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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Havana Club: from Cuba with love

Havana Club CEO Christian Barré chats with Eamonn Duff about the global rum resurgence and his own seven-year journey leading one of the world’s most iconic, heritage-rich spirit brands

 

You’re a drinks industry (and Pernod Ricard) veteran of more than 20 years. How would you sum up alcohol’s evolution in that time?

“It’s been fascinating to witness the evolution of the drinks industry and how it has transformed over the past 20 years. The globalisation of different tastes and categories has led to experimentation and innovation, with brands now offering a diverse array of products to provide consumers with exciting, quality drinking experiences – and at Havana Club we continue to lead the charge when it comes to pushing the boundaries of rum making.

“Although the industry has developed over time, the basic parameters to promote brands remain the same with both the on and off trade continuing to be key channels driving this growth. However, the rise of social media remains a game changer as brands have a direct dialogue with fans and can connect with them above and beyond products, which in turn, delivers healthy growth prospects.

“A key change for the industry is the rise in health-conscious consumers. This means we’re now witnessing a trend towards moderation and mindfulness where people drink less, but better. As a result, drinkers now want to spend their money on premium brands that deliver a high-quality experience. Beyond this, today’s drinkers are keen to understand where the products they’re buying come from to ensure they align with their values and preferences, meaning craftmanship, provenance and heritage have all become key purchase motivators for rum drinkers.

“At Havana Club, our purpose is to celebrate the inimitable values and spirit of Cuba by displaying not only our rum expertise, Cuban lifestyle and culture, but also maintaining strong links with the island’s most creative talents and sharing exclusive moments of a brand story will always be a key business objective for us.”

Rum is an integral part of Cuban culture and Havana Club offers a truly authentic taste of that tradition to consumers around the globe. Was this a major drawcard when you took on the position in 2017?

“There were a whole host of factors that attracted me to Havana Club. I was intrigued by the fact that the business is different to running a 100 percent Pernod Ricard owned subsidiary, because we have a joint venture, this means there’s a certain level of complexity to the business format and interesting commercial opportunities. But most importantly, Havana Club is an iconic and leading brand within such an exciting category, and I wanted to be a part of the brand journey.

“Beyond this, I was inspired by how the brand owns its ‘El Ron de Cuba’ narrative and how its Cuban heritage infuses all levels of the business model. This spans from the production processes and our sustainability initiatives, all the way through to our marketing campaigns. What’s even more exciting is the unparalleled knowledge of the Maestros del Ron Cubano, and their passion to deliver outstanding quality rums, which is a true guiding force we remain committed to and enjoy sharing with consumers globally.

“At the end of 2016 – just before I joined Havana Club the year after – President Obama visited Cuba, The Rolling Stones played in Havana, which meant everybody was hopeful and enthusiastic about the future. This energy motivated me to prepare for the moment that we can tap into the US market – naturally, the political agenda has changed but we’re ready for when the time comes.”

Havana Club is jointly owned and distributed through a joint venture partnership between Pernod Ricard and Cuban partner Cuba Ron. It’s a unique arrangement, right?

“It is indeed a unique arrangement, and a special one too. In fact, we’ve just celebrated the anniversary of 30 years since Pernod Ricard created a joint venture with Cuba Ron to bring Havana Club to international markets. The beauty of the partnership is that all parties always have one goal in mind; to produce the highest quality Cuban rum, which we’re proud of to this day.

“By working closely with our Cuban counterparts, we remain committed to making the most authentic range of Cuban rums. Equally, we’re able to harness Pernod Ricard’s international distribution market, and despite not having access to the world’s biggest rum market – the US – we’re now sold in more than 120 international markets. The involvement of both parties has helped us to become the third international rum brand leading the Super Premium segment, and of course, the world’s bestselling Cuban rum brand – a status we’re extremely proud of.”

 

Sustainability is at the forefront of every brand’s thoughts as we enter 2024. How is Havana Club progressing towards a greener future?

