While news of Fidel Castro’s death stretched around the world last week, I couldn’t help think of one of his beloved country’s most famous exports: sugarcane. Used for decades as a crop that was bartered with the Soviet Union for oil and financial support, it became as significant to the country’s survival as that other cash crop, tobacco, if not more so. What do sugarcane and tobacco wind up as? Rum and cigars, of course.
I’ve been to Cuba three times – the most recent, in early November, leading a group of 23 people on a culinary and cultural tour in and around Havana. I visited in 2015 by myself (flying in from Panama as a tourist) in order to scout locations for the first group trip I led in the fall of that year. The most important elements for someone like me, naturally, have to deal with food and drink. I was looking for really good paladares, or privately-owned restaurants, usually carved out of someone’s home, where they were serving creative, delicious food and solid cocktails. And let me just clarify that “cocktails” in Havana usually means something rum-based, more often than not from Havana Club – although locals tend to drink Santiago de Cuba. Since many of the customers in the paladars tend to be tourists, that translates into either a mojito or a daiquiri.
You can forget about Old Fashioneds, Gin & Tonics or anything that requires an esoteric spirit or even a freshly-squeezed juice, because in Havana, the bartenders don’t have a lot to work with, and frankly, many of them could care less if their drinks are well-balanced. There is very little competition, many of the most popular bars (El Floridita, Sloppy Joe’s, La Bodeguita del Medio) are state-owned, which means a complete lack of creativity (I had a dinner in a government-owned restaurant on my second trip that reminded me of the Bishop’s Buffet in St. Cloud, MN, only worse). And since the tourists are generally forgiving of the limitations that are imposed on Cuban citizen-entrepreneurs – just getting staples each day to run a restaurant is like navigating the Hunger Games in a bureaucratic nightmare – hardly anyone complains. But after my most recent visit, which included a cocktail class that I led at one bar, I’m convinced there never really was a fantastic cocktail culture in Havana.
“My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita.” This famous Hemingway quote, scribbled on butcher paper and hung prominently in La Bodeguita, has single-handedly sustained the two most overrated bars on the island for nearly six decades. Let’s start there.
On a bright, cloudless afternoon, with the sun beginning to drop beneath the stately buildings in Old Havana, two friends and I ascend the narrow staircase in the back of this boisterous little bar. Downstairs, facing the street, there are always musicians playing, and they’re two-deep waiting to place their drink orders. Upstairs has a few dining tables and five tiny stools at the bar. Everyone is drinking mojitos in tall Havana Club glasses. We order some. I notice the bartender always keeps glasses lined up on the bar, just above the well, so he can eyeball adding the ingredients (I never saw anyone using a jigger, except at the beautiful rooftop bar at the La Guarida paladar). He squeezes what looks like lime juice from a recycled plastic water bottle into the bottom of each, and tosses in a few fresh mint leaves with a spoonful of granulated sugar. He then gives that mixture a mash or two with his tiny muddler, looking about as happy as a kid with two cavities getting into the dentist’s chair. He’s completely expressionless. He then pours in white rum (Havana Club, of course), eyeballing the whole way. A splash of carbonated soda is added to top it all off, then he stirs up the drink with a tall bar spoon, somehow not realizing that the granulated sugar – no matter how much you attempt to bring it up to the surface and integrate it with the rest of the drink – just drops back to the bottom of the glass. We take a sip with our straws, and taste nothing more than young rum that’s been acidified with some sort of vaguely lime-tasting citrus drink, that is about as far from freshly-squeezed as a Toyota Prius is on the streets of Havana (again, never saw anyone using a citrus press or lime squeezer. They must be in a warehouse with the jiggers). The mint aroma is negligible at best. Next.
The most egregious crimes against the sanctity of classic cocktails occur regularly at El Floridita. Tourists (and their buses) line up all day long to pop in, get a picture standing next to the large, brass sculpture of Papa Hemingway sitting at one end of the bar, then proceed to order from one of two bartenders in small aprons, dramatically pouring bottles of white Havana Club rum – a bottle in each hand – into humming Hamilton Beach blenders that someone bought at my family’s garage sale. The idea of a jigger, a shaker, some simple syrup and a citrus press are about as likely as Trump walking in and announcing he’s unilaterally lifting the embargo.
Despite the fact that the words “cradle of the daiquiri” are pressed onto the back bar above the coolers, I have a hard time reconciling the fact that there is barely any nuance or sense of history here, beyond the faded paintings and wallpaper. There’s no measuring, no fresh-squeezing of limes (giant, plump limes are everywhere in Cuba) or bottles of clear, simple syrup; not even proper glassware (the slush is served in martini glasses). Can I get a coupe, and maybe a bottle of Luxardo Maraschino people?! It’s a free-for-all of granulated sugar, rum, ice and something vaguely citrus-y that looks like lime juice. If you want, you can ask for a “daiquiri natural” and they’ll shake one for you, but again, since they don’t use any simple syrup, all you taste is bitter citrus and alcohol, albeit served neat in the same martini glasses. You go in expecting something like the Sazerac Bar at the Roosevelt in New Orleans or Arnaud’s French 75 in the Quarter there, where the drinks are revered, poured with precision and served as they were in a gentler time. Having a daiquiri at El Floridita is like reliving every bad Spring Break experience, minus the shots, only with better music.
On the day I led a cocktail class for my group at Sloppy Joe’s Bar, you wouldn’t believe the looks the bartenders gave me as I asked to have a small corner to use for my set-up. I had brought my own limes – about 30 of them from a local market – along with a mound of fresh mint (“why are you slapping it?”) for my mojitos, a jigger, my citrus press and a container for simple syrup. Again, explaining to the Manager what this was, and how to make it, was just comical. When they finally brought some out (not nearly enough) it was a dark amber, as if it had been made from raw sugar (fine with me). At one point, the lead bartender asked to borrow my bright yellow citrus press, to see how it worked (!!) Charles Joly would either be pulling his hair out, become an overnight Cocktail God or perhaps experience a little bit of both.
So here’s my advice to the would-be cocktail entrepreneurs out there, eyeing a trip elsewhere to plant their flags in this new, undiscovered country: find a good lease, stock up on Santiago de Cuba, citrus presses, jiggers and shakers, and then start printing convertible pesos (CUCs) from all of those new tourists. And don’t forget to teach employee #1 about how to make simple syrup.
2 oz Santiago de Cuba añejo, Havana Club 7 yr. or Flor de Caña 4 yr.
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
.5 oz simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water, heated until sugar dissolves; store in refrigerator)
.25 oz Maraschino Liqueur
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker; add ice; shake vigorously until sides of shaker are almost too cold to touch; strain into coupe and serve
.5 oz simple syrup
.75 oz fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 oz Havana Club white rum
Add syrup, lime juice and a few mint leaves to bottom of tall glass, mash/muddle a bit to release oils from mint. Add rum and then club soda until almost reaching top of glass. Using tall bar spoon, mix up drink, being sure to pull lime and syrup up into the other parts of glass to incorporate everything. Take good amount of mint, still on stem, and slap hard into palm to release aromas; garnish the top