Interview by Onaisys Fonticoba Gener
The first time I met Maestro Julio Enrique Ayán Rial, I had recently graduate as journalist. He was waiting for us at the gates of the former storehouses “Bacardí”, in Santiago de Cuba, to speak with us about something we thought we knew, but it was actually a complete discovery.
Perhaps because of the Cuban custom of taking everything for granted, that group of journalists —who were between 23 and 35 years old— walked in front of the white oak barrels as if they had seen them before, as if they knew into those barrels there were bases more ancient than the oldest rum of Cuba, as if the immensity of the warehouses did not overwhelm them or it didn’t dazzle their eyes.
But Julio had foreseen it. And as a magician who does not reveal his tricks, he left us only those images and an explanation —essential— about the meaning of rum for Cuban culture. Ten years later —almost the same time he has being a Maestro—, we meet him again at the V International Scientific and Technical Colloquium of Light Rum. Then, with less attendance than in the Bacardí storehouses, he tells us that it is thanks to the knowledge transmission from a Maestro to another that our drink is still among the best ones in the world.
"All the Masters have stayed on the Island," he said. “It is not about politics or economy, but a cultural issue. For us, culture is priceless, not negotiable”.
"Many people say they are called Maestros Roneros abroad, because of the intangible value they represent for their called 'Cuban rum'. But Cuban rum can only be elaborated here, because of the characteristics of honeys, the climate, the way of mixing ... We are well-known for the creation —more than 154 years ago— of light rum, for the way we preserve it, for the continuous aging it has, for using the same barrels during 80 or 90 years, which soften it and enable a huge variety of aromas and flavors.
About the characteristics that identify the drink in each region, he explains that "light rum was born in Santiago de Cuba and it moved from there to the rest of the island and the world. Eastern rums are very aromatic, with a sweet tendency. Those from the Center have other characteristics; their aromas are a little dry. And the products elaborated in the West are really dry. In addition, if we talk about zones, we have to say that the way to create rums is different in each region. There are different traditions and that is what creators have wanted to transmit to the drink”.
With the huge power of synthesis which characterizes him, he tells us that his title of Agricultural Engineer —Master in Plant Production— makes him the "exception" of the Cuban Rum Maestros, who are usually chemical engineers. "But the rum came from its origins: the sugar cane. So, there is a close bond", he replies in a hurry, like if any annotation must be made.
"Since I was a boy I liked everything about distillation, fermentation, mixing, and I had the possibility to share experiences with a great man: José Navarro Campa, the First Cuban Rum Maestro. Today, I consider rum as a hobby, not as a job. It is something that I enjoy and I get more experience every day".
Although he keeps in his memory invaluable secrets of the Cuban rum, he explains that his routine is the same than the one of an ordinary worker; and when he creates a new product, his first thought is "to develop our culture and make it enjoyable. Then we see the criterion of the customer, what he wants".
His "favorite brand" —he says while he smiles— is Cuban rum: "the liquid taste of Cubans", as Maestro Jose Navarro states. He also destroys the myth about that is a work in which people drink frequently: "We do the tasting of new products and try some barrels, but we do not drink frequently. We have to take care of our palate and health. All the excesses are bad".
And finally he advises: "We agree with the idea of sharing some rum with good friends or with family, never with the desire of 'having a whole bottle', but to share a drink. You should not drink in plastic cups, but in a crystal glass. As a part of our culture, we have to take care of where it is served, and never play down the value it represents".