CubaNews / February 2003
By Larry Luxner
Hyped as “an eclectic fusion of Scotland and Cuba,” Glenfiddich Havana Reserve 21 Year Old Scotch whisky is already making handsome profits for its distillers, William Grant & Sons International Ltd.
“Basically, we’ve sold everything we could produce,” the distiller’s rare whisky manager, James Doherty, said in a phone interview.
Since launching it last June, William Grant & Sons has sold about 1,800 cases of Glenfiddich Havana Reserve. At the rather stiff price of £59 (around $97.30) for a 700-ml bottle, that comes to more than $2.1 million in sales.
Yet because this particular whisky is aged in casks that once contained Cuban rum, you won’t find it for sale in any U.S. liquor store.
“We have had two independent legal opinions concluding that this product has acquired a sufficient Cuban connection to run afoul of the Helms-Burton Act,” Doherty told CubaNews. “So we have chosen not to sell it in the United States.”
Says Max Castro, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s North-South Center: “This points out the absurd extremes to which the embargo has gone. More often than not, it ends up with interpretations that are dubious and almost laughable.”
For Europeans and Canadians, however, that “Cuban connection” has given Glenfiddich Havana Reserve a bit of sex appeal — a fact its distillers have carefully exploited through television spots filmed in Old Havana and promoted on the company website.
“We brought aged rum from the Sierra del Escambray region of Sancti Spíritus province and filled it into casks for a period of up to two years before emptying the casks and filling them with whisky for the final six months of maturation,” Doherty explained.
“The wood has picked up character from the rum, and the whisky then draws some of the character out of the wood,” he said. “The result is an exotic blend of toffee, banana, ginger and a subtle zing of lime.”
According to Doherty, the unusual product came about because “we were looking for a new adventure, to add an element of intrigue to Glenfiddich” — a single-malt whisky brand that has been distilled in Scotland since 1887.
He said the company considered rums from Venezuela, Guyana and elsewhere before settling on the Cuban variety. “For me, it’s all about having the right taste, and yes, Cuba adds cache to the product. In our case, it’s had a particularly good effect on sales.”
For now, most TV spots have been aimed at the U.K. and European markets, though Glenfiddich Havana Reserve is now also available in Canada, where it sells for C$130 to C$150 a bottle and is being marketed with the slogan: “Politics hang heavily over this product.”
Bernard Pearson, vice-president of PMA Ltd., the Toronto-based sales agent for Glenfiddich, says “we have a waiting list. We can’t keep up with the demand.”
Even so, the new Scotch constitutes less than 0.25% of the company’s total annual volume of 770,000 cases.
While he declined to go into details about the financial arrangements, Doherty did say that William Grant & Sons buys the Cuban rum from an intermediary based in the U.K., and not directly from the Cuban government.