The Evolution of Cuban Cocktails

28 Feb. 2018
150 years of cocktails in 7 recipes

A few weeks ago, we tried to explain the genealogy of Cuban cocktails in a few paragraphs. Not an easy task, but we hope you took something away from it. As a conclusion, we encouraged you to go and investigate on your own in order to get inspired. Today, we’d like to help a bit by mapping out the evolution of the art of the cantinero through a few recipes, from Cuba’s proto cocktail to today. It’s a biased and unsatisfactory take on a very rich heritage, but one that will hopefully bring further light on a craft that is, we’re happy to say, alive and kicking.
 
The consensus says that Cuba’s first cocktail or mixed drink was the Canchánchara, whose origins we have already discussed. It was built on a rather typical formula with the land’s common ingredients: one strong (sugarcane aguardiente), one sweet (honey or molasses or a mix of both), one citrus (limon criollo - key lime), and water for dilution. Raw and authentic, the formula would look something like this:
 
(historical) 60 ml sugarcane aguardiente / juice of a lime / spoonful of honey or molasses / water
(modern) 50 ml Havana Club 7 / 20 ml honey syrup / 20 ml fresh lime juice / built in glass, over ice, garnished with a lime slice
 
Once the Canchánchara was domesticated and made its way from the freedom fighters in the Sierra to the cities’ elite, delicate ingredients were introduced, namely Cuban light rum instead of aguardiente and refined white cane sugar instead of molasses. The drink was still diluted with water and prepared, punch style, for groups. Some say that Jennings Cox, a mining engineer, named it Daiquiri, in honour of the mine he was working at.
 
60 ml Cuban rum / 1 teaspoon sugar / juice of a lime / 20 ml water / shake over crushed ice and serve unstrained in glass
 
Under the influence of the powerful American neighbour, Cubans adopted many foreign customs. It’s no surprise, then, that our punch was soon adapted to fit the classic shape of a shaken drink served up in a stemmed glass. The ice provided enough dilution as it is, and the use of the shaker promoted the Daiquiri’s transformation into a single serve drink.
 
60 ml Havana Club 3 / 30 ml fresh lime juice / tablespoon white cane sugar / shaken over ice, served up in a cocktail glass
 
But this single serve drink could provide the base of other formulas. Add water to the Daiquiri, serve it in a highball over ice and you have a Rum Collins. Add mint to the Collins, and you have a Mojito - alternatively, the Mojito, for instance, can also be read as a ‘civilized’ Canchánchara with more water (in the form of soda) and mint.
 
(Ron Collins) 50 ml Havana Club 3 / 10 ml fresh lime juice / 10 ml simple syrup / 50 ml soda / Build in ice-filled Collins glass, stir shortly, garnish with lime wedge
 
Bartending has always evolved with available techniques and the cantineros were very much paying attention to novelty tools. As we’ve commented numerous times, they were the first to use blenders - the tropical climate made the island crave for ice cold drinks, and the blender was also ideal to beat even the most fibrous fruits into a pulp. Unsurprisingly, then, the king fo the cantineros, Constante Ribalaigua, poured a classique Daiquiri into a blender, added some liquor to adjust the sweetness (blending with crushed ice meant higher dilution and lower temperature, which diminishes perception of sweetness) to create a series of variation that became classics in their own rights.
 
Between the late 30’s and the early 50’s, a cantinero created a drink that would sort of come back to the Canchánchara: the Airmail. A little known classic deserving of its place in the spotlight, it epitomises the changes Cuba went through over 70 years. From the Daiquiri, it takes the fine Cuban rum and the service method. From the Canchánchara it keeps honey as sweetening agent (fancy honey, though, not the type the freedom fighters would have had to make do with). But because its was created in a prosperous country (at least for urban middle-classes), it eschews spring water for luxurious Champagne. Setting the Canchánchara and the Airmail side by side tell you more about Cuban history than many a picture. (The Airmail, by the way, is as much a predecessor of Audrey Saunders’ Old Cuban as the Mojito).
 
50 ml Havana Club 7 / 25 ml fresh lime juice / 20 ml honey syrup / champagne / Shake first three ingredients, strain into a champagne coupette, top with champagne, garnish with a lime twist
 
Half a century late, this incremental approach still holds. Cuban cantinero Amaury Cepeda won the 2016 Grand Prix with a recipe that harkened back to the original Canchánchara but remained absolutely contemporary. The Cunyaya is both a tribute to the suffering slaves of Cuba’s 19th century plantations and an homage to the work of the Cantineros. Amaury went for bitter Cuban oranges instead of lime, a gesture towards more rustic flavours that ties in with contemporary interest for more authentic, local and seasonal flavours. With fresh guarapo (sugarcane juice) instead of molasses and some dashes of The Bitter Truth Essence of Cuba flavours, it manages to honor the past while looking towards the future.
 
45 ml Havana Club 7 / 2 dashes The Bitter Truth Essence of Cuba Island Fruit / 5 ml honey / 7,5 ml fresh sour orange juice / 60 ml fresh sugarcane juice / build over ice in clay cup, garnish with a twist of sour orange peel and a stick of sugarcane
 
The rums of Havana Club are built on bases. So were Cuban cocktails. The sugarcane distillate / citrus / sweetener / dilution equation at the heart of the Canchánchara is one of those bases. There are more, and we could write a similar article on different types of formula - think about the Presidente and the Chaparra, for example. Whatever ‘base’ we decide to highlight, the important thing is that the cantineros, as we’ve just showed, have taken every opportunity afforded by history, technique, ingredient affordability and trends to toy with said base, not necessarily to make it better but at least to approach it from an original angle, to get creative and provide their patrons with new, fun and above all delicious ways to while away the hours. Inspiring, wouldn’t you agree?

François Monti