How 160 years of Cuban cocktail-making is still shaking up the bar scene today

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Luis Enrique García, wearing a Mosh Party ‘Good Vibes’ tee, is whip-fast behind the rooftop bar, strewn with bottles, pink straws and glasses stuffed with rosemary, yerba buena (mint) and pop-red cachucha pepper.

As chilled music plays, sunnies occasionally slipping down his nose, he ices a ridged glass before casting the cubes aside. He pours the Gordon’s gin, shaken with coconut horchata (rice milk), deep into the folds. A dash of nutmeg is grated on top, along with the rind of a zesty Cuban lemon.

García then curlicues neon-green rind into a garnish, along with a slice of that lemon and a sprig of basil. “It’s called ‘Emilito’s’, after the guy who makes the horchata for us,” he tells me, before I get to taste the tropical beach-style flavour with its nutty edge.

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All these Cuban cocktails are made with double measures

It’s my second drink at Bar El del Frente, a cool hideaway in Old Havana, Cuba; the first was a stonking mojito made with Havana Club 3 Años rum. I’m near sloshed and figure I might have to call time. “All our Cuban cocktails are made with double measures,” he quips.

So, what do I do with this nugget of intel? Naturally, I double down and accidentally confess to Garcia I favour rum over gin. “Then, it’s a Canchánchara for you,” he confirms in a flash. This Cuban cocktail, with roots in the island’s 19th-century liberation wars, is more commonly found in the bars of the south coast city of Trinidad. In recent years, it has found a calling on the cocktail menus in the capital.

Swapping the drink’s traditional aguardiente (liquor made from sugar cane) for Havana Club 7 Años, he pours it over muddled quarters of lemon, along with sugar, grenadine made from pineapple and generous dollops of Cuban honey, so powerfully perfumed it clings to the air.

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He pours it over muddled quarters of lemon

After a shake and a pour, my soda glass is garnished with a watermelon wedge and curled rind of citrus fruit. It’s a champion; sweet, honeyed, moreish, tart – just like Cuba. It slips down beautifully.

Bar El del Frente is an address you won’t want to miss. To find it, make your way along the hot, cracked tarmac of Calle O’Reilly, passing balconied colonial buildings, streetside bars and an art gallery hidden inside an old paper factory. 

Look for the unmarked wooden door, opposite sister paladar (restaurant) O’Reilly 304. Once inside, climb the marble stairs, passing a giant image of Princess Diana, to the rooftop, with its scattered tables, neon lighting and wall portrait of Yuri Gagarin, the first human catapulted into space.

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To find the bar, you’ll pass balconied colonial buildings

Owned by artist and entrepreneur José Carlos Imperatori, the bar and sister restaurant are part of an expanding ripple of fresh spots that have opened in Cuba’s capital in the last decade, made possible by new laws which have boosted private enterprise on the island. 

This wave of drinking dens are by no means Cuba’s first foray into master mixology. Instead, they build on an illustrious history of cocktail making that stretches back more than a century. 

Indeed, it was amid the sweaty streets of second city Santiago de Cuba, that a certain Don Facundo Bacardí Massó (yes, he, of Bacardí fame) originally discovered the secrets of ageing rum, way back in 1862 – 160 years ago this year.

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This wave of drinking dens are by no means Cuba’s first foray

Once prohibition shuttered United States’ saloons in the 20s and 30s, barflies flocked to Cuba in their thousands and Bacardí then made a fortune celebrating its wealth with a new HQ. 

The stellar art deco tower, Edificio Bacardí – clad in European granite and marble and crowned with a steel bat figure (Bacardi’s company logo) – has towered over Havana since 1930. You can still head to its café to soak up the art deco vibe.

During this time, Havana’s El Floridita bar – an edge-of-Old-Havana local with a long, elegant bar and live music – also came to fame as the home of the daiquirí cocktail under bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert – AKA ‘The Cocktail King of Cuba’.

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Young mixologists have turned to crafting new varieties of cocktail

Royalty, athletes and actors were his customers, but it was American novelist Ernest Hemingway’s repeated visits in the late 30s which cemented El Floridita’s fame. It was here the ‘Papa Doble’ – a sugar-free daiquiri created for the writer – was invented. 

