ArticleEmpire and Alcohol: A Brief Survey
Rum has been an even more powerful historical force than vodka. Tom Gjelten’s Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba demonstrates just how innovative the Bacardi family has been, with an impressive array of pioneering business innovations, even discounting those they claimed that might not pass the fact checker’s scrutiny, such as the origins of the cuba libre. The family truly appreciated the value of branding, so much so that when Castro’s Marxist regime nationalized their company, the materialist compañeros would have caviled at the family taking actual barrels of rum out with them into exile but had no inkling of the value of the immaterial trademark registrations they carried out in their pockets.
In fact, Bacardi had already offshored from Cuba to become one of the world’s first transnationals. When the family left the island, they lost their home but not their headquarters—which they had already moved to the Bahamas, close to the U.S. coast (and gaining what was at the time British imperial trading preferences). With similar foresight, they had already built a plant in Puerto Rico from which to assault the American market as Prohibition ended.
The Bacardi family had grown this market by appealing to refugees from Prohibition and by sending in large shipments through illegal rumrunners before repeal. It is little remarked that while the Bacardi family was growing its market this way, another dynasty was building its political fortunes in the same business. No more than we hear about Washington’s distilling and slave trading do we usually hear in reverent obituaries of the Kennedy clan how the proceeds of rum-running originally stocked the family’s political war chest.
Bacardi itself has kept rum to the fore in regional and international politics. The family had a rebellious tradition, and despite making rum by appointment to the royal court in Madrid, it supported José Martí and the rebels in the war against Spain. Indeed, they bankrolled Castro’s shock troops in the Sierra Maestra and greeted the arrival of the long-haired, bearded rebels at Bacardi headquarters with a banner declaring “¡Gracias, Fidel!” Pepin Bosch and Daniel Bacardi, two of the family’s heads, served on the first postrevolution trade mission from the island to Washington. Of course that made Castro’s nationalization of their Cuban operations all the more galling.
Bacardi blows hot and cold on its Cuban connections, but as one of the largest private, family-held companies in the world, it does not have to answer to shareholders for the millions it has expended on this grudge fight with the revolutionary regime they helped distill and market. Its lobbying power has bankrolled the maintenance of the embargo on Cuba, and in a fit of pure pique, Bacardi sought out the former owners of Havana Club and bought their tenuous claim to the trademark that the Cuban government had acquired by default. Litigated inside a United States hostile to Castro, their ownership of the trademark is not recognized in any other country and has on occasion threatened the whole global structure of international property rights. It has done little to stem the sales of Havana Club outside the United States, not least since one of the world’s liquor giants, Rémy Cointreau, markets it outside Cuba, which is what almost precipitated a trade war between the United States and the European Union over the case. Alcohol still fuels history!
Although the other authors discuss the historical impact of drink, Scruton correctly stresses its social and intellectual impact on those who drink it, not just those make and trade it. Readers who savor fine single malts or aged rums do not have to subscribe to his excessive oenophilia to appreciate the good sense of his argument about the centrality of drink to our culture, ranging from its role as the icebreaker, the social lubricant, to its role as Titanic, going down with all hands when imbibers lose control and hit one ice cube too many.
But between is that golden-glow territory, where people appreciate fine wines and spirits, and indeed beers, which stimulate them into expansive conversation, if not greater thoughts. Scruton begins his book by telling us: “Throughout history, human beings have made life bearable by taking intoxicants.” He memorably counters the modern day prohibitionists with this exhortation: “The worst use of money is to add to the junk pile of old cars or kitsch houses. The best use is to buy mega-expensive wine, so turning your money into biodegradable urine and returning it to the primordial flux,” or even perhaps, as the universe ferments and distills its ingredients over the eons, into the clouds of ethanol that waft across the center of the galaxy.