It’s said that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. By that measure, Fernando Fernández hasn’t worked for two lifetimes. Fernández, 65, has crafted a career pursuing dual passions for his native Cuba’s greatest gifts: cigars and rum. An expert in Cuba’s signature spirit, he and Asbel Morales, a maestro del ron Cubano (Cuban rum master) co-created Havana Club Unión, the first rum specially made for pairing with cigars. Fernández is also a master cigar sommelier and works as an adviser with Habanos S.A, which oversees the marketing, selling, and exporting of Cuban cigars worldwide—except to the United States, which has a longstanding trade embargo against Cuba.
Fernández has traveled the world in his multi-faceted role as teacher, lecturer, author, consultant, radio show host, tasting juror, festival judge, and tireless advocate for what makes Cuban rum special and Cuban cigars unrivaled.
Scott Gummer: What makes Cuban rum special and different from rums produced in other Caribbean countries?
Fernando Fernández: The way a rum is made in Cuba doesn’t differ much from the way rum is made in the Caribbean; the difference is in the characteristics. Cuba is the perfect place for growing sugar cane and tobacco, and we have enough so that we only use what is grown here in Cuba. Cuban rum has a much shorter fermentation time. In Cuba, there is no delay, which allows the rum to have an extraordinary aromatic base.The Cuban style is a light rum that blends well in cocktails. Four of the most famous cocktails in the world are from Cuba: the daiquiri, the mojito, the Havana special, and the Cuba libre. Also, the water used in Cuban distilleries is heavy water, and that gives [our rum] a special flavor. Especially in Santiago de Cuba, in the central part of the country, there is a mineral component that enriches the taste of Cuban rum.
Another difference is that we work with different barrels: French oak, American oak, also Sauternes wine casks, in which Pacto Navio rum gets its complexity and unique flavor.
Diplomatic relations and travel access between the United States and Cuba opened up under the Obama administration; however, President Trump instituted tighter restrictions. How are things in Cuba different now than they were a few years ago?
Things are very different. Before, more tourists used to visit. They came to see the centuries-old culture of Cuba. Havana is celebrating its 500-year anniversary. We’d like to share that with more American friends.
What’s the biggest challenge for the rum industry right now in Cuba?
The whole world buys Cuban rum and cigars, except the United States. We would like to share those with more American friends, too.
Cuban rum has its own characteristic distinct from other Caribbean rums, but within that characteristic, are there different styles of Cuban rum?
There are three different styles of Cuban rum, each with flavors and aromas from the regions in which they are produced. The Havana Club style of rum from the western side of Cuba is drier, and there is an interesting complexity with the wood that creates tastes of vanilla and dried fruits and makes the rum voluptuous and gives it an impressive finish. In the east, where Santiago de Cuba is made, the rum is slightly sweeter with a richness and hints of sweet spices such as cinnamon and cloves and pleasant aftertaste. In the center of the country, home to rums including Ron Cubay, the rums are very round, very integrated, very fragrant, with a simply delicious balance. They are all my favorite!What is your favorite rum and cigar pairing?
It depends on the time of day, where I am, what I am doing, and who I am with. If I were having lunch, I would sip a 10-year old Ron Cubay Añejo Reserva Especial 10 Años, and I would smoke a Trinidad cigar. A good pairing for any occasion is the Santiago de Cuba 11-year-old rum with a Romeo y Julieta Wide Churchills or a Hoyo de Monterrey. And if it is night, I like to drink Havana Club Selección de Maestros rum and smoke a Partagás Serie D No. 4. Strong tobacco pairs well with full-bodied rum.
Do Cuban rum and cigars mostly stay the same, or do they change much?
In Cuba, the history of rum and cigars is multi-centennial, but today there is an incredible development of new rums and new cigars. I have a very entertaining job. I am constantly analyzing new rums and new cigars. It’s something that never ends because the culture has no end. The culture is always going to keep evolving, and that’s the beauty of Cuba: our rum culture and our tobacco culture are the spirit of our nation.
Why is Cuba the perfect place for growing sugar cane and tobacco?
There are two main reasons why: the tropical climate and the rich soil. Sugar cane thrives here, as it does elsewhere in the Caribbean; when you talk about the tobacco, there is no place that compares to Cuba. We believe that God wanted this to be the best land in the world to make tobacco, and that he sent us some magical leaves and a farmer, who continued a culture from a time before, that went from grandparents to parents, from parents to children. And the passage of that culture, of that care—did you know that a plant can be used more than 200 times? Imagine the care you have to use on those leaves. It is a form of pampering. No chemicals are added, nothing is added that adds harm to the environment. The tobacco, it does not harm.
Cigarettes do harm because the tobacco is ground up and chemicals are added and it is rolled in paper. But our cigars? No. Tobacco smoke is passed through the mouth and then is pushed out. Our cigars are from nature. And as much as Nicaraguans try, as much as Dominicans try, Cuban tobacco will always be the best in the world.
For Americans who have not had the opportunity to smoke a Cuban cigar, or sip Cuban rum—or experience the two together—how do you explain what they are missing?
I am one of those people who thinks that the future has to be much better than what is happening now. People who would love Cuban cigars and Cuban rum have missed that opportunity because they could not come to Cuba. For more than 50 years, those experiences have been lost. And then relations improved, and more Americans visited Cuba, and they were able to appreciate our culture. Now, it is back to the old ways, but I think it will get better. Cuba’s rum and cigar culture will be one of the bridges in restoring all the riches of the knowledge of our culture.