Audrey Saunders envisioned “a Mojito in a little black dress.”
The cocktail she created ably answered to that description. It was the Old Cuban, a rum-Champagne mashup that has been an international favorite since its debut in 2001, and is enjoyed as much on hot summer nights as on New Year’s Eve, just as Saunders hoped it might be.
“My goal with the Old Cuban was to create a lively yet elegant Champagne cocktail with a neotropical edge,” she says. “I wanted to keep the recipe simple and straightforward, something with a sharp, clean, yet tangy profile that also provides complexity and effervescence.”
The drink—a swanky upgrade on the populist Mojito, using aged rum and Angostura bitters and topping the result with two ounces of Champagne—had its coming out party at Bemelmans Bar, the 1940s lounge just inside the Madison Avenue entrance of The Carlyle, long a favorite stopping place of the well-heeled. Saunders had already put in stints at the Manhattan bars Beacon, Tonic and Blackbird before her mentor, famed Rainbow Room bartender Dale DeGroff, suggested that The Carlyle hire her to revamp Bemelmans’ cocktail program.
“I was ending my 32-month consultancy to take over and run that bar,” remembers DeGroff. “The menu in place at the time was mine. Within a few months Audrey did a new menu and it was an opportunity for her to make it her own.”
The Old Cuban was one of the new inventions she brought to Bemelmans. A Champagne drink seemed a natural choice for the timeless, low-lit space, which brims with Old World style and charm. “Both Champagne and Champagne cocktails have always flowed freely through the veins of the property,” notes Saunders. She had read her audience correctly. “After its launch, the Old Cuban took off almost immediately, like a horse out of the gate,” she recalls.
Her twist lent class and distinction to the familiar Mojito, and opened the eyes of Bemelmans’ customers to the possibilities of the aborning cocktail revival, which possessed a few outposts in town (Milk & Honey, The Rainbow Room), but as yet had not broached the world of the metropolitan hotel bar.
The Old Cuban might have remained a local favorite had it not been for The Carlyle’s relationship with The Ritz London. The two hotels, which shared a similar moneyed, stylish clientele, often took part in co-promotions. In 2002, The Carlyle sent Saunders to London to do a Bemelmans pop-up at The Ritz. She brought the Old Cuban with her, introducing the drink to a whole new continent.
She recalled write-ups mentioning the cocktail in numerous British and European publications, including the Financial Times and The Independent among others. “This early period of international press coverage during those trips played a large role in helping the Old Cuban make its way around the world,” says Sanders.
Journalists weren’t the only ones who noticed. London’s cocktail renaissance was in full bloom in the early and mid-aughts, and Saunders met with its major players, exchanging ideas and drinks with the likes of Dick Bradsell (creator of the Espresso Martini and the Bramble), Nick Strangeway (a leading Bradsell protégé), Henry Besant (a prominent cocktail consultant) and Dre Masso (vet of many prestigious London cocktail bars, including LAB). Soon after, the cocktail started landing on menus in London, Paris and Berlin.
“I loved the drink,” says Strangeway, who recollected seeing the Old Cuban on the menu at The Player and other bars run by influential bar owner Jonathan Downey. “I was so annoyed that I hadn’t come up with it, having just recently spent a lot of time in Cuba.”
French bar owner and consultant Nico de Soto remembered his initial encounter with the cocktail when, in 2007, he first visited the Experimental Cocktail Club, the most influential early craft cocktail bar in Paris. “They opened in 2007 and Audrey helped them consulting a bit,” recalls de Soto. “I then joined the group and we opened venues in London and New York City. The Old Cuban is probably in the top three most-sold drinks at ECC ever. Never left the menus.”
As de Soto sees it, the cocktail appealed to modern drink-makers who wanted to offer new and exciting takes on the old formulae. “Everyone was ordering Mojitos in France, and only that, and we bartenders had had enough,” he says. “So we proposed the Old Cuban instead.”
The drink made the rounds on the cocktail web as well. Paul Clarke, executive editor of Imbibe and a longtime cocktail writer, remembered the Old Cuban making early West Coast appearances at bars like the Zig Zag Café in Seattle and Nopa in San Francisco. But that’s not where he initially encountered it.
“I first came across the drink in one of the forums that were so rich with this kind of info back then—eGullet’s drinks channel, or the DrinkBoy sphere … and the recipe looked like the Mojito’s classy cousin, so I was immediately smitten.” He tasted his first Old Cuban in his own kitchen, following Saunders’ specs. “I’ve never looked back.”
By the time Saunders opened Pegu Club in New York in 2005, the Old Cuban had built up a multinational reputation. She placed it at the top of a menu section called “Champagne Opportunities,” alongside another favorite, the Cognac-Chartreuse-bubbly mix known as the Jimmie Roosevelt. It never relinquished its status as a bestseller during the 15-year run of Pegu Club. (The bar recently announced it would not reopen, a victim of the COVID-19 commercial shutdown.)
Though Pegu is no longer around to cast a spotlight on the drink, there’s little chance the Old Cuban will disappear from the world’s bars. Its many virtues, according to its advocates, include a bulletproof list of ingredients (“What’s not to love about rum, mint, lime and Champagne?” says Strangeway), the catchy name, and, of course, an invaluable assist from its defining ingredient. “Champagne drinks that taste good have legs,” says DeGroff. “I know from experience.” Today, it remains a popular order at Bemelmans.
“It’s just perfectly balanced, easy to drink, easy to read, with a cool name,” says de Soto, summing it up. “Clever all the way.”