Cuba is famous for music and dance, communism, vintage cars and … cocktails! Today I tell you about the cocktails I enjoyed most on my vacation in the Caribbean island and the bars where I found them.
Everything starts with rum
The golden age of cocktails in Cuba lasted from American prohibition to the revolution, a time when gangsters, Hollywood stars and intellectuals were drinking huge amounts of now classic drinks.The star is rum, probably the most iconic product of Cuba. This legend is carried on by the expertise and knowledge of the Maestros, the only people authorized to blend rums. Yes, because rums are blends of different vintages, for example 7-year-old rum is a blend with rums of at least 7 years. If you think you’ve already drunk Cuban rum, you’re probably wrong. Habana Club sold outside Cuba is produced in Puerto Rico due to the embargo. A curiosity: rum has a fixed price on the whole island, so you will pay the same at the airport and at a supermarket.
Things to know before you drink
The well-known embargo (in Spanish “el bloqueo”) that has been going on for decades – a great shame as I witnessed in person – it strongly affects Caban life. The impossibility of importing raw materials, machinery and products makes everything very difficult for Cubans and limits widely what they can do in the kitchen – food is a disappointment in Cuba – and in bars.
No imported spirits, bad local vodka but also poor ingredients such as worchester sauce (salsa inglesa), tomato sauce and even fruit. Yes, I’m telling you don’t take Bloody Marys. In truth, I also advise against Cubanito, the local equivalent with rum instead of vodka. You will also have to settle for Cuba Libre with national cola.
Can you tell this is originally an Italian song? @ Canchánchara in Trinidad
I’m writing about what you drink in bars around the island, not in tourist resorts (which I haven’t seen). Generally speaking cocktails in Cuba are quite light and very simple, but in the suffocating heat – particularly in Summer – this makes them very refreshing. Can you imagine that the day we landed in Havana we drank 5 in as many hours? A cocktail cost an average of 2.5 – 4 CUC in 2018 (about 2.2 – 3.5 €). Most of the time when you drink there is a band playing music.
So, here they are my favorite cocktails and the bars where I had them:
#5 Michelada @ La Vitrola
The Cuban version of this cocktail born in Mexico is also a classic, but more spicy. In addition to (national) beer, lime and salt on the glass they put worchester sauce and tabasco.
I gladly drank it at la Vitrola, in plaza vieja in Havana. The place has a slightly 1950s vintage taste, waiters wear a bow tie, the orchestra is overlooking a window and the michelada comes with the beer bottle upside down inside the glass.
#4 Daiquirì @ La Floridita
Daiquirì is tied to La Floridita, a historic bar in Havana where Ernest Hemingway use to go. And, in fact, for selfie lovers, a bronze statue of the writer leans over the counter. This is one of the most touristic places in Cuba, elegant, with air conditioning and packed only with foreigners. It should definitely be visited at least once.
The music of the band – poor guys the stage is 1 square meter – is almost covered by the noise of the blenders. The classic daiquirì is made with crushed ice (they were the first to use it), 3-year white rum, sugar, lime, maraschino. This was the only daiquirì I liked. The others one I drunk around just tasted like water.
#3 Mojto @ La Bodeguita del Medio
I’m no huge fan of mojto in general, but in Cuba it didn’t impress me. I find that yerbabuena did not give flavor. However, it was nice to quench your thirst at any time.
The perfect place where to drink is at Bodeguita del Medio, where the legend says it was invented, with contribution of Hemingway, a loyal custome also here. This bar is just the exact opposite of Floridita. There are no seats, very easy going and full of happy Cubans dancing. A terrific place.
#2 Canchánchara @ Kilómetro Zero
A good cocktail without rum? Well, yes. With aguardiente, that is local brandy. And then lemon juice, honey, water and ice. The clay cup is not only decorative but makes this cocktail more pleasant.
I drank a great canchánchara at Kilómetro Zero, a bar trying to stand out over others bar in the centre of Habana. The paradox was that a Polish cartoon from the 1960s was broadcast on TV. Unlike the other bars the musicians had electric instruments.
#1 Piña colada @ Jardin del Arte sano
I don’t remember how many I drank, at least three a day. Piña colada was not born in Cuba, but it is still a classic Caribbean cocktail. The recipe calls for 3-year white rum, coconut puree and pineapple juice. I was really surprised finding out that in Cuba they mostly use dried coconut (due to the poverty of the country), but the cocktail is still very good.
I had the best one in Viñales. On the main street, shortly after the restaurant Olivo there is a corridor that leads you to Jardin del Arte sano. It’s quite touristy, but the have a wide choice for piña colada. The difference lies in the type of rum; I loved the version with Guayabita del Pinar, a rum from the region that I think is simply perfect for piña colada.
And that’s all folks about cocktails in Cuba. Did you get thirsty?
One last thing. If you really get tired of cocktails, go to a cigar bar and smoke one while sipping vintage rum.
What is your favorite Cuban cocktail? Leave a comment.