Inside the World of Bacardi

Coral Gables is Home to the North American HQ of the Bacardi Empire. It’s Also Where the Signature Rum Brand Keeps its Private Museum, Archives and Art Collection. An Inside Peek

By Doreen Hemlock / /Photos by Jon Braeley

May 2018

Inside Bacardi’s North American headquarters in Coral Gables, near its well-lit bar and tasting rooms, hangs a wall-sized painting of Cuba’s countryside, complete with farmers, a goat and thatched huts. The pioneering rum company commissioned the work from famed Cuban artist Antonio Gattorno for the opening of its Empire State Building office in 1938.

The story goes that Gattorno would blast recordings of Cuba’s Trio Matamoros band while he painted, windows open, even in winter. And when the white goat he used as a model got loose, it set off a chase inside the New York City skyscraper. Today, the painting likely would fetch more than $7 million.

Juan Bergaz Pessino shares that history with drama and pride. He’s a sixth-generation of the Bacardi family that founded the signature rum brand in 1862 in eastern Cuba, and the company’s official archivist. The 40-year-old Spaniard never imagined when studying theatre in New York that he’d end up one day in Florida gathering and overseeing the company’s treasures, from photos and papers, to pins and paintings.

Juan Bergaz Pessino, the sixth generation of the family that founded Bacardi rum, in front of the painting by Cuban artist Antonio Gattorno

“The archive is the living soul of the Bacardi company, so everything related to the brand comes out of it,” says Bergaz. For example, Bacardi’s mixologists often use its Coral Gables library to read cocktail-recipe books of yore to imagine new drinks. “That’s one of the things the bartenders love the most.”

Juan Bergaz shows the library featuring century-old cocktail recipe books

Bacardi formally launched the archive in 1998 with a shoebox of slides. Today, more than 30,000 items are catalogued. The onsite library now features century-old bottles, blueprints for company buildings from famed German architect Mies van der Rohe, and even the Oct. 14, 1960 newspaper announcing the Cuban government’s nationalization of Bacardi and 381 other businesses – to name just a few items.

When journalist Tom Gjelten researched his 2008 book “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba,” he found gems in Bacardi Grafico magazines produced on the island. They revealed the company’s sophistication in marketing, savvy in fashion photography, and long-time role as a patron of the arts in Cuba, he says.

“My favorite Bacardi poster, which is in my book, is a black-and-white from the 1920s and very Art Deco in its design. It says, ‘Cuba is great. There is a reason. Bacardi.’ And there’s a gorgeous image of a flapper sitting on a bar stool drinking a Bacardi cocktail,” says Gjelten. “Their advertising was great.”

Bergaz enjoys sharing selections of the archive with employees, researchers and invited guests curious about how his family left Spain’s Catalonia region in the 1800s, developed their top-selling rum brand, and built what’s now the world’s largest privately-held spirits conglomerate.

Our special tour begins on the 8th floor of the 2701 South LeJeune Road building, where the elevator opens onto a wall-sized, sepia-toned photo of the family of Emilio Bacardi, son of the man who first crafted Bacardi rum and the company’s first president. He’s known for founding Cuba’s first museum more than a century ago.

Through doors on the right is the archive office lined with book shelves, display cases and filing cabinets. The entry walls hold paintings of key family members: patriarch Facundo, a bricklayer’s son who came to Cuba as a teenager in 1814 and revolutionized rum-making through chemistry and craftsmanship; his son Emilio, an independence fighter jailed by the Spanish who became the first Cuban mayor of Santiago and compiled chronicles of the city’s history; and Facundo Jr., “my great-great-grandfather, who was known as a master blender,” Bergaz says.

The archive is the living soul of the Bacardi company, so everything related to the brand comes out of it

Juan Bergaz

Next come black-and-white photos, including a 1940s aerial showing Bacardi’s rum distillery, its Hatuey beer plant, and an ice-making factory on its Santiago campus. “When you’d get a case of Bacardi or Hatuey, you’d get a token to go over there and get ice,” says Bergaz, pointing at the ice plant. Ice was a luxury back then and Bacardi’s operations ranked among Cuba’s most modern, he says.

The Bacardi distillery and Hatuey beer plant in Santiago, Cuba

Also prominently displayed: a black-and-white of U.S. writer Ernest Hemingway celebrating his 1954 Nobel Prize at the Hatuey beer garden on the outskirts of Havana. “My grandparents organized the party,” says Bergaz, identifying those in the photo. “So, here you see Hemingway, my grandmother, Felipito Pazos who played the boy in [The Old Man and the Sea], the workers, and Gregorio Fuentes, the original Old Man who he based the novel on and who fished with Hemingway in Cuba,” he says. “In his writing, Hemingway mentions Bacardi and mentions Hatuey.”

Up the elevator is the next stop, a small, private museum plus a selection of paintings, some by Latin American masters including Cuba’s Wifredo Lam and Amelia Pelaez, and Colombia’s Fernando Botero. The Botero by the boardroom shows a rotund nun eating a green apple. Its value: Likely near $650,000, says Bergaz.

No company history could leave out the backstories behind the coconut palm and bat that appear on most Bacardi labels. Bergaz said his great-great-grandfather planted El Coco in front of the tin-roofed bourbon distillery the family bought to start making their rum in 1862. Bourbon was aged in American oak barrels, and the family re-used those barrels, contributing to the distinct flavor of its rum. The tree withstood wars, earthquakes and a distillery fire at the Santiago site. “We now plant a palm at all our facilities as a reminder of our homeland,” says a current label of Bacardi’s signature white rum.

The iconic palm tree in front of the first Bacardi distillery in 1862

The bat logo traces back to family matriarch Amalia Moreau, Facundo’s wife. She was born in Cuba to a prosperous French-Haitian family that helped finance the Bacardi’s rum business. When visiting the distillery for the first time, she found a colony of fruit bats in the rafters. The family considered removing the bats, but Amalia called them a good omen for islanders. “It’s a symbol of good fortune and family unity” in Facundo’s homeland too, says Bergaz, citing a bat on the crest of Barcelona city.

Of course, politics plays in, too. What makes Bacardi unique, Bergaz says, is a proprietary yeast from Cuba used in fermentation. The family had that yeast at its Puerto Rico and Mexico distilleries and destroyed its stash held in Santiago when Castro’s government came to nationalize the company’s Cuban operations in 1960. Bacardi had been sparring with military strongman Fulgencio Batista and backed Fidel Castro and his rebel army in Cuba’s eastern mountains. It even pre-paid taxes when the rebels took over, eager to end Batista’s corruption and build democracy. Company leaders never expected the new government would go communist and seize businesses. But with their yeast, trademarks and distribution rights abroad, Bacardi could keep operating. “We had everything outside Cuba, so we saved the company,” says Bergaz.

In Miami, Bacardi made headlines in the 1960s and 1970s for building architectural gems – innovative structures on Biscayne Boulevard that still draw acclaim for their painted tiles and pulley systems. Those buildings became the headquarters for the National YoungArts Foundation in 2012. 

Since consolidating its seven Miami locales at its Coral Gables hub in 2009, Bacardi keeps expanding its archive. Bergaz is making digital images and seeking new items through family and consumers. One recent find complements the original doorknob to Bacardi’s stylish Havana building that opened in 1931. “This Christmas, I found out from my aunt,” says Bergaz, “that my grandfather has the original key.”

The original Art Deco bronze door handle from the Bacardi building in Havana