Havana Special

11 May. 2017
A lesser known Cuban classic cocktail worth rediscovering

When you ask some of the most experienced members of the Asociación de Cantineros de Cuba to list the ten most important Cuban drinks, some are known to everyone but others are more obscure, often undeservedly so. Today, we’ve decided to turn the spotlight on one of them, the Havana Special.
At its simplest expression, the Havana Special is an equal parts mix of good Cuban rum and fresh pineapple juice, with a little bit of maraschino for sweetness and greater complexity. In essence, it’s a Mary Pickford without grenadine. Maybe you’re asking yourself: Isn’t this too simple? This question can only mean you’ve never tried this drink with fresh, à la minute pineapple juice. With mature fruit picked in a Cuban orchard, the Havana Special is perfect as is. And actually, we’d even go as far as saying “drop the liqueur!” – we’ve seen it and enjoyed it prepared thus in Havana.
Untangling the story of the drink is, however, a bit more complicated than making it. As Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown have revealed in their ‘Cuban Cocktails’ book, mixing rum and pineapple was quite common in Cuba, way before the aforementioned Mary Pickford – first appearance under its classic shape: 1927. The Havana Special is part of the family, but it’s one of its more recent additions. In the mid-30’s, Floridita’s yearly recipes booklet started to feature a cocktail called the Havana Beach (Special). The parenthetical ‘Special’ meant two things: it was probably made for a special occasion or to celebrate an event, and it was created at Floridita – maybe by Constante Ribalaigua. The Havana Beach was pineapple, rum and some sugar. It was matched with the Miami Beach (Special), with gin instead of rum. It’s only later, in the late 40’s, early 50’s, that it was turned into a fully-fledged Havana Special (no parenthesis, no Beach and maraschino instead of sugar).
Beyond their genealogy and shared ingredients, all three cocktails are connected through the story told by their names. The Miami Beach / Havana Beach duo was about people hopping on a plane in Florida’s biggest town and landing in Cuba’s capital. In the process, they were turning their back on gin and getting ready to enjoy rum. But how did people who didn’t live around Miami head to Havana? Well, they did it on a railroad line, the… Havana Special. The train, with its sleeping cars, its lounge and its restaurant serving exotic fine dining (fruits, seafood and, we assume, rum) would leave New York Penn Station for a 42 hours ride to Key West 42. From there, passengers would hop on a ferry to Havana. But in 1935, a terrible hurricane destroyed the Miami-Key West train tracks. With the progresses in civil aviation, the Havana Special route was changed: passengers would be dropped in Miami, from where they would fly to Havana. We assume that’s what the Miami Beach / Havana Beach cocktails were celebrating…
Hopefully, this story didn’t put you out. Now that the name of the cocktail and its history (sort of) make sense, we suggest you mix yourself one. Reading is thirsty work. But since we know you’re not likely to be in the tropics with a perfectly mature pineapple, we suggest you make an alternative recipe – the one you’ll find on Havana Club’s brand new (and quite beautiful) website:
* 50 ml Havana Club Especial
* 25 ml fresh pineapple juice
* 15 ml fresh lime juice
* 5 ml maraschino liqueur
* 10 ml sugar syrup
Shake over ice, strain into a cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry

François Monti