Isla Del Tesoro: The World’s Rarest, Greatest Rum
by Ken Gargett
Great rum is a strange beast.
There is no question that rum at its finest is as thrilling a spirit as to be found on this planet. And, yet, that is rarely reflected in the price (a good thing) or discussions among spirit aficionados (not such a good thing).
Sure, there are a few of great age in ornate decanters at mind-numbing prices, but in general in the world of spirits there is no better value than a top rum.
This, of course, leads to debates about just what is the greatest rum ever made. I can’t claim to have tried every one, sadly, but there is a mythical bottling that truly embodies everything that is great about rum: pirates, buried treasure, missing gems, tropical islands, and silver ghosts.
My unintended search for the greatest rum of all time
My search for the greatest rum started nearly two decades ago, although I didn’t know it at the time. I was on one of my early visits to Cuba – friends and I had started to travel regularly to Cuba to chase the silver ghost.
For the uninitiated, “silver ghost” is the nickname given to one of the world’s great sport fish, the amazing bonefish found on the salt flats of Las Salinas. Unlike most sport fish, bonefish are not huge monsters. Rather, they are reasonably small, nosing about the shallows for a careless shellfish.
Their attraction lies in the extraordinary power they have for their size, and the speeds they can reach when hooked. I swear my first bonefish stripped 100 meters off the reel in the first four seconds.
I will confess that we also took time to enjoy the music, rum, scenery, and cigars on offer on that wonderful island, making many friends over the years.
Some of those rums were eye-openers, and on my first trip I returned home with a bottle of the Ron Santiago de Cuba Extra Añejo, one of a limited release of 12,000 bottles to celebrate the 485th anniversary of the town of Santiago (who knows quite why it celebrated a 485th?).
It was so successful that Santiago (the distiller, not the town) – for me the leading Cuban producer – morphed it into the Ron Santiago 20 Years, now part of its regular production. It was a revelation: smooth, subtle, and with such persistence of flavors.
On a subsequent visit, I asked a friend, Hamlet Parides (cigar lovers will recognize the name as Hamlet was considered one of the greatest cigar rollers in Cuba; he now works with Rocky Patel in Florida) if there was anything that could compare. As well as a brilliant cigar roller, Hamlet loves his rums. He told me of another and promised to chase it for me.
Hamlet’s chase, including Fidel Castro’s cigars
By the time of the next visit, he had located a rare bottle of the Ron Edmundo Dantès Gran Reserva 25 Years. It was superb. And of course, I did not stop there.
“Anything better?” I asked, more in hope than expectation.
Hamlet laughed and thought about it. “No,” he said, ”unless the legend of the Isla del Tesoro is real.”
“Treasure Island”? Naturally, I had to know more. Hamlet told me the story. But first . . .
Those familiar with the famous Cohiba cigars will know the story of how, in 1963, Fidel Castro was traveling around the island with his bodyguard and friend, Bienvenido Pérez, better known as “Chicho.”
Castro had run out of his own cigars and asked Chicho if he might pinch one of his (you’d have been a brave Cuban to refuse!). The cigar was a Lancero, Castro’s favorite (long and thin – 7 9/16 inches and a 38-ring gauge – for those not familiar, Lancero is a shape popular among genuine cigar lovers, but one that seems to be becoming less and less available as the trend toward big fat cigars continues).
El Jefe was blown away by it but did not recognize it. Chicho explained that it was rolled for him by a friend, Eduardo Rivera – quite a common practice for local farmers, but they rarely have access to quality tobacco and the standards are little more than basic at best. “Farm-rolled” is a common term in Cuba. Don’t buy them, though, except as curiosities; these days, they are likely to be sold to gullible tourists and often contain banana leaves and even newspaper.
Castro asked a few questions and issued instructions: Rivera was to be installed in the beautiful el Laguito mansion, formerly the home of a sugar baron, in the Miramar district on the edge of Havana (only open to tourists during the annual cigar festival, but even the grounds are worth a stop) to roll cigars exclusively for Castro, though very soon some were set aside as gifts for visiting dignitaries and heads of state.
By 1966, the cigars were called Cohiba, an indigenous term for a bundle of tobacco leaves that was ritually smoked.
They received their distinctive gold and black band at a function in Madrid at the Ritz Hotel, but it was not until 1989 that the first Cohibas were made available to the general public. They are still generally acknowledged as the leading Cuban cigar.
How does this relate to rum?
Well, unbeknownst to almost everyone, a similar program was set up with the Santiago distillery to blend a rum without peer, which could also be given to heads of state, though one suspects a fair bit found its way to Castro.
I say “blend,” as this rum was made from very old material, much of it two decades or more old, that was distilled many years before the Revolution. Word did filter out about this mythical rum but, as Hamlet told me, he’d only ever heard vague stories. Neither he nor anyone he knew had ever seen a bottle, let alone tasted it.
I never forgot the story, though I never expected to find a bottle.
And then one day, perusing a wine auction for an upcoming sale in Sydney, in the miscellaneous section at the back – normally a few spirits, glasses, and oddities – was a listing for “Isla del Tesoro. Cuban Rum, est’d $20.”
I put in a bid well over that, which was still a comparative steal, and watched every day to see if anyone countered. If they did not, I would have it for $20.
To my intense annoyance, on the last day someone leapfrogged me. And so, for the rest of the day, we edged up. When time expired, it was mine – for around AUD$220 if I recall. Not the $20 I’d hoped for, but still, if it was what I hoped, a wonderful bargain.
It arrived a few days later, and I must say I’m not sure what I was expecting. A parade as it was carried up the street? Courtiers in attendance?
Instead, I received a small cardboard box with a drab clay pot – a bit underwhelming. I discovered later that the originals came in a small treasure chest with a map. Mine had a little rotting paper but the chest was long gone. No matter.
It took some time before I found a suitable occasion to open it, and I did so with much trepidation.
I should never have doubted; what a glorious thing it was: far and away the most extraordinary spirit I have ever tried.
This is to be drunk on bended knee: a kaleidoscope of stunning flavors, unimaginably complex, so long and so superbly balanced. I cannot imagine a rum that could outdo this gem.
I understand that the Santiago distillery has now implemented a program to revive this rum – although it will not be the “original” and I believe is now called Isla de la Juventud.
Rare bottles pop up for sale now and again, usually costing around AUD$700 to $1,000, though I have not seen any personally. But even if it is “in the style of,” this would be more than worth it.
Anyone who ever doubted that rum could sit comfortably with any other spirit is in for a very pleasant surprise. If he or she can get hands on a bottle.
Also published on Medium.