RUNNING ALONG HAVANA’S Malecon, I passed smooching couples who openly shared swigs from bottles while teenage boys goaded each other into taking kamikaze dives into the surf from the rocks below the sea wall. Groups of grown men bobbed in the waves, passing communal bottles around. When I smiled and nodded, the bottle was raised in my direction and a bald head hollered in Spanish. I figured it was something along the lines of, “Enough running, more rumming!”
He was right. I sprinted back to the hotel for a shower and a highball.
In 1862, Spanish immigrant Don Facundo Bacardi established what would become the world’s largest rum dynasty. Tinkering with sugarcane and molasses in Santiago de Cuba, he distilled the first clear rum and named it after himself. His recipe has remained unchanged for 150 years, surviving dictatorship, hurricanes, and the varying tastes of generations of drinkers.
Ordering a mojito is acceptable at any hour of the day. Besides, it’s more palatable than the murky hotel coffee coloured with chalky shelf milk. Our Adventure Center guide, Leo, gave us a mojito primer on the day of our arrival. We found tables in the shade of an open-air bar, El Bosquecito, underarms damp with sweat, thirsty for our first official Cuban mojito. The thick-armed bartender industriously filled glasses with ice, raw sugar, lime juice and mint sprigs, and rum by the glug.
“Guys, you need to feel the lemon. You need to feel the sugar,” Leo insisted. “Yes, and you need to feel the rum, too.”
My favorite mojito: El Bosquecito, Calle O’Reilly 203, La Habana Vieja, Havana
In Trinidad, we were grounded by the downpours of Tropical Storm Isaac. Our view of Playa Ancon, 18km from our hotel, was suddenly blotted out by ominous clouds and rain, so we took shelter on the terrace of a private casa for garlic lobster tails and canchancharas. The word kept calling to mind la cucaracha, remembered from childhood Spanish lessons taught by cartoon mouse Speedy Gonzales. Leo couldn’t wait for me to accidentally order a cockroach.
The canchanchara is a potent and sweet mix of rum, lemon juice, and honey. With a small wooden stick, you get to pull up thick globs of honey that settle at the bottom of the terracotta cup. Cold, strong, and syrupy, it’s a clever take on rum. I loved it, dangerously so.
My favorite canchanchara: Trinimar, near Ruben Martinez Villena & Ciro Redondo, Trinidad
The Cuba Libre is two or three free-poured jiggers of white rum topped with the Cuban Coke facsimile, TuKola, ice, and a wedge of lime. Its origin is largely a mystery, but most agree that it was a toast to Cuba’s liberation in 1898. “Cuba Libre!” (Free Cuba!) was the battle cry of victorious Cuba Liberation Army soldiers after the War of Independence. Cuban exiles refer to the classic drink as mentirita (“little lie”), believing there is no “free Cuba” under Castro’s dictatorship.
Peru, Poland, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica have tweaked the recipe but adopted the name: Peru Libre (with pisco, a grape brandy), Poland Libre (with Burn energy drink instead of cola), Nica Libre, and Tico Libre (with dark rum and diet cola).
My favorite Cuba Libre: Hotel Casa Granda, Heredia No. 201, Santiago de Cuba
Named after the infamous pirate Sir Francis Drake, the daiquiri is a more sophisticated rum family member, with fancy ingredients like grenadine liqueur. Leo told us that Drake preferred his rum with lemon juice. Curious Cubans slowly began to request the same: “I’ll take a Drake.” Leo’s explanation gets sketchy after this, but Drake merged into Drakos and somehow (probably after a few rum and lemons), became the “daikiri” we know. Nowadays, there are 28 varieties of daiquiris, from chocolate to chilled cucumber.
In Havana, we decided to grab daiquiris at El Floridita. When we arrived just after 10pm, the bar was vibrating with salsa music and thick with Lucky Strike smoke. I took my Drake as Ernest Hemingway did — after all, El Floridita was his stomping grounds in the ’30s. The bar serves a “Papa Hemingway Special” using grapefruit juice as the mix, as he preferred. I preferred it too. The bitterness of the grapefruit translates to an anise aftertaste on the palate.
My favorite daiquiri: Restaurante Museo 1514, Simon Bolivar #515, Trinidad
Blended with thick coconut cream, pineapple juice, and rum, the frothy piña colada is a stiff, easy-to-down boozy milkshake. Again taking shelter from Tropical Storm Isaac in Santiago de Cuba, we found refuge at a stuffy bar on the 15th floor of the Melia hotel — a nice perch for storm watching. Heat lightning licked across the sky as we shook our sopping wet shirts from our skin. The generator flicked on and off several times, cutting the ABBA soundtrack in and out. Our perfect perch became less perfect when the roof started leaking and the power totally went out. However, we’d just sucked back the last of our coladas and were ready to retire from rum for the night anyway.
My favorite piña colada: Melia Santiago de Cuba, Av de las Americas & Calle M, Santiago de Cuba
Picking our way across the haphazard sidewalks and cobblestone of the Obispo, we were happy to find a table on the patio of Factoria Plaza Vieja. Opened by an Austrian company in 2004, Factoria is Havana’s only microbrew pub.
The microbrews (clara/clear, oscura/amber, and negro/dark) were a welcome departure from the lightweight Cuban beers Cristal and Bucanero. For about $12, we ordered one of the tabletop plastic keg dispensers, allowing us to pour pints at our own leisure.
My favorite homebrew: Negro, Factoria Plaza Vieja, San Ignacio esq, a Muralla, Plaza Vieja Havana [Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]
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