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REBIRTH OF MATUSALEM // RUMBLE OVER RUM

Published Mar. 14, 2005|Updated Aug. 2, 2006

Four decades ago the Alvarez family lost its famous rum business in Cuba.

In exile it took a long struggle to re-establish the company's brand name _ Matusalem Rum _ resurrecting the family's old Cuban rum-making recipe.

But just as business is rebounding the family is under attack again, this time in a lawsuit demanding it drop all marketing claims that Matusalem is of Cuban origin.

"How can anyone claim our rum has no Cuban heritage?" said company president Claudio Alvarez, 52, the founder's great-grandson. He suspects political motives behind the lawsuit, which was filed by French liquor giant Pernod Ricard, one of the world's largest beverage firms. Under a 1993 joint agreement with the Cuban government, Pernod Ricard enjoys exclusive rights to the sale of rum products from the communist island. Its Havana Club brand is the No. 2 selling rum in the world, but it is banned in the United States because of the 40-year-old trade embargo.

Despite the new threat to the company, Alvarez considers the lawsuit a tribute to its successful return to the rum elite.

It has been a long road. Matusalem dates its heritage back 133 years to the city of Santiago in eastern Cuba, making it one of Cuba's oldest brands. Named after Methuselah, the Old Testament patriarch who died at 969 years old, it was once considered Cuba's premiere anejo, the Spanish term for the highest-quality dark, aged rum.

But the company suffered major blows in the mid 1950s. Alvarez's grandfather died in 1956, followed six months later by his father. Alvarez was only 5.

Bereft of leadership, the deaths led to a fight for control between three branches of the family _ a battle that would soon be overtaken by political events. In 1959 came the Cuban Revolution. When Cuban leader Fidel Castro issued a decree seizing all private property, the company lost its distillery and bottling plant.

Alvarez's mother soon found herself in Miami raising four children on her own. The family lived modestly on Calle Ocho (Southwest Eighth Street) in Little Havana.

Alvarez attended high school in Miami before earning a scholarship to Georgetown University.

Meanwhile, Matusalem restarted operations in the Bahamas using its rum-making formula smuggled out of Cuba. It contracted with bottling companies in Puerto Rico and Lake Alfred, east of Lakeland.

Despite earning good market penetration in the Bahamas, the company was never able to re-establish its reputation. Meanwhile, the Cuban government had not only confiscated the family's properties, it had usurped the brand name and was turning out its own Matusalem.

Alvarez's mother continued to represent the family's interests. Despite her position on the board at Matusalem, she was a minority voice and complained bitterly of being squeezed out by the other board members.

With no future in the family's rum business, Alvarez set out on a successful career in medicine. He couldn't afford medical school in the United States, so a friend persuaded him to go to the Dominican Republic, where he studied in Santiago, the country's second city. After taking his boards in the United States, he took up residency at the Miriam Hospital in Rhode Island. But his wife couldn't take the cold, so they moved back to Miami.

By 1983 he had his own practice, eventually setting up a network of medical clinics, Doctors Health Group.

Eventually, the balance of power at Matusalem shifted. The group that controlled the board had fallen out, and one side joined forces with Alvarez's mother. During the ensuing 15 years of litigation, little by little, Alvarez found himself being sucked in.

So, in 1992, he abruptly decided to retire from medicine.

"I was planning to be a doctor all my life, and be buried a doctor," he says. "But I realized it wasn't fair to my patients. My mind was elsewhere."

By 1995, his side of the family had won back 100 percent control of the company. Alvarez, the founder's great-grandson, took charge.

Through a joint venture with Mexican tequila maker Jose Cuervo and Miami investors, Alvarez relaunched the Matusalem name. He terminated the company's bottling contracts and moved operations to the Dominican Republic. Using contacts from his students days in Santiago he made a leasing contract with the local distillery, Ron Bermudez, the country's best-selling brand.

Alvarez hit on a smart business plan focused on winning back the family's name for top-quality, aged rum. He likes to quote his grandfather, also named Claudio Alvarez: " "Quality oversells. Just make sure you make the best.' "

The company produces three rums: its "original" Gran Reserva, a 15-year-old dark rum; Clasico, a 10-year-old golden rum; and Platino, a white rum that is aged 10 years but has the color taken out.

The strategy seems to be paying off. In a remarkably short time, the velvety Gran Reserva has taken over as the No. 1 premium rum in Italy, and has won good reviews from rum connoisseurs. The company produces almost 2-million bottles a year from its Santiago facility.

Alvarez is clearly enjoying his success. He and his wife moved into a luxurious new house last year in Key Biscayne. Just up the road from President Nixon's former winter White House, it has a private beach with a stunning view of downtown Miami across Biscayne Bay.

He also runs a ranch in Lake Okeechobee with 1,000 head of cattle.

But it didn't take long for the company's success to catch the attention of its French competitor.

"Havana Club rums . . . enjoy an undisputed worldwide renown since they are, to date, the only authentically Cuban spirits appearing in the international rankings," the lawsuit asserts.

It goes on to accuse Matusalem of being "falsely marketed as having a Cuban origin for the purposes of capturing a wide clientele." It demands that Matusalem remove any mention of Cuba from its labels and pay damages for unfair trading.

The lawsuit focuses on what is essentially a marketing issue. But the dispute also raises some interesting questions about the very nature of rum, and how Cuban rum gets its distinctive flavor.

Rums made on Cuban soil taste different, according to Pernod Ricard's lawsuit.

"Cuban rum may spring but from the depths of the Cuban land, the juices of its sugarcane, its water and its microflora," it claims. "With this flavor mix, Cuban rum produces a clean taste with hints of various aromas _ a flicker of something cool, spicy, indescribable, multifaceted _ which makes it at once supreme and universal."

But some experts dispute such romantics notions of rum-making.

"That's total bulls_-," said Miguel Triay, former head of marketing for Bacardi International. "The distillation process takes all of those things out. The taste comes from the way you blend and the way you age rum." Among the key factors is the type of cask or barrel _ sherry-infused oak, for example _ used.

On the other hand, Triay said Matusalem could be on more unsteady ground over the labeling on its bottles. All three rums are marketed under the slogan, "The Spirit of Cuba." Although it may be a clever double entendre, suggesting the general nature of all things Cuban and the type of liquor, under international law the slogan could be deemed misleading, he warned.

Pernod Ricard certainly thinks so. Citing the World Trade Organization's internationally accepted regulations governing intellectual property rights, the lawsuit points out that member countries "must prevent the misuse of place names." Misleading consumers over the origin of a product results in unfair competition, it points out. For wines and spirits, such as Champagne or Scotch whisky, the agreement provides higher levels of protection, even if there is no danger of the public being mislead.

Pernod Ricard also objects to Matusalem using a reference to its founding in Santiago, Cuba. That may be harder to uphold. "As long as they don't claim to have a product that is of Cuban origin, there's nothing wrong with using your parentage," Triay said.

Alvarez is confident of winning, even in a court in France _ Pernod Ricard's turf. He also hopes to have the last laugh. Thanks to the decades spent by the Cuban government marketing its confiscated version of Matusalem, the brand still has worldwide name recognition. Alvarez hopes to cash in on that.

"There's a whole generation of Cubans out there who one day will get to taste the real McCoy," he says.

David Adams can be reached at dadams@sppimes.com.

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