Havana “the capital of the art of cocktails”

Havana "the capital of the art of cocktails"

 HAVANA, Dec. 30th  First, there was the “Drake”, a drink tasted in the 16th century by the famous British privateer, then “El tren”, an astonishing mixture of gin, barley and hot water at the start of the 20th century, but the art of the Cuban cocktail really exploded a hundred years ago and made the island famous ever since.

The establishment in 1920 in the United States of “Prohibition”, which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol until 1933, “represented a great boom for Cuba because, as it was forbidden to drink in the United States ( …) people started coming to Cuba”, and Havana became “the capital of the art of cocktails”, told AFP José Rafa Malén, 70, president of the Association of bartenders of Cuba.

Havana "the capital of the art of cocktails"

Bartender Alejandro Bolivar prepares a daiquiri cocktail at the Floridita bar in Havana, December 22, 2022 © ADALBERTO ROQUE / AFP

“The bartenders came, the bar owners came, some even opened their bars” on the spot, he explains.

In 1924, the Cuban Bartenders Club was created, the first in Latin America and the second in the world. Another decisive element, the production on the island since 1862 of a light rum, made from molasses and which will serve as a base for many cocktails.

Havana "the capital of the art of cocktails"

A daiquiri cocktail at the Floridita bar in Havana

It was in Santiago de Cuba (southeast), the cradle of this light rum (40 degrees), that the “natural daiquiri” was first created. The latter was then popularized in 1922 in the capital by a Spanish immigrant, Emilio Gonzalez, known as Maragato.

Custodian of all this tradition, José Rafa Malén recalls the recipe: “rum, lemon juice, sugar and an ice cube”, mixed vigorously, all served in a cocktail glass.

A few years later, Constantino Ribalaigua, known as “Constante”, another Spanish migrant, added crushed ice and a drop of maraschino, a cherry-based liqueur.

Crushed ice, ideal in the tropical climate of the largest island in the Caribbean, “represented a very great novelty and immortalized the daiquiri, says Alejandro Bolivar, 59 years old, including thirty as a bartender at “Floridita”, one of the bars historic center of Havana and the favorite of the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).

El Floridita among the best bars in North America and the Caribbean

Havana “the capital of the art of cocktails”

Constante joined as a waiter in 1914, before acquiring the establishment, now in the hands of the Cuban state. Not far away, Sloppy Joe’s, frequented until the 1950s by Hollywood stars, reopened in 2012 after decades of closure.

“Copy original”

The daiquiri, whose name comes from a locality near Santiago de Cuba, is today recognized as the national cocktail of the island, alongside a dozen others.

Among them, the famous mojito, whose ancestor is, according to some historians, a drink combining eau-de-vie and macerated mint leaves used as medicine by the British privateer Francis Drake (1540-1496) during ‘a brief stay in Cuba in 1586.

Or even Cuba libre (rum, ice cream, coca-cola and a drop of lemon), which appeared with the introduction of coca-cola in the country after independence from the Spanish Crown in 1902.

Saoco cocktails, Presidente, Ron Collins, Havana Special, Isla de Pinos, Mary Pikford, Mulata… extend the list of classics.

But this does not prevent the creation of new beverages: in 2003, the Cuban Sergio Serrano Rivero won the world cocktail championship with a drink called “Adam and Eve” (rum, apple liqueur, white vermouth, angostura).

While tourism is picking up in Cuba, visitors are once again crowding into the small room of the Floridita, next to a bronze Hemingway leaning on the bar, where the bartenders dressed in red impress with the sureness of their gestures.Havana "the capital of the art of cocktails"

“It’s very good, I love it,” enthuses Elena Seioscolo, a 35-year-old Italian tourist, tasting a daiquiri. “In fact, I want to do it again in Italy. It’s to find out how it’s done (…) to copy the original,” she says.

The American writer, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, drank a daiquiri prepared at his request: an unsweetened, double dose of rum, grapefruit juice and a touch of maraschino, recalls Alejandro Bolivar.

“Working in this bar is a source of pride for bartenders all over Cuba, which is why I call it the holy of holies,” concludes José Rafa Malén.