Before Cuba Moderna

19 Feb. 2018
Today's cocktail scene didn't come out of the blue. Here are a few pointers on its roots.

As you know, the theme of this year’s Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix is Cuba Moderna. And yet, today, we want to tell you about Old School Havana. Why? We can’t control ourselves, it’s in our blood! Seriously, though, the answer is rather obvious: there’s no way we can make a clean cut between yesterday and today. There’s no cocktail clock that tells us when something is done. What went on influences what goes on. And although digging up in the archives of Bar News would do you the world of good, we though you deserved a short primer on Cuba’s past relation to its drinks.
 
Most of what we know about booze and Cuba before the country’s independence came to us through the diaries of travellers. And they tell us Cubans were a very temperate people (but since the people making the observations were usually Americans, we’re not sure they weren’t trying to hide their own intemperance…) Wine, a bit of brandy, some rum with (sparkling) water, fruit juices, vermouth once in a while. There were mixed drinks: we know of at least a couple of cafés serving cocktails in the mid-18th century. And of course, there was the Canchánchara, the aguardiente, honey, lime and water mixture that kept the freedom fighters body warm up in the Sierra.
 
Although the Daiquiri appears to have first been formulated as a sort of sharing punch, it was remixed shortly after the independence as a drink built on American techniques (shaken and served up in a stemmed cocktail glass). It’s obviously not the first, but it remains one of the most famous cases of Cuban cantineros appropriating foreign technique and applying it to their own ends.
 
We’re not going to spend too much time on prohibition, the arrival of American bartenders and tourists, the foundation of the Club de Cantinero or the wonders of Constante Ribalaigua at Floridita – we have plenty of great articles on this in our database. What’s crucial to remember, though, is that Cuban bartending and cocktails in the golden age built a constant dialogue between America’s recipes, Europe’s ingredients and Cuba’s preferences. Or vice versa. And always with an eye on the latest innovation – they were, as you’ll remember, the first to use the blender.
 
By the early 30’s, the corpus of 100% Cuban cocktails, considered mandatory knowledge for budding cantineros, was already 60 recipes strong. And this doesn’t take into account the countless drinks that, for one reason or another, never made it into the Club de Cantinero book. When we look at them what do we find? An Old-Fashioned with mint. A Pineapple Rum Sour. A Bianco-style vermouth cocktail. Maraschino, traditionally used as a supporting act in booze-forward US drink (think early Manhattan) was ingeniously called for in fruit-based and sour-style cocktails. The very peculiar local grapefruit carved itself an enviable role in quite a few recipes. Little known speciality product – Chambéry vermouth, rum elixir, etc – were adopted to expand the palette. And then, there was the showmanship, undocumented in cocktail books but commented on by journalists and travellers.
 
Cuban bars were manned by people who had left everything behind in search of a better life and found it behind the mahogany; the Cantineros were hard working people who delighted in serving and never rested until they had mastered the tools that would allow them to progress in their trade. They were knowledgeable, tireless and always adapted to circumstances. As we’ll see next week, it’s something that today’s cantineros have inherited. For the 2018 Grand Prix, the judges won’t be looking for the perfect Daiquiri twist or the clever Mojito version. They want you to embrace the glorious past of Cuban bartending, infuse it with much more than a dash of the vibrancy of today’s Cuba and sprinkle some of your own experience on top. To achieve this, we can only recommend you to dig into Cuba’s bartending past. The inspiration it provides never grow old.
 

François Monti