You may think that with a title like BACARDÍ’s® maestro máximo de ron, Juan Piñera gets to sit around and sip rum all day. Well, sure, there’s some of that, but the industry veteran, who started at Bacardi right out of college 32 years ago, oversees all of the company’s rum manufacturing in Latin America. So he keeps pretty busy. Here, he talks about the art of blending, how to be a trained taster and why the Cuba Libre might be the best cocktail in the world.
What got you into the booze business?
I studied to be a biologist. I had the opportunity to visit the Bacardi plant with my friend right after college. It made a big impression on me, and I left knowing that I wanted to work there.
What’s the first spirit you ever tasted? Did you like it?
I’m from Chihuahua, Mexico. The funny thing is my father used to drink Mexican brandy, so I would have a little sometimes. But when you start to drink BACARDÍ rum, you immediately prefer it. You don’t have to pair it with a lot of mixers and juices. It’s not as harsh a flavor.
How do you become a maestro de ron?
In order to reach this level, you have to work at the company for at least five years and then start the training as blender. You start out by learning about water treatment—60 percent of our product is water—and then you have to learn across all other areas of the production process, as well. To reach the level of master blender, you have to produce thousands of batches of BACARDÍ rum.
How has the job of a master blender changed in the last 10 to 20 years? Has technology made it easier?
Technology is a tool for us, but it’s not everything. For instance, we use liquid chromatography to help track the flavor and concentration of each product. But the most important element remains the sensory evaluation in order to be sure that the batch is in compliance with the profile.
You must have a sharp palate. How do you keep it that way?
The key element is training. You have to taste day after day. For example, if you prepare coffee at home every day, at a certain point, you’ll start to notice distinct flavors and aromas and be able to pick them out from other coffees. We’re trained that way too—to detect the memory of flavors in the rum.
Americans have historically gravitated toward sweet alcoholic beverages, but that seems to be changing. How do you keep abreast of the public’s shifting tastes?
The most important element in our business is the consumer. We work closely with mixologists to generate new cocktails along with changing tastes, and we listen to our sales representatives in the field to learn more about what people want.
How would you recommend consumers get into rum?
Well, it’s all about preference. With rum, you’re looking for balance in the product. BACARDÍ Ocho is a good place to start, because you can find different flavor profiles.
What is your personal favorite rum cocktail?
I like to drink BACARDÍ Gold with water, but in terms of cocktails, the Cuba Libre is my favorite because it’s very refreshing. And you can prepare it so easily, no matter where in the world you are. All you need is ice, Coke and BACARDÍ.