“The Mojito isn’t even the best drink in Cuba,” says Javier Gilbert, a tour guide leading me on a tour of the the city. He’s about to tell me it’s the Cuba Libre—this much I’m certain. I know he won’t say it’s the Daiquiri. “You know what is,” he continues: “The Cubata!”
I hadn’t heard of the drink before. It’s simply a Cuba Libre made with dark rum instead of white, but this happens a lot in Havana. There’s always something else to learn, a mix of classic traditions and new ideas, old concepts and occasionally modern developments.
The more people I speak with in Havana, the more I hear the same refrain: Change is coming but not fast enough. Tourism is welcome and needed. Come to Havana. Meet the people. Drink the rum. And so I did.
The Old Guard
With only about 12 seats at the bar, La Bodeguita del Medio is a tiny tourist-jammed space where you’ll still manage to find a band crammed into a corner and a few dozen extra people standing and spreading out into the streets. Bodeguita is the historical home of the Mojito, and it’s a fun place replete with the memorabilia, Ernest Hemingway and otherwise, that you’re looking for. But unless you snag a seat at the bar, it’s likely one drink and done.
You came to try the Mojito, and at $5 CUC ($1 USD = $1 CUC, but when you exchange your U.S. dollars in cash, you keep about $87 of each $100), it’s strong and well-made, impressively efficient and precise despite the endless demands of the lurking crowd.
If La Bodeguita is Havana’s home of the Mojito, then El Floridita is likewise for the Daiquiri. It’s the kind of bar where the Hemingway stories come easy amid the whirring of blenders. Huge in comparison to La Bodeguita, El Floridita is also a bit more manicured, with air-conditioning and a slight (but not annoying) Disney vibe. Take a photo with the Hemingway statue—you know you want to.
Daiquiris clock in at $6 CUC a pop. It’s a bit expensive for the island, but they’re strong and quite tasty. As an extra note, be prepared to tip music acts at both La Bodeguita and El Floridita and most other bars, for that matter.
Another old guard must-see is Hotel Nacional de Cuba. Enter through its grand lobby and head straight back outside through the rear, where you’ll find several bars along with a back patio and lawn. This is where you want to be at sunset, as the hotel’s elevated positioning overlooks the sea (the site used to be a fortress). But the best way to experience Hotel Nacional may be by the pool, which in 1930 was the deepest in Cuba and where the rum drinks have been flowing freely ever since.
Non-guests can rent a towel and chair for $27 CUC. That may sound like a lot until you learn that it comes with a $20 CUC food and drink credit, which you can flip into your choice of three poolside Daiquiris or Mojitos and still have enough left over for a bottle of water and a tip.
Rounding out the city’s famed old bars, Dos Hermanos, now near the cruise ship docks, boasts an ode to Hemingway on its walls to go along with its pink-tinted frozen Hemingway Daiquiris and frothy Piña Coladas, topped with cinnamon.
Sloppy Joe’s first opened in 1917 but reopened in 2013. It harkens to its origins with walls loaded with vintage photos and mementos. You’ll find one of Havana’s larger lists of both rum and cocktails here, so it’s a good place to consider branching out and trying something different.
The New School
The face of new-look Havana might just be Fábrica de Arte Cubano (FAC), a sprawling, multilevel space complete with art gallery, nightclub, restaurant and more than a half-dozen bars and nooks from which to drink rum in all of its forms. Just when you think you’ve explored it all, you’ll find a hidden staircase or a small side door that takes you to an entirely new area with a different type of music. The medium Mojito or the shaken Hemingway Daiquiri are the way to go. Entrance is $2 CUC, and you’ll receive a card to tally the food and drink you consume and then pay when you leave.
La Guarida gets noted as one of the top paladares (family-run restaurants) in town, but it’s modern rooftop bar is the place to see and be seen in Havana. After sunset, it’s all neon lights, house music and craft cocktails. The Rum Old Fashioned, made with Havana Club seven-year-old rum, goes hand-in-hand with one of the select cigars.
Another trendsetter, O’Reilly 304 is a small, unmarked paladar and bar with friendly service, welcoming décor and a soundtrack of pop hits from around the globe. Though it’s touted as a gin bar and restaurant, there’s plenty to keep you occupied in the rum realm, as well. Cuba Libres come served in pint-size Mason jars, while Daiquiris come in a massive goblet adorned with flowing, twisting garnishes.
Havana Club vs. Other Rums
You don’t come to Havana and not drink Havana Club rum. If you’re so inclined, there’s even a Havana Club rum museum, although it’s more of a storefront than anything else. Havana Club añejo three-year-old is what you’ll find used in most cocktails unless otherwise specified. But there’s Añejo Blanco, Añejo Especial, Añejo Reserva, Añejo 7, Añejo 15, Ritual Cubano, Selección de Maestros, and assorted other labels.
When you’re sick of cocktails and want a neat sip, consider the Seleccion de Maestros as a reasonably priced choice. Likely found for between $5 and $8 CUC, it’s triple barrel-aged, finished in white oak, and displays more natural sweetness and complexity than the stuff they’re pouring into your Mojitos.
Most bars along the tourist trail serve nothing but Havana Club, whether in one or dozens of varieties. But there are other Cuban rums to be found.
The Santiago de Cuba line, for instance, is also widely available: The añejo 11-year-old is a popular expression, though occasionally hard to find, and the añejo 12-year-old is a pleasing sipper that offers notes of nutty caramel, peanut brittle and molasses.
The more time you have, the more brands you’ll be able to track down. But keep in mind, some of the alternate names may, in fact, be made by Havana Club.
The Mojito and Daiquiri get major play in Havana, obviously, but they’re not the only rum cocktails in town. There is, of course, the Cuba Libre and the aforementioned Cubata, but also look out for the Cubanito, a rum riff on a Bloody Mary, with rum, tomato and lemon juices, hot sauce, salt and an assortment of garnishes.