In Cuba, new times and well-fought battles have placed women in increasingly strong and ranked places. This evolution is mainly due to talent, and the capacity to thrive in the face of gender gaps and inequal rights and opportunities. Every 8th of March brings new light to recognize the heroines from the most difficult and challenging professions. The Cuba Ron S.A. Corporation has many of these warriors in its ranks in various workplaces.
Salomé Alemán was the first woman in Cuba to reach the rank of Master of Cuban Rum. Subtle in feeling, rude and impartial in her work, this Habanera from the old streets has turned the rituals emanating from sugar cane into a love letter. This interview, apart from a well-deserved homage, is one more reason to spread her wisdom and share her journey with those who have been following her steps.
What does it mean to be the first woman to achieve the rank of Master of Cuban Rum?
The Cuban Rum Masters’ movement dates back a few years and has a history in which women haven’t been officially present, not because the movement had prevented it, but because it simply hadn’t happened yet.
It wasn’t until the 90’s that the proposals of female aspirants to join the guild began; then it was my turn to join, in 2010, as an aspirant master, and then in 2016 I was named Master of Cuban Rum, the first female one in my country. Occupying a position as important as this, is a sensitive matter, of great responsibility and commitment, since rum is a symbol, an important sector of the economy and a synonym of Cuban culture.
Becoming a Rum Master had a great impact on the women of the country who have worked in the factories and with this kind of leadership I got to represent all the women from the rum industry in Cuba. My work as a teacher is an homage to all the work done by so many people in order to continue their cognitive growth in the sector.
How does a woman manage to empower herself in a male-led sector?
Our society has continued to be sexist even if we have projects and policies for the development and empowerment of women. At a social level there is still sexism, as this sector has been run by men for a long time, and we have to work side by side with men, and that is complex, but we make progress and for that we fight.
In my case, I started out as a trainee when I graduated from college. I was placed in a rum factory -that was where I preferred to be-, and once there I started working at the distillery, with alcohol and spirits, surrounded by men. Starting so young helps you fit in, and shape a productive being using the preparation from the academy and the discipline at work. In time, it leaves you with a respect forged within that labor ecosystem, a respect that can only be gained, not imposed.
Was it always your aspiration to be a strategist of the essences and flavors of Cuban Rum?
I was a long way from thinking or dreaming of one day becoming a Rum Master. I was a professional, inserted in an industry where there were fundamentally men. I was nourished by the exchange and communion with the work staff, who had the know-how, and there I built an image of me based on respect, the value of my studies and the will to learn, and that helped me a lot when I was an Aspirant to Rum Master. I had already worked in factories, then officially became head of duty, still I never imposed myself, but converged, shared and gradually earned the acceptance of my colleagues as leader. In my career, I have dabbled in several stages of the work process and there was never a moment of shock or rejection, nor was I discriminated against for being a woman. Mine, is a story of evolution and so must be the courses to direct processes where it is key that professionals earn the position they represent.
I decided to work at the rum factory, I had really liked the part that is dedicated to the industry, and in it were all the chemical engineering operations that I studied and with which I fell in love, because it is a complex and technologically varied process, with very exciting moments that you must know and study. The daily exercise of my duties led to mastering all that history and there I stayed. I kept learning and many years later I was evaluated to become a rum master, but until that moment I didn't know or sensed it.
Being a Master of Cuban Rum is a responsibility that involves preparing from a different perspective, it is a change in your professional life, it comes from experience and knowledge. Good work will always depend on the systematic preparation to respond to inconsistencies, it is a commitment for life. When you enter this world, you can't imagine what a life challenge it is, for you inherited a culture and you must transmit it while innovating, maintaining tradition and know-how.
How do you share your time at home and your tasks within the Corporation?
