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Cuba’s Overlooked Role in Cocktail History

Cuba's contribution to cocktail culture goes far beyond Daiquiris, Mojitos and Hemingway's haunts. François Monti on the country's overlooked legacy, from forgotten Cuban classics to the cantineros' singular reimagination of American drinks.

This should be an exciting time for Cuban cocktails. With relations between the United States and Cuba thawing and travel routes opening up, the interest in Havana’s drinking culture has been sky high—resulting in no shortage of coverage. The problem: pervasive narratives, both past and present, still peddle in the same mistaken tropes about Cuba’s drinking culture and its impact on how we drink today.

Most stories covering the golden age of Cuban cocktails—from 1920 to the Revolution in 1959—depict an island transformed into America’s pleasure colony, filled with American bartenders who had left home following Prohibition and glamorous tourists thirsty for local rum. Vibrant, filled with music and much less puritan than Wichita, Havana was indeed a paradise. But Cubans are curiously absent from the tales of their own golden age. Except, if, like Floridita’s Constante Ribalaigua, they had the privilege of making drinks for Hemingway and his friends.

The other common misconception about Cuban cocktail culture is that it didn’t exist before the Americans began arriving in droves; Cuban bartenders, or cantineros, did not just soak up the knowledge of U.S. imports, and Ribalaigua didn’t wait to be discovered by Hemingway—Columbus of the Bar—to become a famous bartender. There was already a cocktail scene well before the Volstead Act was passed (in fact, cocktails were served in Havana as early as 1859) and one could argue that the great American influx was detrimental to local talents, excluding them from higher paying hotel jobs. Worse, when they managed to find work, some of their achievements were misattributed. The El Presidente, for example, invented as early as 1915 by a Cuban cantinero, is constantly credited to Eddie Woelke, a U.S. bartender who washed up on the Malecón in 1920.

What’s more, the common tale of Cuban culture prior to the Revolution being “Americanized” misrepresents the nuance of their particular appropriation of American culture. As it applied to drinks, Cuban cantineros modified American classics to suit their clients’ palates, resulting in a canon of riffs that are uniquely Cuban.

If we had to draw a parallel to another bar culture, the Cuban cantineros of the 1920s and 1930s were to their era what Japanese bartenders are to ours: technically adept mixologists who have taken the best of the American cocktail, improved on it where possible and refined their art—inspiring bartenders far beyond their borders.

It’s this dialogue with other cultures that seems lost in our current coverage of Cuban cocktails, in as much as it focuses on romantic notions centered on Hemingway, the mysteries of the tropics and the thrilling days of mafia-run casinos. It is, of course, not surprising: Most Americans have been cut off from the island for over 50 years, and what they know they learned from movies, novels and the nostalgic reminiscence of the exiled. In terms of drinks, much of what Cuba is famous for has been channeled to Americans by way of big rum brands.

What follows, then, is an all-too-short introduction to Cuba’s unique contributions to the cocktail world, beyond Hemingway.

The Forgotten Cuban Classics

In the months preceding Prohibition, American businesses acquired many of Havana’s hotels and bars—and they hired American bartenders to staff them. This led to the formation, in 1924, of the Club de Cantineros, an association of Cuban bartenders that aimed to unify and train its members to compete for jobs now being doled out to Americans (by, among other things, providing English classes).

Their first official manual, published in 1930, offers a look at just how far beyond the Daiquiri and the Mojito that the cantinero’s repertoire extended. It’s based on Jacques Straub’s 1914 Drinks, an essential pre-Prohibition volume featuring many recipes from New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. The authors translated and corrected the original, trimmed the recipes deemed unsuccessful and added 60 drinks—most of them Cuban originals. Forty of them appeared here for the first time, among them the Daiquiri Frappé, the first blended Daiquiri, and once-popular local drinks like the La Chaparra (rum, sugar, sweet vermouth and lime peel) and the Colonial (sweet vermouth, Picon, Curaçao, bitters and mint).

