than some European spirits. But in terms of price point, the general consumer is still learning how to embrace the higher price points. It's happening, but you need someone to take the reins and drive the category, and we think we're capable of doing that for the category through the Facundo collection. And I think we'll benefit and other brands will benefit from it as well, hopefully.

The only bad thing is that the prices for high quality rums are probably going to go up.

But that could be a good thing in the sense that hopefully the quality of the rum at that price point gets better. Because you also have quite a few rums in high price points that you're not necessarily getting the value for your dollar. It will make some producers have to step up their game to make better quality rum, more consistent rum, and rum that actually matches the price point that they're giving you. So hopefully it's not a lose-lose as that transition happens, and it's actually a win-win.