In 1930, residents of Havana gazed upwards and for the first time saw something other than the withering tropical sun. They saw a sculpture of a fruit bat.
It was massive, cast in bronze and sitting atop the city’s first skyscraper built by the Bacardi Corp. The structure was a 12-story colossus of red granite and terra cotta. If there was ever a symbol of corporate pride and might in the Caribbean, this building was it. And as Cuba’s first multinational corporation, Bacardi enjoyed worldwide renown for its rums—whose logo was the beady-eyed mammal (see sidebar).
As it happened, the edifice would serve the company fewer than three decades. In 1959, Fidel Castro’s rebel armed forces rolled into Cuba’s capital city and ousted the Batista government. While Castro nationalized Cuban industries, Bacardi fled. By 1965, it had built new headquarters in Hamilton, Bermuda.
It’s not easy to find a brand that’s both a household name and been around for over 150 years, but Bacardi has a further claim to fame: It has endured war, revolution and the 18th Amendment. It survived the 1980s when rum wasn’t cool to drink. Most recently, after the category staggered through a decade-long slump, Bacardi doubled down by rolling out two new premium rums in 2018, which have restored the brand’s vitality.
“It’s true that the past 158 years haven’t always been easy,” said global svp of marketing Ned Duggan. “One of the reasons why we’ve continued to thrive and grow over the past two centuries has been that we don’t get discouraged by adversity. Instead, we look for the good and try to keep a fearless mentality.”
Fearless might also describe company founder Facundo Bacardí Massó, who emigrated from Spain to Cuba, survived an earthquake and cholera, then began distilling with his brother-in-law in 1862. Rum was a low-rent drink at the time, but Bacardí Massó wasn’t troubled by that. He refined his batch by using a proprietary yeast, charcoal filtering and aging his rum in oak barrels. The product was so good that, by 1888, the Spanish royal family was drinking the stuff.
No shortage of adversity would assail the brand’s fortunes—first the Cuban War of Independence, then Prohibition in the United States and finally the communist revolution. Yet Bacardi stayed the rum of choice, not just because of its smoothness but for the enormously popular cocktails that the brand invented: the Cuba Libre, a favorite of American soldiers in the Spanish-American War, and the Bacardi Daiquiri, which Ernest Hemingway used to drain at the Floridita bar.
Up until this week, millions of Americans were sipping Bacardi in bars, too, though the coronavirus crisis—perhaps encouraging a bit of drinking at home—has put all of that on ice for now. Bacardi (which has converted some of its factory production in Cataño, Puerto Rico, to making hand sanitizer) has long prided itself on its relationships with bartenders, and they’re on Duggan’s mind right now.
“We want to encourage people to support their local business and at Bacardi we are looking into the best way to make this possible, including supporting our vibrant bar and restaurant community, many of which will be hit the hardest during this time,” he said. “They are the lifeblood of our business. We have been connected to this group for 158 years and we will stay connected to them for 158 more.”