Review: Havana Club Especial vs Cuba Club

The USA prohibition in 1920 was the push the Cuban rum production needed as Americans were jumping boats to get to this paradise where rum was flowing to get the party started and its popularity remained even after the prohibition ended in 1933. One year later, the Archebala family established the Havana Club brand, which, in 1959, after the Cuban Revolution, its distillery was seized by the Cuban government as a part of the nationalisation process. In order to start exporting rum, after the US prohibited the import of Cuban goods in 1962, the Cuban government partnered with Pernod Ricard in order to be able to distribute its Havana Club brand.

There is a lot of information regarding Cuban rum and the Havana Club brand including its trademark dispute with Bacardi – if you want to find out more check the Cuban Rum Cheat Sheet from the Cocktail Wonk.

The label of the Especial mentions “double aged in oak barrels” which probably refers to the Cuban process of ageing and blending. I spoke about this process in my La Progresiva review, but I’ll cover it here as well.

When making Cuban rum, there are two components required:

  • a heavy component (aguardiente) distilled in a multi-column still between 74%-78% ABV which has to be aged for at least 2 years (1 year for white rums) and then charcoal filtered;
  • a light component distilled in a multi-column still between 94.4%-96% ABV which will be blended with the age and filtered aguardiente in order to create a ‘ron base’.

Ron bases are then further blended and aged with other ron bases and aged light distillate accordingly, depending on the recipe of the rum being made.

Havana Club Especial (HCE) is molasses based and follows the above process, multi-column distilled and aged in ex-Bourbon casks up to 5 years in Cuba. Bottled at 40% ABV with 18 grams of sugar per litre added according to their nutritional information.

On the nose HCE feels quite sweet. Toffee, canned prunes, raisins, cherries and black olives. There’s a sweet Ruby Port vibe to it. Ripe red apples, cinnamon, blood orange and sweetened black tea. Hints of mango and pineapple.

On the palate the sweetness is there, but it isn’t sickly. Prunes again and raisins again along with some nutmeg, sweet grape juice and a touch of cayenne pepper. There is a floral taste in the back, but is quickly overtaken by sweet coffee and cacao notes. The finish is short with brown sugar and compound chocolate.

HCE can be found in plenty of bars and pubs as their rail rum, and personally I probably drank more shots of Especial than any other brand. Bought this for £16 at Tesco, but it can be found for £19 at online retailers such as Master of Malt. It’s decent for shots, or with various mixers, although I’d add a few pounds and just get their Havana 7 which is so much better.

Now Cuba Club is a brand I never heard about until yesterday when I saw it on the shelf of a shop during my walk – yes, I will enter any liquor store I find during my walk. I’ll be honest, I bought it just because the branding and the label look so bad it got me curious. Searching ‘cuba club’ on Google is pretty pointless as most of the results are… exactly… Havana Club – hence the idea of comparing the two.

I studied the label in order to find more information. After a few dead ends, I googled the email address which took me to the Corbelli Wines website where a picture of their spirit offerings features my Cuba Club. The website is very minimalistic, and honestly, lacking, but apparently Corbelli Wines along with their Little Italy Deli were established in 1965 in Wolverhampton, UK and nowadays is situated in Willenhall, UK, where it has been since 1980. Makes somehow sense since the label has a “since 1965” statement, but I highly doubt they also released this rum at the same time when their company/shop launch.

No information whatsoever on the rum itself, although the back label states “produced from a fine Caribbean recipe” and “product of EU” which means there’s most likely no actual Cuban rum in here. So given the lack of information available, I will just start speculating – if anyone knows more please get in touch with me!

Cuba Club (CC) is likely molasses based, column or multi-column still distilled and probably aged in ex-Bourbon casks. Bottled at 37.5% ABV, and judging by the colour, has a touch more caramel colouring than it should. I am expecting this to be quite dosed too, but let’s see.

On the nose CC feels like rum essence for cakes. Caramel, strawberry jam, maple syrup and a touch of sweet sherry. Cloves, walnuts and chocolate. This also has a fortified wine aroma on it. Sweet prune juice and grapefruit zest. Interesting!

On the palate it’s so much lighter than the nose. Chocolate brownies, vanilla, candied strawberries and toffee. Some coffee sweets and raisins. To be fair I was expecting it to be more syrupy, but besides the sweetness upfront there’s nothing in there, rum included. The finish is very short with some sweet cherries.

Corbelli’s Little Italy Deli actually looks like a nice Italian style little place, but their CC rum is under average. The profile is like a ghost, has no body to it. If I were to guess, this could be Panamanian rum dosed with some kind of juice, or a neutral spirit with a touch of rum essence (DOK) and some syrup. It doesn’t look like it’s widely available, only found it at one online shop I’ve never heard about priced at £15 – I’d rather buy Bacardi Carta Blanca at £17 for 1 litre. I spent £20 for this, but it came with a free 2 litre bottle of coke… yay, I guess! At least I satisfied my curiosity.

So as you probably guessed, HCE got the upper hand in here. Having them both with coke closes the gap more between them, but I still prefer HCE over CC even mixed. While it doesn’t seem like it’s still in production, if you ever see CC on a shelf in some little liquor store just save your money – you can get HCE for some shots with the mates or some rum and coke/Cuba Libre.

Havana Club Especial score:
Flavour/taste: 39/70
Value for money: 14/15
Transparency/purity: 11/15
Overall: 64/100

Cuba Club score:
Flavour/taste: 20/70
Value for money: 8/15
Transparency/purity: 2/15
Overall: 30/100


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