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Don Navarro or how to pay tribute to the first master of Cuban rum

Ron NavarroJosé Pablo Navarro Campa said that Cuban rum is not born from a magical combination. It is a cultural heritage that is transmitted “from teacher to teacher, from heart to heart”.

Humble and simple, as his colleagues remember him, this man from Santiago could not perhaps imagine that his first surname would name the contents of a bottle that reflects everything for which he worked for more than 40 years.

On September 10, 2020, an unfortunate illness ended Navarro’s life. Time later, in the warehouses of San José, he would follow the tribute. Members of the Cuban rum masters movement came together to select, mix and create a spirit as special as his mentor.

Havana Club Don Navarro. It was the first time that a rum would bear the name of a master rum maker. “It was a collective selection. We were looking for a sensory profile that would represent the character of whoever our guide was. We chose several bases, including Centenario, created by Navarro and which gave rise to the birth of extra-aged rums”, says Juan Carlos González, current leader of the Movement.

Molecules of 40-year-old rum, the same one that Navarro distilled, are in this product that the company Havana Club International S.A. has just launched on the market. A very exclusive edition, of only 1,000 bottles each year, available – at a price of 125 USD – in very select places in Havana, Varadero and Santiago de Cuba. Also exclusively internationally, through the online sales site The Whiskey Exchange.

For Asbel Morales it was a challenge to make a rum with the name of the eternal defender of the Cuban rum culture. “In this liquid is the aroma of Cubanness, of Cuban light rum, just what Navarro always wanted,” she says.

“We are bringing to our country and to the world a rum made from the heart, which we intend to identify Navarro, with a very strong charisma, a happy and simple people. An excellent professional,” adds Salomé Alemán, the first female Rum Master in Cuba.

The bottle presents a sober, warm design, attributes that characterized the Master. Outlining the label, finely drawn chains are found as a symbol of union between all the masters of Cuban rum and of continuity, by the legacy passed down from generation to generation.

Navarro, doubly Master

One day in 1988 Salomé would obtain her degree in Chemical Engineering. At that time Navarro was already walking between rows of large barrels and his invention, the Havana Club 7 years, would have been created for a decade. “The foundational rum”, they would say, because it gave rise to rums as complex as those that today make up the Havana Club prestige range.

When Salomé began social service at the Santa Cruz Rum Factory, it had been 17 years since Navarro’s first visit to a distillery. That day he would enter that ship to never leave the world of the smell of brandy and wood. He left behind a time of teaching work at the Universidad de Oriente. But he would take with him the gift of teaching.

Navarro became the mentor of a whole generation of teachers and although he worked in the rum factory in Santiago de Cuba, he participated in the production processes of all the factories in the country. “When someone asked him a question, he took a piece of paper and explained it. Many still treasure those little pieces of paper with annotations from the Master”, says Salomé.

He was a reference for all, an example of a man, a friend, a father and a teacher, sums up Juan Carlos González.

The challenge of maintaining know-how

Cuban light rum is the result of a culture that has more than 150 years of history. It was born in 1862 in the city of Santiago de Cuba marking a technological turn with respect to the rest of the rums produced in the Caribbean area. Since then, the complex mixtures have spread, in successive aging stages, transmitted from generation to generation.

After the revolutionary triumph, the challenge of maintaining that know-how began, especially – Salomé recalls – due to the departure of great producers such as Bacardí.

When Navarro joined the rum industry, he did so with the challenge of continuing to perfect those practices. “He was able to interpret how the barrels work, by type and in various stages, according to their position and temperatures. His way of doing things and his ability to work was ingenious”, highlights Maestro Manuel Calderón.

However, the responsibility to internalize inherited traditions is perennial. How to maintain the aroma and flavor of a liquor even if it is aged up to 40 years is, in the opinion of Asbel Morales, the great challenge of the rum masters. “How did we do it? Because light rum was created and we have never betrayed it. Because it is given historical continuity in the ways of doing things”.

Teachers, adds Salomé, must be prepared to identify in their sensory memory, from the raw materials to the finished rums. “Rum is the happy son of sugar cane, but its production is not easy, it is a complex process.”

There are nine master rum makers in the country. For Salomé, this means a personal, “patriotic” commitment, because “it is Cuba, it is its history.” Because rum is not born from a magical combination, it is a cultural heritage that is transmitted from master to master, as Navarro emphasized.

(By: Lissett Izquierdo Ferrer)

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