It was also said that Hemingway drank in Havana’s other time-honoured bar La Bodeguita del Medio, close to the cathedral, much being made of the note he allegedly left, which read ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita’.

Today, you can expect more than your run-of-the-mill mojito from Cuba’s new wave of bars. As these watering holes have found their swagger, young mixologists have turned to crafting new varieties of cocktail, too.

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Bar owners meet to sample the latest avant-garde flavours

In fact, the tinkering is infectious, leading to a regular cocktail competition called Conbac, which takes place once a month in Havana. Bar owners and tenders meet to sample and share the latest avant-garde flavours, alongside a thirsty public. The trailblazers behind the event also run Jíbaro, an under-the-radar bar buried in Old Havana, close to the city’s most beautiful church, Iglesia de la Merced.

Nuclear engineer, Diana Figueroa, and economist, David Roque, opened Jíbaro in 2017 with a successful alcohol-free mocktail list, before they secured a drinks license. Since then, business has boomed and so has their cachet – from schooling Prince Charles, as he was then on how to make a mojito to winning a $50,000 grant from tequila house Tahona Society to create La Mata, their line of artisanal mixers.

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My hurricane glass is garnished with a sprig of tarragon

When I visit, Diana asks Pepe, Jíbaro’s bartender, to make me ‘Yarini’s Kiss’. “Yarini was a famous pimp, who prowled the streets around here,” says David. “He was shot dead in a dispute over a beautiful girl.”

“Having our bar in this area, we had to make a drink in his honour,” Diana explains.

“Is it deadly?” I want to know. “It’s fuerte (strong),” David confirms.

Pepe mixes Ron Santiago, an extra dry rum, with Jíbaro’s new La Mata passionfruit cordial, black pepper, sugar and sparkling white wine. My hurricane glass is garnished with a sprig of tarragon to draw out the anis flavour.

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The ‘Sibarazo’ also has a touch of spice for a rollicking final kick

I take a sip. The powerful punch of rum at 40% ABV is dimmed only by the sweet lure of moreish passionfruit. The bubbles of sparkling wine create a buzz – like a first kiss – only this Cuban besito doesn’t promise true love. It is indeed, deadly.

Afterwards, I check out the nearby competition. Dimly-lit Bar Melodrama on Calle Obrapía – with two floors and a studenty vibe – serves a glides-down-nicely Canchánchara in a traditional earthenware tumbler. It also wins my vote for a couple of resident cats, conked out on the windowsill and front door step with limbs asunder, as if they’d also been imbibing the bar’s offerings. 

Next up, Sibarita on Calle O’Reilly, with a colourful neon hue mural by street artist Mr Myl, a tropical vibe and an enviable rooftop. Here I sink a honeypot house cocktail in a Tiki mug, known as the ‘Sibarazo’, with Havana Club 7 Años, orange juice and a touch of spice for a rollicking final kick.

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In Cuba, mixologists perform like artists

In Vedado, I head to newly opened Fangio, set in the leafy patio off of a newly restored villa. I order an ‘Almendrón’, an earthy adventure on the rocks through aged rums, nutty Frangelico liqueur, Grand Marnier and cacao bitters. 

I’m instantly transported to Cuba’s chocolate-making area, Baracoa – the most remote region of the island. While I indulge in one last drink, I soak up a Sunday afternoon performance with singer and violinist Emy Abreu centre stage. 

Only in Cuba can you time-travel back decades – drinking 1930s-inspired cocktails in a classic antique drinking den, before stepping out onto the cobbles and sampling the city’s most exciting, emerging bars, run by mixologists who perform like artists. Here’s to the next 160 years of Cuban cocktail-making…

Drink in Flash Pack’s new seven-day adventure to Cuba, which ticks off Havana’s nightlife and salsa scene, before meeting master cigar makers in the Viñales Valley and feasting on sunset dinners at organic farms. 

Got a story or adventure that could inspire a solo traveler like you? Tag @flashpack on social or email [email protected] to be featured.

Images: Courtesy of Claire Boobbyer & Adobe Stock 

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