With Cuba peaking in popularity as a destination and the recent normalization of U.S.–Cuba diplomatic relations, a visit is likely at the top of many travelers’ wish lists. But you can also get a taste of the Caribbean island nation without venturing off the coast of Florida. Fortunately for mainlanders, rum is aplenty, and bartenders across the country have created their versions of classic cocktails that reflect Cuba’s origins. (Remember, back in the early 20th century, when drinking was illegal in the States, many Americans got their booze fix in Cuba, including bartenders who stayed.)
Ravi DeRossi, an NYC restaurateur and the owner of East Village rum bar Cienfuegos, says it’s the U.S.’s changing relationship with Cuba that’s adding to the appeal of Cuban libations. “We opened Cienfuegos six years ago—that’s way before this rise in Cuban popularity—[and initially] we were more interested in doing rum-focused stuff,” he says. “Then we thought we’d hone in even more and build it around Cuba, because Cuba was still this mysterious space. We thought it would be fun—we created a Stairway to Rum Heaven—but nowadays, because of Obama and these changing relationships with Cuba, it’s easier to travel there, and Cuba’s in the press every day now. Everything Cuba is becoming cool now, but everything is going to change [there] really quickly.”
Jane Danger, the head bartender at Cienfuegos and co-author, with DeRossi and cocktail pro Alla Lapushchik, of Cuban Cocktails: 100 Classic and Modern Drinks, says that her customers have become savvier in terms of rum, which she attributes to the Cuba craze. “Rum is not necessarily uncharted; you can’t tie it down. It doesn’t have all the rules that bourbons, ryes, scotches or even gins have. There are so many different kinds and so many ways to make it—agricole, molasses, sugar cane, honey—so you have a lot of different flavors. There’s a rum for everyone,” says Danger.
Lapushchik, who owns Brooklyn bars OTB and Post Office, traveled with Danger to Cuba while researching the book and says Cubans are really proud of their place in cocktail culture, even if they don’t realize the full spectrum of their influence (yet). “I think the thing with Cuban cocktails is they’re completely integrated in the history of cocktails, because they were such a giant part of cocktail culture before Prohibition and during Prohibition. That’s the interesting part—their distinct history is interesting—but the fact that there was this pleasure island right outside the U.S. really was so important to the story,” says Lapushchik.
If a ticket to Havana isn’t in the cards quite yet, check out these six Cuban cocktails and new takes on the classics—no plane ticket required.
With most great classic cocktails, original recipes are just a blueprint, leading to tweaks and improvements, and the Daiquiri is no exception. Jennings Cox, an American miner credited for the drink’s invention (though he may not be the sole inventor), named the cocktail after a beach near Santiago de Cuba. His drink calls for Bacardi rum, lemon, sugar, mineral water and crushed ice, and today the classic Daiquiri is made with white rum, simple syrup and lime juice—a slight but crucial improvement on Cox’s.
The clean Cuban cooler that is the Mojito, made with rum, mint, simple syrup, lime juice and club soda and served in a highball glass is a descendant of the Cuban cocktail El Draque (a nod to Sir Francis Drake). Years later, proprietor Angel Martinez popularized the drink at his restaurant in Cuba, La Bodeguita del Medio. Martinez may not have invented the cocktail, but his bartenders are said to be the first to muddle the mint in the drink.
3. El Floridita
In the 1930s, during Hemingway’s long stay at Havana hotel Ambos Mundos, he frequented Bar La Florida (later nicknamed El Floridita) and drank his fair share of Daiquiris. Bartenders took the original components of the cocktail, swapped out the simple syrup and added maraschino liqueur, which in Cuban Cocktails is named El Floridita No. 1.
4. Hotel Nacional
Named for the famed hotel in Havana that opened its doors in late 1930, this cocktail presents little debate as to who gets credit for its invention. Tropical at its core, the Hotel Nacional is made with rum, apricot brandy, simple syrup, pineapple and lime juice.
5. Cuba Libre
The origin of the Cuba Libre dates back to the Spanish-American war, where, as the story goes, American soldiers holed up in a Cuban bar, ordered a rum and Coca-Cola and toasted their Cuban friends, with the words por Cuba libre (“to Cuban freedom”). The name stuck, and the cocktail is traditionally made with white rum, Coca-Cola and lime juice.
6. El Presidente
Stories differ as to which president the cocktail is named for (likely Gerardo Machado, a onetime president of Cuba) and who should be credited for the recipe. But German-born American bartender Eddie Woelke left NYC for Cuba during Prohibition and often gets the recognition, even if several other bars in Havana claim to have invented it.