Impact / November 1, 2004
By Larry Luxner
WILLEMSTAD, Netherlands Antilles — Two of Curaçao's most popular spirits brands will soon be available on South Florida liquor-store shelves, following years of lobbying efforts by manufacturers on the Caribbean's largest Dutch-speaking island.
San Pablo rum and Curaçao of Curaçao original liqueur (see accompanying story) are relatively little known labels in the United States, though that could change with a little aggressive marketing.
Elly van Meeteren is director of Handelmaatschappij A.D. Jonckheer. The family-owned company has sold San Pablo in Curaçao since the early 1960s, when her father, August Damian Jonckheer, acquired the brand from its Cuban owner only days before the Havana distillery was expropriated by the Castro regime.
"We used to import from Cuba," she said. "One day, the owner, Justo González, realized he was going to lose his factory, so he placed a large order and shipped to Curaçao as much rum as he could. After that, he took a vacation to Miami and never came back."
Eventually, González went into business with Jonckheer and began making the rum in Curaçao — where its quality seemed to improve, thanks to the purity of Curaçao's distilled water.
"I remember us working on Sundays, filling bottles by hand. We would sell three bottles here, three bottles there," recalled van Meeteren, who doesn't drink but seems to be an expert on the Caribbean rum industry.
She says San Pablo enjoys a 70% market share on Curaçao, where it sells 50,000 cases a year. The best-selling size is the 170-ml flask, which is convenient for carrying in the back pocket. The brand retails locally for about 14 guilders (around $7.85). Among its rivals are Bacardi and Suriname's Black Cat rum, which is sold illegally for 9 guilders (about $5.05) per bottle.
The company has 25 employees, though "hopefully, within a year, we'll have 100 people working for us," said her brother, Willem Jonckheer, who supervises San Pablo's advertising and marketing efforts.
According to Jonckheer, no more than seven people know the formula for San Pablo rum. When asked about its ingredients, he would say only is that it's made with alcohol distilled from South American sugar cane.
"We were told by a Bacardi agent that since they can't compete with us on the local market, they sent a bottle of San Pablo to Puerto Rico to be analyzed," he said. "The answer they got is that it's one of the purest rums they've ever seen."
He added: "It's not like Cruzan Rum, it's not like Don Q. We're one of the few Caribbean rums that you can drink on ice. I don't know of any Puerto Rican rums where you can do that."
Only Havana Club — bottled in a joint venture between France's Pernod Ricard and the Cuban government — comes close to San Pablo in taste, he said.
But that doesn't mean the family has any love or admiration for Fidel Castro.
"In Miami, they call rum and cola 'una mentirita,' a lie, because Cuba is no longer free," reads a company press release. "There is no Cuba Libre anymore, unless you try it with Rum San Pablo, the rum that defied Fidel and stayed free!"
San Pablo is available in three varieties: gold label, platinum white and special edition, each of which are aged for various lengths of time.
For years, San Pablo's sales were limited mainly to locals and tourists visiting the island. But duty-free constitutes less than 5% of total company sales.
"Our problem is that when we export the rum duty-free, we have to wait for the government to pay us back the cost of the alcohol, and it takes six months. That impedes us from going heavily into the duty-free market," said van Meeteren. "We used to make rum in the free zone, where we didn't pay duties, but the government stopped us for political reasons."
She explained that her uncle had been prime minister of the Netherlands Antilles for 13 years, and when the opposition party came into office, "they decided to take away that privilege from us."
That's one reason the family decided to pursue South Florida, which van Meeteren says is a prime market for San Pablo
As such, the company will soon begin flooding the Miami market with Spanish-language advertisements, promoting San Pablo as a Cuban-style rum. It's also peddling San Pablo in the inflight magazines of American Eagle and Venezuela's Aeropostal — both of which fly to Curaçao — and will soon roll out the new product at Opium and several other trendy South Beach nightclubs.
San Pablo was already test-marketed at Miami's Calle Ocho Festival, where Jonckheer said "reactions were incredible."
A much bigger potential market than South Florida is Holland, home to over 120,000 people of Dutch Caribbean origin who are already familiar with the San Pablo brand.
But exporting to the Netherlands is more complicated than it sounds.
"We were interested in shipping San Pablo there about a year ago. There's an arrangement with the European Union that lets you export to the EU without paying duties, as long as we manufacture the rum here, which we're doing," said van Meeteren. "But we put that on hold for awhile, because in order to get that status, you have to give the [local] government your recipe, and there's no way we're going to do that."