Here's the thing: you don't need to be a fan of rum to enjoy touring Casa Bacardi in Puerto Rico, the largest rum distillery in the world. That's because the Bacardi family have made their free tour interesting enough for any visitor to enjoy. And it's not just the two free samples of a Bacardi cocktail at the end. The tour takes you into the heart of an empire and relates a story of a family, and a spirit, that has left an indelible footprint in the Caribbean. They've been conducting tours since 1962, an almost 50-year tradition of showing visitors their home.
That's pretty impressive.
The Bat Sign
What's with the bat, Bacardi's iconic logo? The answer comes out of Bacardi's early history. While the spirit calls Puerto Rico home today (they registered their trademark in Puerto Rico in 1909), the Bacardi story began February 4, 1862, in Cuba. Its first distillery was a simple structure, its rafters home to fruit bats. It was from them that Bacardi's bat logo originated.
The Bat Men
Bacardi's founder was Don Facundo Bacardí Massó, a Spaniard who emigrated to Cuba in 1830. He and brother José learned to filter rum through charcoal to remove impurities and age it in oak barrels to give it its smoothness.
Facundo's son, Emilio, was a politician, author, and eventually mayor of Santiago de Cuba. But it was his brother-in-law, Enrique Schueg, who was the architect of Bacardi's international growth. Schueg began rum production in Puerto Rico in the 1930s.
Today, Bacardi continues to be a family business, now in its fifth generation. They continue to be, as Enrique labeled the spirit, "The Kings of Rum."
The Showroom and the Secrets
Perhaps the most entertaining part of the one-hour tour is the interactive exhibit room where you'll find a recreation of Bacardi's first distillery, heirlooms and photos from the past, and rum displays that let you sniff your way through different varieties and blends of the spirit.
You'll also learn some of the steps that go into making rum: the two types of fermentation, the best types of rum for sipping vs. mixing, and even what Bacardi does with the byproducts of rum production. What you won't learn is the proprietary process for fermentation, distillation, aging, and blending.
We had Tomas Beltrán, a bartender for 22 years, show us how to make three famous drinks, all Bacardi originals: the Cuba Libre (or as it's more commonly known as Rum and Coke), the daiquiri, and the mojito. Here are some fun facts about each one:
- The Cuba Libre is named after a toast in Cuba and is specific to Coca-Cola; no other soda will do (sorry, Pepsi).
- The original daiquiri was not frozen, just a simple mix of lime juice, light rum, sugar, and ice. It is named after an iron mine near Santiago, Cuba.
- A traditional mojito is made with yerba buena or spearmint leaves.
A Sweet Ending
A rum tour that ends with free samples of rum has to appeal to its patrons, right? After your tour, you're invited back to the pavilion to order your favorite Bacardi drink or try something new (hint: go for the Morí Soñando, or "I died dreaming," a combination of Bacardi Orange, cream of coconut, pineapple, and orange juice.)
You can also check out the gift shop, where you'll find Bacardi's fine products on display, including a special "Reserva Limitada," a 12-year aged rum exclusive to the store.
All in all, a day at the "Cathedral of Rum" is a pretty cool way to spend your time in Puerto Rico.
How to Get There
There are numerous tour companies that run tours to Casa Bacardi, but they cost you much more than the 50 cents you'll pay to take a ferry from Old San Juan's Pier 2 to Cataño. From here it's roughly a $3 taxi ride to the distillery.
If you do want to get here on a tour bus, Viator and Puerto Rico Tours are among the companies that combine a visit to the distillery with a tour of Old San Juan.
By car, take Route 18 from San Juan to Highway 22 West. Take the exit for Cataño/Road 165. Follow the Bacardi signs to the distillery.