Visit the slick Casa Bacardi Visitor Center (t787/788-8400, whttp://www.casabacardi.org) inside the “cathedral of rum”, the vast Bacardi distillery across San Juan Bay in Cataño and you’ll enter another world – Cuba, to be precise. It’s a series of fun and illuminating interactive exhibits that emphasize Bacardi’s Cuban roots and involve not just watching and listening, but sniffing the products on display. Guided tours depart every 15 to 30 minutes and last around 45 minutes.
Established in Santiago de Cuba by Catalan expat Don Facundo Bacardí Massó in 1862, the Bacardi empire now dominates the global rum market, supplying 75 percent of rum sold in the US alone. The Puerto Rican plant was established in Old San Juan in 1936 and moved to this location – when it received its “cathedral” sobriquet from then-governor Luis Muñoz Marín – in 1958. The move here proved timely, as Castro seized the Bacardi assets in Cuba shortly afterwards, precipitating exile in 1960 – the family remain vehement opponents of what they term a “totalitarian” regime.
Today Bacardi is a true multinational organization, headquartered in tax-free Bermuda, and with massive operations in the Bahamas, Mexico and Puerto Rico – the last outpost has the capacity to produce 100,000 gallons of rum every 24 hours and is the biggest taxpayer on the island.
Equipped with a hand-held audio guide and accompanied by enthusiastic docents, you’ll pass through seven different zones introducing both the history of the company and the rum-making process. Special barrels allow you to “nose” the effects of wood barrelling, ageing and finishing, as well as the various Bacardi brands on offer: sweetly scented apple and melon flavours and the rich, addictive aroma of coconut-laced rum – piña colada in a bottle. Mercifully, there are two free drinks waiting for you at the end of the tour (and as many soft drinks as you like).
Note, however, that you don’t get to visit the actual distillery – for security reasons the real rum-making facilities have been off-limits since 9/11 and are likely to remain that way.