Havana Club Guest Editor: Juanjo Gonzalez on a Cuban education in Barcelona

7 Jun. 2017
The Boadas alumni and Caribbean Club owner tells us about his Cuban affair and his love for the sounds of Havana.

Bartenders don’t only shake drinks and run bars. They are passionate about other things too. At Bar News, we have decided to ask some of our friends to open up and tell us all about some of the things they love as dearly as a perfect Daiquiri. The second chapter of this series is provided by Juanjo Gonzalez, owner of Caribbean Club in Barcelona, who was trained at legendary Cuban / Catalonian bar Boadas and can’t see himself opening his bar without spinning El Manisero. Follow us on Facebook to discover his 3 Cuban playlists, covering different eras of the island’s musical history.

I have a small confession to make: I first saw a bottle of Havana Club on a winter night in 1986 at the Amarcord, a bar where I was waiting tables. At the end of the night we were allowed to have a non-alcoholic drink, and I would cheekily add some Havana Club 3 Años to my soda in an ice-filled highball. I had already had rum & cola before, but this time, the taste was completely different.

Years later, I was fortunate to work at a legendary bar: Barcelona’s Boadas. I knew about it before because I had read the novels of Manuel Vazquez Montalbán, where it was mentioned. There, rum was very serious business indeed: the founder was born in Cuba and respected the Cuban tradition. Daiquiris, Presidents, Mulatas were commonplace. One drink had a code name; we called it El Serio (The Serious). It was just a Cuba Libre, but it was called this way because this drink was not a joke, something that you could prepare with any type of rum… No, only genuine Cuban rum would do, and it tasted like nothing else.

José Luis Maruenda and MªDolores Boadas, the owners of Boadas, were the first distributors of Havana Club in Spain in the 70's. I still remember the old warehouse on Calle Elisabets, full of old bottles, glassware and many branded souvenirs – stirrers, hats and caps, inflatable balls with the Havana Club logo, and double LP’s called '‘Una historia del son, una historia del ron’’ (A history of son, a history of rum), a chronological compilation of son, the Cuban music style.

At around the same time, they opened another bar nearby. They called it Caribbean Club, because they wanted visitors to immerge themselves in Caribbean rum culture. The place had a nautical look; it felt like you were having a drink at the bar of a cruise ship. Mojitos were very popular there, at a time when they weren’t drunk anywhere else in the country. The Cubanito (a rum-based Bloody Mary) was also typical, and they served a rum that had been aged in an old whiskey barrel placed on the bar.

I have been fortunate to own Caribbean Club for four years now, it has become my sailboat, and I try to offer a special experience to all our passengers. Every afternoon, at 6 pm, when I open the doors, I play the song 'El manisero'. My intention is that the client, as he opens the thick wooden door (it comes from an actual ship) feels as if in the cabin of a cruise ship moored in the port of Havana in the 40s or 50s.

During my early years working at Boadas in the early 1990s, many Spaniards could afford a trip to the Caribbean and Maria Dolores' friends regularly offered to bring things to two distant cousins she had in Havana, as well as some souvenirs for the bartenders at Floridita. I’ll always be grateful to Michael Menegos for inviting me to the 2012 Havana Club Grand Prix, which gave me the very same opportunity. It was a very exciting experience for me to visit those mythical places that I only knew from photographs or stories I had been told. It was very moving to be able to walk behind the bar at Floridita and practice the throwing technique exactly where Miguel Boadas had learned it so many decades ago.

On a more private level, I had the feeling that this city was not entirely unknown. Caribbean Club is located in a city in many ways similar to Havana: it has a harbour and when you’re taking a walk, the sea is on the horizon and you can see boats arriving and departing. The perpetual movement of people from all over the world give it a cosmopolitan air, and its past and architectural style has been greatly impacted by the ‘indianos’ (the name given to those who came back from the Americas) who had returned from Cuba to leave their mark on Barcelona, a city that was then growing.

Strolling through the streets of Havana, you can feel the presence of the people who came and went throughout the various phases of its history: the Spanish colonial past, the young republic, the ‘gangster’ stage, whose scenery was preserved and looks like a movie set, etc. Of course, there are old historical cars and vintage ways of dressing. For me, elegance is very important, not only the way you dress but also in the way you behave – and in Havana, they know how to dress and behave.

There’s of course also the sensation that you can travel in time but Cuba is not just about memories; the new generation feels the need to explore new things and become full actors of the 21st century. Taking the past and soaking it up in everything that occurs on or around the island in order to create a new era: this is after all what Cuba has always done.

Juanjo Gonzalez Rubiera