Diplomatic uncertainties linger, but the new normal with our Caribbean neighbor is creating a nostalgic fascination with Cuban cocktails.
Despite the realities of an oppressive Communist regime, Cuba has long been cloaked in intrigue and glamour. Undoubtedly, the island known for its rum, stogies, and antique cars has in large part been romanticized by the very fact that it’s verboten to starry-eyed citizens of the United States. But as diplomatic relations mend and travel restrictions, albeit still tricky, grow more relaxed between the two nations, the one-time vacation paradise marred by tyranny has become more available to wanderlust-gripped Americans. How does this powerful shift in tourism translate to the cocktail realm?
When Cienfuegos opened in New York City in 2010 above an East Village sandwich shop, it fast became a destination for its tropical, otherworldly aura as much as for its rum punches. “Ultimately, it was my love for rum which prompted me to open Cienfuegos,” reflects restaurateur Ravi DeRossi. Through word of mouth, a crowd quickly grew, drawn to the bar, DeRossi believes, “for the heightened sense of a Cuban atmosphere.” This was undoubtedly inspired by DeRossi’s nostalgic attachment to Havana Club, which he explains, was “the first rum I was introduced to by my father.” Cienfuegos’s relaxed vibe, where patrons happily unwind with Rum Old Fashioneds, DeRossi continues, “is one which immediately transports the customer to another world, far away from the streets of New York down below. My aim was to make rum approachable and accessible to my customers. Now that the doors to Cuba have opened up, I envisage a growing interest in rum and rum-focused drinks.”
Other bar owners agree there is now a particular Cuban appeal worth pursuing. Consider the forthcoming Colada Shop in Washington, D.C., a Cuban café run by ThinkFoodGroup alum Juan Coronado and food and beverage consultant Daniella Senior. Eventually, the space below it will become home to a 1920s-style Cuban cocktail bar. Likewise, Sean Muldoon and Jack McGarry of lauded New York bar the Dead Rabbit are opening Blacktail, a celebration of Cuba’s golden cocktail age, in the same neighborhood. The recently opened Sparrow, in a circa-1927 Art Deco building in Chicago, also channels retro Havana, but beverage director Peter Vestinos says it’s not meant to depict Cuba through a fairytale lens. He suspects many tourists “may have a false ideal of discovering a pre-revolution Cuba, locked in a time capsule, pristine and untouched for 60 years. For a long time we couldn’t go there, so we could make of it what our imaginations wanted, this far-off place that everyone had ideas and visions about but had never seen,” he explains. Instead, Sparrow is meant as “a true hideaway. When people walk in, they know they are someplace else, but don’t always know exactly where. The idea was that I was writing the menu from the perspective of someone at a bar in Cuba, so there are cocktails which are not necessarily Cuban, but of that era and call out to ‘unreachable American cities’ such as San Francisco and New York.”
Along with this surge of interest, inevitably, the popularity of classic Cuban libations like the Mojito and Daiquiri is spiking. James Camp, beverage manager of Burlock Coast Seafare & Spirits, inside the Ritz-Carlton, Fort Lauderdale, says his customers are ordering more Cuban-style drinks in direct response to all the hoopla surrounding this ascent in American tourism. These guests, Camp says, are also asking for cocktails to be made “as specifically Cuban as possible. They want Havana Club in their Mojitos, they want true Hemingway Daiquiris, and they want to know why Bacardi left Cuba. They’re not only thirsty for cocktails, they’re thirsty for history.” An increased awareness, Camp thinks, might lead to old favorites like mint-laden Mojito riffs now embracing such Cuban fruits as soursop and moringa. During Prohibition, when many barmen were forced to leave the States if they wished to continue plying their trade, Cuba became a welcoming sanctuary as much as Europe. Camp hopes this rich past might lead to the discovery of old barkeep journals filled with forgotten recipes.
Post-Prohibition, bartenders from the States were quick to weave those creations developed while abroad into their drinks repertoire. For those dreamed up in Cuba, “they endured as memories of the island,” once the laws prohibiting Cuban travel kicked in, Vestinos points out. Two such examples include the Hotel Nacional and La Floridita #3. The former, invented at the Havana hotel of the same name, combines the classic trifecta of rum, lime, and pineapple accentuated with apricot; the latter, a Daiquiri rendition hailing from the El Floridita bar, “is the one Hemingway drank—although he drank it with double rum and no sugar. This cocktail is screwed up all the time and is often too cloying. We wanted to recapture the drink’s lean, crisp, refreshing qualities,” he explains.
To talk about Cuban cocktails is to talk about rum, the second-most-popular spirit category—although dominated by spiced rum—behind vodka. Vestinos thinks that customers are happy to drink rum when it’s blended in a cocktail, but it’s not a spirit they readily seek out like tequila or whiskey. “Certainly the tiki movement has helped, as people are drinking rum drinks with a fury, but I might argue that they are drinking for the experience and not the rum itself.” As Cuba becomes more attractive, the conversation might just shift more toward the nuances and complexities of the expansive rum category.
In Los Angeles, Caña Rum Bar is a shrine to the spirit. Andrew Abrahamson, director of operations for the single-spirit bar group at 213 Hospitality, believes that rum is timeless. “It is like the other great spirits of the world—whiskey, mezcal, cognac—where a core of culture and human history was defined by it, and in return helped define that spirit. In telling the story of every country in the Americas, rum is always found at its heart. It’s part of our collective history,” he explains.
With all eyes now on Cuba, it would be easy, yet ineffective, to start turning out newfangled Cuban concoctions merely to cash in on a trend. Abrahamson is hoping it’s instead a chance to educate and give the classics the respect they deserve. He would like to embrace “old recipes made really, really well. ... It is an opportunity of sorts.” Before barkeeps start experimenting beyond the Daiquiri and Mojito, he says, it’s important to “feel that we’ve done them just right.”
One Daiquiri on the menu of Caña is dubbed Havana Style. “It takes what we learned during a trip to Cuba last October, drinking Daiquiris around the country, and makes a couple of subtle additions to the standard recipe of rum, sugar, and fresh lime juice. It’s incredible, and a version I haven’t seen anywhere else in the U.S. yet,” says Abrahamson. But the real Cuban-fueled excitement has yet to come, he adds. That will happen when the embargo is lifted, when we “get our hands on Santiago de Cuba, Ron Mulata, and all the other gems of the Cuban rum world. We can’t wait.”