It seems ludicrous that a drink as simple as the Rum and Coke—literally, a two-step highball of rum and Coke, with perhaps a hasty squeeze of lime—should require reinvention. Yet bartenders are finding fresh inspiration in the classic cocktail.
The drink is nearly as old as Coca-Cola itself, which was first introduced in 1886. According to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry‘s Potions of the Carribean, the lime-spiked Cuba Libre was born sometime on or after 1900, the year the Coca-Cola Company first started exporting to Cuba. So why mess with it in 2018?
The reason is simple: The formula may be classic—and easy—but that doesn’t make it good.
“The challenge is to give it balance and depth,” says Jen Akin, general manager of Seattle’s Rumba, a rum-focused bar. “The Coke hides the flavor of the rum.” She also noticed that with the arrival of more elaborate craft cocktails, hardly any of her customers called for the basic Rum and Coke. Her solution to reinvigorate the drink? “I wanted to bring in one or two little elements that make it more exciting than what you could make at home,” she says.
Akin’s version starts with a housemade cola syrup, which uses a blend of citrus peel, vanilla bean and spice to deconstruct the flavors of Coke—particularly the cane sugar-based Mexican version of the soft drink—plus shelf-stable citric acid to evoke tart lime juice. A dose of Amaro Averna and a blend of dry, lighter-style rums in the Cuban tradition round out the drink. Dubbed the Rumba Libre, it was initially pre-batched and bottled; now it’s pulled straight from the tap, a method that better preserves carbonation. Either way, it’s no longer a rare call: “People drink the hell out of them,” Akin says.
The iconic Coke bottle also seems to offer inspiration for bartenders—as well as a quick and clever way to serve a pre-batched drink. Perhaps the simplest version: At the Foxtrot Tango Whiskey Bar in Victoria, Canada, bartender Sean Soole created a “semi-bottled” take on the Cuba Libre. Starting with a local cola, “we pour two ounces out of the bottle and then add a two-ounce pour of rum, lime acid and lime leaf bitters into the bottle.” A custom label for the bottle completes the set-up.
Even more elaborate is the Cinema Highball variation at Existing Conditions, which partner Don Lee created 10 years ago when he worked at PDT in New York. It starts with “popcorn-washed” rum, designed to evoke the memory of diving into a jumbo buttered popcorn at the movies, washed down by a frosty fountain drink. (“I think of it as a Venn diagram at the intersection of two joyful experiences: a popcorn and Coke at the movies, and a Rum and Coke,” Lee explains.) It’s then pre-batched and bottled, and stocked in a 1960s-era Coke machine that Lee re-tooled to accept tokens.
Some bartenders even get creative with the bubbles, carbonating cola syrups with sparkling water or wine. For example, a little Champagne punches up the cola syrup and Fernet in Blacktail’s Rum and Coke, while Orlando Franklin McCray’s variation at Blind Barber mixes Cava with kola nut and either aged rum or Haitian clairin. Meanwhile, at the monthly Exotica tiki night at Raines Law Room at the William Hotel, the bubbly element comes by way of Tomr’s Tonic and soda water; the drink is then sweetened with lime cordial, Baar Cola Syrup and a mix of white and aged rums. Then there’s the version at The Polynesian, Brian Miller’s Gone Rumming, which retains the classic cola element by way of soda, but ups the octane with four different rums for a tiki-fied version of the classic, garnished with a frozen, inverted Bacardi mini bottle.
One reason that so many Rum and Coke/Cuba Libre variations exist, Akins suggests, is because customers are willing to take the risk: It starts with a familiar template, and even when every last element is tweaked in some way, it still lands in an approachable place. So, from a bartender’s point of view, there’s no reason not to try to improve upon the classic.
“I don’t think the Rum and Coke is a perfect drink,” Akins insists. “I don’t think we’re messing with perfection.” And if customers don’t like the crazy variations that bartenders dream up? No big deal, she shrugs. “They can always go back to a regular Rum and Coke.”