“A circular economy is integral to the Cuban way of life, and we embrace sustainable practices across our entire supply chain, from how we bottle our rum, to how we power our distillery in Cuba, and we recently pledged to reduce our carbon footprint with a series of award-winning sustainable initiatives.

“This includes eliminating the use of fossil fuels to power operations, successfully re-purposing our vinasses – the by-product of our distillation process into animal feed for 2,000 local farmers and installing the first phase of solar panels at our San José Distillery. Our focus towards a greener future for this year is to produce surplus energy, generating 100% of the distillery’s daylight electricity needs in 2024, and save 1,800 tons of CO2 every year, as we remain committed to redistributing the excess energy to local communities to support Cubans nationwide.”

“On a bigger scale, we’ve reduced the weight of glass bottles across our core portfolio which we estimate will save 2.2K tons of CO2 per year. Bottles of Havana Club Original – Añejo 3 Años, Havana Club 7 Años and Havana Club Añejo Especial now feature a thinner glass repartition in the bottle mould, reducing its weight by up to 16 percent.

Like many island nations, Cuba has become increasingly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Does production there come with specific environmental constraints and an even greater sense of responsibility to protect natural resources?

“Cuba’s climate and geography mean the impact of climate change is felt keenly. As an island to tackle the consequences and protect its natural resources. For example, our work with international conservation group, Manglar Vivo, protect coastal communities, recovers CO2 and shields vital water biodiversity.

“Our mission is to rehabilitate mangroves – the trees and shrubs grow on coastal waters – near our production sites, which forms a crucial part of the natural ecosystem and the 650 hectares we manage. In turn, the mangroves help protect the shoreline, and if water levels rise, they offer strong protection.

“This is just one example of how we go above and beyond to protect our precious island against these challenges, and as one of the biggest businesses in Cuba that employees more than 600 people, it’s our responsibility to continually review and implement new plans to protect natural resources both now and in the future.”

There’s been a sizeable shift in popularity around rum, both here in the UK and other countries. What’s fuelling this renaissance?

“The rum renaissance has arrived and it’s here to stay, thanks to a perfect blend of tradition, innovation and premiumisation.

“In fact, it’s been another record year for us in terms of sales. Driven by growth in our exports, Havana Club sold 4.3M 9L cases in FY23[1] with a 6 percent growth in value. Our core markets of France, Germany, the UK, Spain, and Italy have seen growth, alongside in accelerator markets including Mexico, Poland and Turkey – and there are a range of factors contributing to this.

“Firstly, we’re witnessing a renewed appreciation for craftmanship, with consumers drawn to the artistry of rum production. Good news for us, as we remain committed to making the most authentic Cuban rums, thanks to the unparalleled knowledge of our Maestros del Ron Cubano, whose know-how is recognised by UNESCO as World Intangible Heritage.

“What’s more, the diversity of rum styles from light and refreshing, to dark and robust, offers a spectrum of flavours that appeals to a broad global audience, and we continue to push the boundaries of rum making by offering unique innovations. This includes Havana Club Cuban Spiced, our first expansion into the burgeoning spiced rum sector, made from 100 percent Cuban rum, blended with exotic flavours and warming spices. Additionally, Havana Club Cuban Smoky is aged in malt whisky barrels from Islay, with the smoky flavours, typically associated with single malt or appealing to premium spirit drinkers.

“We take great pride in being part of the global rum resurgence and as the category leader, it’s our responsibility to blaze a trail of innovation and offer consumers not just a drink, but an authentic and enriching experience every time.”

 

Premiumisation continues to change the way we drink beer, wine – and particularly spirits. As one of the world’s top brands, how has Havana Club been leading the charge?

