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Yo Ho Ho(t) and a Bottle Rum

November 9, 2010

On our first full day in San Juan, we decided to walk around historic Old San Juan and then visit the Bacardi Rum Distillery.  We woke early ate breakfast and headed out. We had asked the friendly front desk clerk if Old San Juan was in walking distance. He responded with “It’s a 45 minute walk, but it is very hot—you will want to take a taxi.” We did not heed his suggestion and headed out on Ashford Avenue. We walked a few blocks when Mike noticed the beautiful Caribbean was only a few short blocks away. We turned down Cervantes street toward the ocean and then walked along the beach for about 10 minutes. The beach ended in a pier and we resumed walking on the sidewalk.

Within 5 minutes of walking in the blazing sun, without the benefit of the breeze off the ocean, we were hot. Really hot. But we kept walking, following the coastline, to what we thought would take us to the San Cristobel Castle in Old San Juan.  We followed Ashford Avenue until we crossed the Condado Lagoon where Ashford became Muñoz Rivera. We walked what seemed to be miles and did not find the Castle. We then decided to change directions and head for the harbor, specifically Pier 2 where we could catch a ferry to Cataña a suburb of San Juan and home to the Bacardi Rum Distillery.

On our way, we decided to stop for lunch. We found an outdoor café near the harbor and sat down at a table. Café Melao offered sandwiches, entrées and hamburgers. Our waiter appeared at our table and took our order—hamburgers with bleu cheese, French fries and Presidenté beer. While we waited for our order, we talked with our waiter. He asked where we were from and we told him. He did not know where Madison was, but he did know where Chicago was and told us that some day he hopes to visit Chicago. He also told us that some visitors to San Juan think that Puerto Rico is “a third world country—can you believe that?” He also said that some visitors from the U. S. did not know that Puerto Rico was a U. S. territory and that Puerto Ricans are U. S. citizens.

We waited for a long time before our food arrived. While we waited we planned the rest of our day. Find the pier, take the ferry, visit Bacardi then catch a cab back to the hotel to meet up with our friends who were arriving that afternoon.

The burgers and fries arrived and were delicious. The hamburgers, with a side of lettuce, tomato and onions were juicy, sweet and tender. The addition of bleu cheese offered a piquant flavor that enhanced the flavor of the beef. The French fries were ‘extra crispy’, hot and delicious. We lingered over our lunch, then began our journey to Pier 2.

The ferry to Cataña cost 50 cents—one of the best deals in San Juan. The trip takes about 10 minutes and when we disembarked in Cataña, there were a group of cab drivers offering rides to Bacardi for $3 each. We joined a group and within minutes we were on the beautiful grounds of the Bacardi Rum distillery.

The 45-minute guided tour takes you through the visitors’ center rather than through the distillery. The colorful history is described in vivid detail. Don Facundo Bacardi Massó, founded the company in Cuba in 1862. The company moved to Puerto Rico in 1936 and to its present location in Cataña in 1958. During its nearly 150 years, Bacardi has won more than 300 gold medals in various world spirits competition, became the number 1 alcohol brand in the U.S. in 1978 and the number 1 brand worldwide in 1979.

The history is colorful, including the origin of the bat symbol that has come to characterize the brand. When Massó established the company in Santiago de Cuba, his wife noticed a family of fruit bats in the tin shed that would serve as the inaugural distillery. Noting that the bat already served as a symbol for family, fidelity and loyalty, she decided that her family’s distillate should be known w as “The Rum of the Bats.” The bat symbol has been identified with Bacardi rum ever since.

After the initial introduction and 8-minute historical video, the tour takes you a museum-quality recreation of the distillery’s offices and exterior yard with its aging vats. Bacardi was the first rum to charcoal-filter its rum, as well as the first to age it in oak casks. Both processes revolutionized the sugar cane distillate, raising its quality to that of fine scotch whiskies and brandies.

The tour moves on to an “aroma” gallery, where visitors can smell the various Bacardi rums by age and flavor. In an Art Deco bar-room, bartenders like Juan Cartagena explain and demonstrate the drinks that can be made from Bacardi, including the Bacardi cocktail itself, the result of a landmark court decision requiring that the cocktail can only be made with Bacardi products.

After that, we sampled Bacardi Mojitos in the open-air visitor center’s bar. After a hot, hot walk in the San Juan sun, nothing could have tasted better.

IF YOU GO: Free tours of the Casa Bacardi distillery are offered Monday – Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the last tour leaving at 4:30 p.m. Tours also are available Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last tour leaving at 3:45 p.m. Casa Bacardi is located at Road 165 Km. 6.2, Cataña, PR. Info:

Tomorrow: A walk through old San Juan and a dinner-and-history tour of local restaurants.

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