The Losh Cause – Havana Clubs
With the battle between Pernod Ricard and Bacardi over the name Havana Club entering a new phase following Bacardi's decision to launch its own rum of the same name in the US, Chris Losh asks whether Bacardi's move is a legitimate step by a wronged company or a cynical attempt to cash in on another brand's success.
And so the dispute rumbles on. The Havana Club/Bacardi fisticuffs is, if not one of the longest, then certainly one of the most bitterly contested battles in the drinks world, and the decision by Bacardi to launch its own Havana Club rum in the US has fanned the flames once more.
The probability that there will be two separate brands called Havana Club is, of course, ridiculous, not to say confusing. But it has been made possible by intense lobbying from Bacardi and more than a little politics on the part of the American administrators.
Bacardi maintains that it has the rights to the Havana Club brand name, which was confiscated from the Arechabala family by the Castro government in 1960 after the Cuban revolution. The Arechabala family formed an alliance with a Bacardi subsidiary called Galleon in 1994, and in 1997 Bacardi acquired the Havana Club brand from the family for an undisclosed sum. Bacardi therefore asserts that it owns the rights to a product that was unlawfully taken from its original owners.
To the horror of the Cuban government, which also asserts that it owns Havana Club (and Pernod Ricard which has a global distribution deal for the brand), the US Patent Office agreed, and recently ruled that the existing US patent for Havana Club was "cancelled/expired".
With the ink barely dry on the ruling, Bacardi has leapt in and poured a large bag of salt into a very raw wound, announcing its plans to launch a product of the same name in the US.
Being Cuban, Havana Club is not yet, of course, on sale in the US. But with Castro ailing and a real possibility that Cuba will open up in the near future, the prospect of Pernod being able to replicate its worldwide success with Havana Club in one of the fastest growing rum markets in the world was very real.
More worrying, from the point of view of the neutral, is the fact that an established global brand has had its brand name usurped. Whatever the rights and wrongs of how Havana Club was removed from its original owners, the new situation - with two unrelated brands of the same name - does nobody any favours, least of all the consumers, who can't be expected to understand the difference.
It adds weight to assertions that this is no more than a cynical attempt by Bacardi either to cash in on an already successful brand name or to score points off an old enemy, neither of which motive is particularly laudable.
But there's a final point, too, concerning purity of provenance - or lack of it. The Caribbean is, perhaps unsurprisingly, pretty relaxed about regulating its product. Age statements can be ambiguous, the line between aguardiente (cheap, high strength) and rum is often blurred and the regulations that do exist are not always enthusiastically policed. As one source put it, "the big companies like it like that. They can do what they want, and as long as they're happy, nothing will change."
The downside, though, is confusion. It's perfectly possible, for instance, to produce 'rum' from outside the Caribbean, in the same way one can produce whisky or brandy outside France or Scotland.
But whereas Cognac, Armagnac and Scotch whisky have all been tough on protecting the geographical link to their best products and clamping down on foreign-made bottles that attempted to pass themselves off as legitimate, rum is as toothless as a sugar-cane worker.
Recently, an Indian whisky called Bonnie Scot, featuring a tartan-clad figure on the label, had to be renamed and repackaged under pressure from the Scotch Whisky Association. But if a Chinese distillery decides to produce a rum called Caribbean Princess, there's nothing to stop it, any more than there's legislation in place to prevent Bacardi from naming a new product after a place with which it has no connection.
Illegal? No. Cynical, certainly.
Perhaps it's just me, but I would naïvely have hoped for something rather more noble from the owner of the world's biggest spirit brand...
For a full, detailed look at how the conflict came about, click here.
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