Relaxed limits on what licensed U.S. travellers can bring home mean that Americans will be able to enjoy small quantities of the liquor at home. But, with the embargo still in place, the rum won't be flooding bars or the market.
And it's unclear what the news means for industry titan Bacardi, which was driven from its Cuba headquarters by the 1959 Castro revolution. In the past, Bacardi has left the door open for a return to its homeland. But company representatives wouldn't give details when asked Thursday what, if any, plans it has if the more than 50-year-old embargo on Cuban goods ends, now that President Barack Obama is working to normalize relations with the country.
"We hope for meaningful improvements in the lives of the Cuban people and will follow any changes with great interest," the company said in a statement. Bacardi said it's waiting to see what effects thawing U.S.-Cuba relations may have.
In 1997, Bacardi bought the legal rights to the recipe and name of Havana Club, a popular rum created in 1935 by a Cuban family who eventually fled the Castro revolution. Bacardi used the recipe and name for a rum it distilled in Puerto Rico.
But the name would become tangled in a long-running U.S. trademark fight with French wine and spirits maker Pernod Ricard.
Pernod Ricard, in partnership with state-owned Cubaexport, already had been selling Havana Club rum, distilled in Cuba, in other countries.
Nearly 20 years of legal arguments followed. Ultimately, a court ruled that Bacardi would be allowed to continue selling its Havana Club in the U.S. In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review that decision, giving Bacardi's Havana Club rum its final green light for American sales.
To differentiate its rum — and anticipating an eventual lifting of the embargo — Pernod Ricard then announced it had registered the brand name Havanista in the U.S. to someday sell Cuban-distilled rum on American soil.
Today, Bacardi's Havana Club, still distilled in Puerto Rico, is an exclusive, hard-to-find bottle, sold in limited quantities in Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan and Colorado.
Bacardi, with global headquarters in Bermuda, sells more than 18 million cases of rum worldwide each year. The trickle of bottles that will soon come home in travellers' luggage won't offer much competition. Still, the new policy is an encouraging sign for Cuban distillers, said Robert A. Burr, founder of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.
"It's not a green light yet, but it's a light at the end of the tunnel, the beginning of the end of this invisibility" in the U.S. marketplace, Burr said.
Licensed U.S. travellers to Cuba will be able to bring home merchandise worth up to $400, of which $100 can be spent on alcohol and tobacco products combined. Like the rest of the eased trade, travel and currency restrictions announced Wednesday, the rum rules will take effect when official revise and publish the regulations — perhaps weeks away.
And U.S. law still prohibits Americans from circumventing the limits by buying rum — or cigars or other liquor — in other countries and bringing them home.
Rum is a growing market in the United States. Imports have grown to $98.4 million in 2013 from $72.5 million in 2009, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. Sales increased slightly last year to 25.6 million cases, with flavoured and spiced rums accounting for more than half of those sold.
Aside from their allure as forbidden fruit, Cuban rums are known for their lighter colour and more delicate expression than the dark, heavy rums produced elsewhere in the Caribbean, Burr said.
Rum is a popular export — it seems every Caribbean island and Central and South American country has its own — and consumers often remain loyal to brands even when far from home.
"In Miami, the rum market is partially ethnic-based, with Colombians drinking Colombian rum and Venezuelans drinking Venezuelan rum," Burr said. "Well, there are a lot of Cubans here, aren't there? Some may say that if they drink Cuban rum, they're just giving money to Castro, but I think some will say, 'Finally, we can enjoy the rums of Cuba.'"
In 2012, Bacardi Ltd. board chairman Facundo Bacardi, great-great-grandson of the company's founder, told Cigar Aficionado that "offering the world a Cuban-sourced Bacardi rum — it will happen."
"A lot of companies will look at Cuba as a commercial opportunity, but we don't necessarily look at it that way," he said. "We see it from the perspective of Cuban exiles returning home."
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