I believe that something essential from every perspective is discipline and organization, systematic and disciplined work, and that facilitates having order and priorities at work. The pandemic has imposed a different lifestyle on us. You have to attend work from home, even when it's the annual factory strategies, and always find a way to balance the associated tasks, the new needs. You have to be creative, look for alternatives, combine the home atmosphere with the work. We are professionals, but we still have to work at our home and with our family. So many things are linked, spaces that are used from creativity to develop new ideas, thinking about pending matters, and seeking the propitious space without letting yourself get sad because of the fact that we are in isolation. We need to adapt in order to move forward. The rum factory cannot stop and neither can the processes, and it is up to us to be prepared to be keep them going.
Rum is permeated in its sensory typicity with variables, and there are regulations and parameters and established ways to do things. Within these working parameters there are alcoholic contents that also vary, the barrels are different and each master's line of work affects the aspects of mobility as well, and, of course, from a technological point of view, the region where the essences are produced has an influence on the outcome too. In each factory, Rum Masters have personal challenges and implications, so the human factor also has an impact, and the rum base is equally conditioned by the Master's deliberations. Every shot of rum bears the traces of his own story.
What are, in your opinion, the future challenges of the Cuban Rum Masters movement?
The movement has three structures: first masters, masters, and aspirants. The knowledge of our Rum Masters and the manufacturing spaces where Cuban rum is produced have the category of intangible heritage of humanity, and the duty of each apprentice starts with preserving the culture of rum.
There is a reserve of future masters that is built with years of work, gradually transmitted through time. Aspirants start their path with their acquired knowledge. The experience is closely associated with their own steps along that path.
Slowly, with hard work they overcome various tasks and that dedication remains even after becoming masters. There are still some things to figure out, to investigate and create. Persistency and dedication to the product will be the way to ensure that this is a comprehensive process and that the person receiving the knowledge doesn't rush the course of things, and gradually overcomes any obstacle that may arise. You have to think of the future because the aging takes years. It must be dreamed and calculated, and you must train today, and think of the implications tomorrow with patience and solidity. The basis of all good synergy is to learn how to work as a team and assess people's criteria and try to seek a scientific explanation, demonstrate, convince.
Tell us about your own routines
From my field of action, I have been present in the preparation of limited editions, which are rums from high sales sectors and there we look for the most aged bases, with a higher cost of production, and based on what you want to express, emerges the product, and its flavor. A master must highlight some element within the rum process, whether it's the work of the spirits as a conductive element, sugar cane, knowledge, mixtures... And from there there will be effects that vary such as smell, taste, mouthfeel. The same thing happened in the range of tributes, where I worked and in each of them I highlighted something, to communicate from that journey what I wanted to express to the consumer. The rum maker is an artist of those essences, just like a plastic artist.
We must face this hard time of the world; we must work without neglecting the processes. Some productions may be stopped but rums continue their evolution independently and those processes keep going on. That kind of commitment needs care. In our corporate system we have maintained strategies to handle and guarantee products with suitable alternatives. We are depressed in terms of production, but we have not stopped, and professionals have remained watchful. This pandemic is not going to lacerate our knowledge and conditions, it has only caused us to decrease our rythm, but not our intensity.
If you had to create a rum inspired by Cuban women, what elements would be essential?
I had the opportunity to work on the conception of the Ron Havana Club Tributo in 2019. The participation of women in this product was marked by my influence in that edition with the use of a base that I chose.
Within the rum bases that I would select it would be essential that the final product conveyed strength and sweetness: the alcoholic strength to communicate the message of the strength of the Cuban woman because we are strong by nature, even if we are wrongly called the weak sex. We have shown it wrong, as heads of family, mothers, professionals and strategists to assume the challenges that life has imposed. And the sweetness, which is key, for that delicacy. Women in Cuba and around the world have acquired a culture of spirits and have incorporated spaces into their lives, to have a good drink. These flavors are also a nod to express that women must continue learning and conquering capacity, deciding and suggesting, from our own knowledge, and even more so in those contexts of work with rum as part of our idiosyncrasy. That's how I see the taste of rum for women: strong and sweet.