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The Indispensables: The Cuba Libre

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(image: George McCalman)

“The Indispensables” is Liquor.com’s series devoted to the classic cocktails drinkers of every skill need in their arsenal. Each installment features one signature recipe, assembled from intel by the best bartenders. “The Indispensables” may not save the world, but it’ll surely rescue your cocktail hour.

What makes a Cuba Libre different from a Rum & Coke? On the surface, the two drinks seem interchangeable, so why bother to give the former its own special name? And what would make that name last for more than 100 years? It’s so much more than mere names and language.

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“The basic ingredients of the drink are cola, light rum and a lime garnish,” says bartender Jane Danger, the beverage director at Cienfuegos in New York City and co-author of “Cuban Cocktails: 100 Classic and Modern Drinks” (Sterling Epicure, $24.95)

This might lead you to the conclusion that it’s all about the lime. Certainly, the lime matters. That zingy punch of acid from the citrus lets the sweetness of both the rum and cola glide across your palate, teasing out some of the bitter notes hiding in the soda and the grassy notes in the rum. But according to Danger, it’s really about the rum.

Cuba Libre (image: Tim Nusog)

“In my eyes, the difference between a Rum & Coke and a Cuba Libre would be the rum,” she says. “I work at a neighborhood dive on Friday nights. When someone asks for a Rum & Coke, I ask, ‘Is there a brand or style you prefer?’”

Her Cuba Libre version at Cienfuegos consists of one-and-a-half ounces of half Banks 5 Island and half El Dorado three-year-old, half an ounce of fresh lime juice and 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, served over ice in a Collins glass and topped with Coca-Cola.

But at the Friday night dive, Danger sticks to the script. “When someone orders a Cuba Libre, I reach for the light Spanish style rum, which usually happens to be Bacardí.”

(illustration: George McCalman)

Bacardí has long claimed to be not just the correct rum for the concoction but the whole reason the drink was even dubbed a Cuba Libre to begin with. According to company lore, Bacardí rum quenched the celebratory thirst of Cuban independence during the Spanish-American War.

As the story goes, in the year 1900, a captain in the U.S. Army stationed in Havana during the Spanish-American War poured Coca-Cola and a squeeze of lime into his Bacardí and toasted his Cuban comrades by calling out in the bar, “Por Cuba Libre!” (“To a free Cuba!”). And just like that, a legend was born.

“I think that drinks don’t necessarily endure because they’re great; they endure because a lot of forces conspire to allow them to persist,” says bartender Jim Meehan, whose latest book, “Meehan’s Bartender Manual” (Ten Speed Press, $40), hit shelves this past fall.“I think one of the underexposed stories of the cocktail canon is the role marketing and advertising have played.”

When trying to trace the lineage of any drink, oftentimes you run into brands at the base. Bacardi claimed the Cuba Libre as its own. And, well, why not? “The Cuba Libre story is a marketing triumph of Coke and Bacardi,” says Meehan. “Look at the Cosmo. Without Absolut, it wouldn’t be what it is; or the Moscow Mule without Smirnoff. I think it’s the intersection between commercial interests and creativity from bartenders that allows a drink to endure.”

Perhaps one of the more enticing examples of the creative end of this theory is the Cuba Libre at New York’s BlackTail, the love letter to Cuba dreamed up by Jack McGarry and Sean Muldoon of The Dead Rabbit. The cocktail list here, created by Jesse Vida and Jillian Vose, is formidable—dozens upon dozens of gorgeously layered, multi-ingredient drinks in homage to Cuban classics yet with tweaks that tease them into modern-day marvels. The Cuba Libre is no exception.

“We wanted to try to reinterpret the classics to a modern palate, most notably the Cuba Libre, the Nacional, etc.,” says Vida. “But we did not just want to make a Rum & Coke because that did not fit with rest of the program.”

(illustration: George McCalman)

While on a four-day fact-finding mission to Cuba in the planning stages for BlackTail, he stumbled across a cocktail that was equal parts Champagne and cola. “It was not good at all,” he says laughing. “But it did plant a seed.” In the end, Vida constructed a deliciously haunting version using cola syrup cut with granulated sugar (cane versions proved too rich), white rum (he prefers Facundo Neo), fernet to add a base of dryness and cull more herbaceous flavors from the rum and brut Champagne.

But the basics that were the inspiration are not lost on Vida. “I think a big part of why the Cuba Libre has lasted is it’s so simple and the ingredients are available internationally,” he says. “There are not many that don’t have a rum and some version of Coca-Cola. The flavors work well together—notes of baking spice, effervescence, a zing of cola, the general sweetness from the rum, and the earthy grassy flavors, as well.”

Danger has a more practical theory. “The caffeine and sugar doesn’t hurt when you’re trying to dance all night,” she says.

BlackTail

So, does which rum you use in your Cuba Libre matter? Does the lime make it meaningful? Is there a point when a drink stops being its concoctible namesake and veers into a liquidy land beyond the borders of its original identity—something not merely reminiscent of its former self but new entirely?

“There are some disgusting drinks that have endured, and it’s hard to understand why, but the Cuba Libre is a tasty drink,” says Meehan. “You can make a classic Rum & Coke with Bacardí or Appleton Estate Reserve and Boylan, and it’s still a Cuba Libre,” he says.

“People make drinks narcissistically, as a reflection of themselves. That’s not a bad thing. It allows you to make a twist on it and adapt to your own tastes but remain faithful to the original recipe. That’s what endures.”

Locations: New York
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