“Premiumisation continues to reign supreme, and rum is now widely viewed as a fashionable and credible alternative to high-end classics such as Scotch and cognac – enjoyed neat, on the rocks, with a premium mixer or in a refined cocktail. The premium trend is driven by our flagship Havana Club 7 Años, which in turn, has led to a growing consumer interest in quality, aged rums.

“We’ve capitalised on this appetite with various new launches including the latest instalment of our renowned Tributo collection, with Havana Club Tributo 2023 (below), alongside Havana Club Vintage 2007, an exclusive rum using the first bases created at our San José Distillery to celebrate its founding. We also unveiled a striking new look for our ultra-premium Havana Club Maximo Extra Añejo which comes enshrined in a distinguished crystal decanter and features new sustainable packaging formats.

“The inexorable march towards more premium offerings is key, and we continue to lead the charge as the brand leader in the premium category, meaning it is our responsibility to lead super-premium rum to new heights, whilst also honouring our roots and celebrating our tropical island heritage.”

In today’s rapidly evolving world, what’s the secret to embracing change, latest consumer trends and innovation without compromising the long-standing heritage and identity of a legacy brand?

“Whilst it’s integral for brands to embrace change and tap into consumer trends, it’s paramount that this is done in a way that showcases the identity of a brand which is why we ensure all our innovations are rooted in Cuban heritage.

“Consumers are looking for opportunities to connect with brands above and beyond products available, and our global platform, Cuban Mode, does just that. It’s full of the singular Cuban energy – called La Cubanía – and represents our creativity, spirit, and community links. The hero film stars an intergenerational cast comprised entirely of locals and showcases our portfolio and rich cultural heritage in each scene and we’re proud to have shown this to the world.

“Our flagship rum, Havana Club Club 7 Años, has become a great vehicle for us to tap into the latest consumer trends while protecting our brand legacy through exciting global and local collaborations with renowned artists. This has included our successful partnership with Skepta, which celebrated the links between Afro-Cuban and London youth culture and more recently through our campaign with Burna Boy, known as the African Giant.

“With consumers seeking out stories of provenance and heritage, this demonstrates how we celebrate the voices of the next generation but keep our legacy as the original Cuban rum brand at the forefront.”

Changes in society, culture and even legislation are fuelling the rise of alcohol free and low alcohol. Some leading spirits brands are tapping into the category. Could Havana Club follow suit in the future?

“We’ve certainly witnessed a raft of innovation that taps into the demand for alcohol-free which adds further credibility to the sector in providing a choice to suit any occasion. Whilst there is a rise in sober-curious drinkers, the challenge is that producers run the risk of not creating a quality product. So, it’s essential that low alcohol products deliver on flavour and taste every time.

“Our number one priority is to educate consumers on the importance of responsible drinking. We believe our rum tastes better when enjoyed responsibly, and we’re committed to creating a world without excess, we will continue to create a network of responsible drinking ambassadors, so consumers across the globe can enjoy our products, in moderation. We could certainly innovate within the no and low alcohol category, but only if we believe it helps to reinforce the brand personality and franchise.”

 

If a younger Christian Barré had never wound up in the drinks business, where do you think life might have taken him?

“This is a great question – travelling is a huge passion of mine and my work with Pernod Ricard has meant that I’ve been lucky enough to explore new cultures and countries. In an alternative life outside of the drinks industry, I’m sure I would be doing something that incorporated travel. Most importantly, I’m inspired by people and their talent, so I’m sure I would have found a way to work with diverse teams and enrich them to drive success.”

As one of the world’s most diverse spirit categories, Rum can be enjoyed so many ways. Finally, if you had to choose your ultimate Havana Club inspired drink, what would it be – and why?

“You really can’t beat a Classic Daiquiri, made with Havana Club Original Añejo 3 Años perfectly paired with a squeeze of lime juice, which is the traditional way they prepare it in La Floridita in Havana. I’m also a fan of a Rum Old Fashioned with either Havana Club 7 Años or Havana Club Smoky, but always with a garnish of orange peel.”

 

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