Rum Shortages Leave Cubans Drinking Home-Made Hooch

With scarce resources dedicated to exports, people are risking their lives on illegal moonshine.

Rum Shortages Leave Cubans Drinking Home-Made Hooch

With scarce resources dedicated to exports, people are risking their lives on illegal moonshine.

An alcoholic in Holguín.
An alcoholic in Holguín. © Fernando Donate

The smell of sugar and alcohol fills the dark and windowless room. Armando moves around the 55-gallon plastic brewing tank amid clouds of distillation gases. It is so hot he has to dry the sweat on his forehead every few moments. 

Armando, 43, asked for his name not to be revealed for fear of reprisals; what he does is illegal. He produces low-quality, home-made rum that’s colloquially known in his region of Holguín as warfarina, a play on words referring to a commonly used rat poison.

In other parts of Cuba, it is known as hammock champagne or simply by the expression, “wait for me on the floor”.

The business has existed for decades, but in recent months is experiencing an unprecedented boom. Cuba is also undergoing a severe economic crisis that has led to a shortage of basic products including alcohol, and many of the island’s bars have closed due to coronavirus.

“I've been producing and selling warfarina for years; 2020 was the best year for my business,” Armando said. “It's exhausting and risky work, but I profit from it.” 

He said that his sales had doubled since the pandemic began, and production could not keep up with demand.

But the increasing consumption of clandestine liqueur has also become a health issue.

A nurse working at the Julio Grave de Peralta Policlinic hospital confirmed that the pandemic had seen an increase in the number of cases of people suffering from ailments associated with alcohol. 

“The deterioration of these patients’ health has to do with the intake of homemade alcoholic beverages which are unfit for human consumption,” said the nurse, who asked to remain anonymous.

This raises the prospect of another disaster similar to the 2013 incident in the Havana municipality of La Lisa in which at least seven people died and dozens more were hospitalised after drinking homemade alcohol.

The investigation showed that the drink that contained methyl alcohol, a lab reagent that is difficult to differentiate from the ethyl alcohol used to produce alcoholic beverages. 

“The conditions are in place for something similar to happen again,” said a health professional at Holguin's René Ávila Policlinic, who also requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.


In a country where shortages of essential items have long been common, rum was considered one of the few products that was always available. 

Now, with sugar production decreasing and state enterprises – which have a monopoly on liqueur production – focusing their efforts on exporting rum to obtain hard currency, alcohol is extremely hard to find.

State shops that used to sell cheap alcohol, such as the Bariay and Pinilla rums costing a little over two dollars per bottle, now have empty shelves.  

“In the entire city of Holguin, there is no rum,” said Gonzalo Martinez, a regular customer at a popular bar that is now closed due to the lack of products to sell. There, the price of a bottle of rum was 1.30 dollars. 

Ramon Quiroga stood outside Bar Cubanito, where a closed sign hung over the entrance. He had cycled there in search of supplies, in his basket an empty plastic bottle.

“I have been all over Holguin, and I have not found any rum,” he said.  

The shortage is the consequence of the economic crisis that started in earnest in 2019 when aid from Venezuela was massively reduced, along with the tightening of US sanctions.  

The pandemic, which caused tourist revenue to disappear, has only increased Cuba’s economic woes.

As with tobacco, alcohol – produced exclusively by the dtate – was always locally produced; importing it was unnecessary. However, its production depends on sugar, an essential commodity that is no longer as abundant as it was in the past. 

In recent years, sugar harvests have averaged 1.2 million tonnes, half of the production at the turn of the century and a fifth of the output in the mid-1980s. 

Simultaneously, the government strategy has been to use the country's available sugarcane to produce better and more expensive alcohol for export.

Cuba has steadily increased the export of high-quality rum such as Havana Club, a strategic economic activity given its capacity to generate hard currency. 

According to official data released by the National Office of Information and Statistics, alcohol exports grew by 20 per cent in volume and 54 percent in value between 2016 and 2019. 


As is usually the case in Cuba, the shortage of alcoholic beverages as a result of state policy opened the way to black-market entrepreneurs and producers such as Armando.

To provide himself with a cover story, Armando still holds a license as a bricklayer. His real income, however, comes from producing some 100 litres of warfarina a month. 

He has to buy sugar on the black market to produce the liqueur, adding water and a product that helps with the brewing process like yeast or, failing that, human feces. 

“Poo from babies is the best because of its high acidity level, which helps accelerate the process,” Armando said. 

All the ingredients are placed in a plastic container to ferment for 15 days. After that, the product is transferred to a metal receptacle with a spiral tube where distillation takes place. 

The alcohol is then poured into plastic bottles of 20 litres each to facilitate transportation. The selling points are located in other houses around the city to make it more difficult for the authorities to detect the homemade factory. 

Another black marketeer, who also wanted to remain anonymous, recalled a police raid in which the authorities had seized all the hooch belonging to a fellow producer of clandestine alcohol.  

“They confiscated everything,” he said. “It was carelessness on his part because he sold the warfarina in his own home.”

Besides the police, producers of homemade alcohol also have to ride the fluctuations of sugar prices in the black market that can make their products more expensive and eat up all profit margins.

That is what is happening now, with the cost of sugar set at 1.6 dollars per pound in the informal market. 

But the risks, neither physical or economic, do not deter those involved in this activity. They know their clients will always be there. Especially in a time of crisis and shortage like the current one in Cuba, many consumers have no other option but to drink whatever is available. 

Currently, in Holguin, a 333ml bottle of warfarina costs 1.6 dollars. It is impossible to find anything cheaper. 

On the corner of Maceo and Agramonte street, two men sit on the pavement sharing a drink from a plastic bottle. They wear dirty, ragged clothes. One is barefoot, and the other wears torn shoes - both have long, bushy beards. The tone of their voices reveals their drunkenness. 

 “I can't tell you what we are drinking,” one said before having another drink. “I don't care if it is ciquitraque [firecracker] or a bomb. I am strong, so this is not going to kill me. I have buried 59 friends already, and I'm still alive. The coronavirus will not get me."

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