Life Beyond Rum

While rum looms larger in the popular narrative around Havana’s cocktail culture, actual Cubans have always drunk far more broadly. Of the 60 drinks added to Straub’s work by the manual’s authors, almost 50 percent called for another type of spirit—primarily gin, Cognac and even rye whiskey. Cuban bartenders were also the first to use blanc vermouth in cocktails, and the El Presidente remains, to this day, the only bona fide blanc vermouth classic (even if many insist on making it with red or dry vermouth). Further, drinks like the Ideal (essentially a grapefruit Bronx) and the Jai Alai (a simple mix of gin, vermouth and seltzer) were popular local drinks, the latter a favorite of Cuban presidents when they went to watch the drink’s namesake sport. And, of course, there’s the Adalor, a drink that calls for fresh peach to be smashed with a fork and then topped with Champagne; it’s essentially a Bellini, except that it was published in a Cuban book in 1927, years before Giuseppe Cipriani came up with his now world-famous drink.

American Drinks, Reimagined

While American visitors were feasting on Daiquiris, Cuban consumers returned the favor with their growing interest in American drinks, adapting them to the Cuban palate. The Vermouth Cocktail (a mix of sweet vermouth, bitters and liqueur) gained Picon, Curaçao and mint, ingredients common to many Cuban recipes of the time. And Floridita’s 1934 Floridita Special (a house special, as the name implies) was essentially a rye Manhattan aromatized with Curaçao, Picon, Angostura and lime.

But it’s the Old-Fashioned that provides an example of just how little is understood, or appreciated, about the cantineros’ unique brand of appropriation. Ask for a Cuban Old-Fashioned today, and you’ll get aged Cuban-style rum, bitters and sugar. But at Floridita and many other Cuban bars of the 1920s, you’d get an entirely different drink: What began as a rye-based Old-Fashioned with a bit of Curaçao was then shaken with the peel of one lime and a sprig of mint. (The lime peel in the shaker—or mixing glass, depending on the cocktail—was a classic cantinero trick meant to add citrus flavors with no dilution from the juice. And though they probably didn’t invent it, they made it a signature of Cuban cocktailing.) With more than 90 degrees Fahrenheit and close to 80 percent humidity, something fresher, lighter and aromatic made perfect sense.

The Cuban Style of Bartending

The cantineros’ contribution to cocktail history extended beyond recipes to both technique and to the use of technology. Take “throwing,” for example: For American bartenders in the 19th century, the technique—which involves tossing a cocktail from one ice-filled tin to an empty one until the drink is perfectly cold and diluted—was mostly about showmanship; once the shaker became common in the second half of the century, it all but disappeared from their repertoire. Not so in Cuba. Despite claims to the contrary, the Cuban throwing technique did not originate in the U.S.; It likely made its way from Spain with Asturian migrants who used it at home for cider. The cantineros, most of them Spaniards or sons of Spaniards, did not only adopt it for boozy drinks, but also for cocktails such as the Mary Pickford, a mix of rum, pineapple, grenadine and maraschino.

We also have Cuba to thank for all of the frozen drinks that have come to define our collective notion of vacation drinking. The blender, first used in its primitive form at Prohibition-era American soda fountains, was introduced to bars by the Cubans in the late 1920s. The cantineros were adept at changing a drink just by using a different technique or style of ice to transform a drink’s texture, temperature and dilution—e.g., turning the classic Daiquiri into a Daiquiri Frappé. In their attention to detail and technical precision, the Cubans were yesteryear’s Japanese bartenders—keepers of the craft who managed to transform the way we drink today, without fanfare. And hopefully, with a renewed interest in Cuba, their true contributions will, at last, be acknowledged.

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François Monti is a Belgian cocktail writer based in Madrid. He has written for Ginger Magazine, Tapas, El Mundo and more. He is the author of three books, including El Gran Libro del Vermouth (finalist at the World Gourmand Awards) and 101 Cocktails to Die For, a history of the cocktail in as many recipes, to be published in English in June 2016.