Drinking in Cuba Moderna

14 Feb. 2018
Be ingenuous, look beyond the traditional glass, improvise and look towards the future: a look at Havana's trendsetters

Last week, we provided you with a sort of framework to help you on your way to your own diggings into the glorious past of Cuba bartending. This week, we’d like to say a few words about what the bars of Cuba Moderna have to offer. Today’s scene has of course been shaped by the cantinero’s past triumphs but what is really striking is how they’re the result of an adaptation process to Cuba’s circumstances.
In the mid-90’s, after decades of government control, the first paladares (private restaurants) opened. Those were difficult times for Cuba and ingenuity was the keyword. Enrique Nuñez, the owner of La Guarida, the best known paladar, remembers vividly the first years, when the restaurant’s dining room was his family’s own dining room; he had to wake up early to look for the food he’d feature on the menu – or was awoken by people who had something to sell they thought he might be interested in. Twenty years on, his business has grown and if he wakes up early, it’s not to look for onions.
Over the last few years, opening private restaurants or bars has become easier, tourism more numerous. Everything accelerated. But Cuba being Cuba, nothing is to be taken for granted and improvisation is key. The spirit that drove the pioneering owners of the first paladares lives on even in those businesses now run by la farándula (artists, actors, directors, etc). Here are a few of the characteristics of Cuban watering holes today:
* Location: Although operations have become more sophisticated and, well, slicker, it still looks as if Havana bar owners open their spot where they can. La Guarida’s building in a stunning early 20th Century building – although its amazing rooftop is very much of this century. El Cocinero is located in half an old factory. Roma stands atop a hotel from the “golden days” that has long ago been reconverted into a series of flats. Espacios or Esencia have taken over grand houses from Vedado and Playa.  In general, spectacular is the first word that comes to mind, quirky the second.
* Decoration: Cuba is thrifty by necessity; you make do with what you can. The oldest paladares looked like flea market. Of late, and especially thanks to the growing involvement of artists, they have started to feature contemporary works of art and designers are playing with the very structure of the building. At Cocinero, for instance, they converted the factory’s chimney into a bar and filled the interior, all the way up to the top, with light bulbs. At Madrigal, they turned the bathroom into a tropical garden / restroom. It’s all about improvising and making the best out of the hand you’ve been dealt.
* Drinks: One of the big changes of the last few years is the growing availability of spirits. Although liqueurs remain a problem, you’ll find household gin, vodka and tequila brands. Madrigal even has bourbon, while Sarao’s selection is second to none. And rum, of course, is the pride of the land – it’s the Spirit of Cuba, after all. Fruits and herbs are sourced daily at the local markets – here, you don’t really work with providers in the sense we usually give to that word. Glassware can be fairly standard, but vintage cocktail glasses can find their way to your table, and at O’Reilly, a lot of the rum cocktails are served in old jars – which makes a lot of sense in Cuba’s context. If the Daiquiri and its versions remain the gold standard, the Canchánchara is going through a welcome resurrection. At Roma, it’s the house cocktail, and it’s as good as can be.
* Atmosphere: A lot of the places we mentioned so far – a list to which we would add Sia-kara and newcomer Efe – boast a lot of Cuban patrons, something the historical bars can’t say. This means much less Guantanemera over the sound system… Don’t get us wrong: classic Cuban music is amazing and won’t ever go away. But if Cuba Moderna’s what you’re interested in, there’s so much more going on. Madrigal often showcases some of the brightest jazz musicians in Havana. Roma and Efe lend their sound system to underground electronic artists and DJ’s who venture far from the beaten paths. If that’s your thing, you’ll also find reggaeton, although not necessarily the reggaeton you might expect. (The incredible dynamism of today’s Cuban music scene can be sampled on the Havana Cultura platform.)
Be ingenuous, look beyond the traditional glass, improvise and look towards the future while building on historical formulas. These are only four ways today’s bars should inspire you to create your own take on Cuba Moderna at this year’s Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix. Now it’s up to you.

François Monti