Lessons from Forgotten Classics

22 Feb. 2018
Look beyond the Daiquiri and find inspiration in the lesser known Cuban masterworks

We know what you’re thinking: “Create a Cuban cocktail? Well, that one’s easy. I’ll start with rum, lime, and sugar. That’s the Cuban Trinity right there. And now I’ll twist this Daiquiri a little. Change the sweet part, maybe. Add some spices. Or an extra ingredient. From there, find the right balance and ya está, we have our new Cuban classic”.
Things are not going to be that easy at the 2018 Havana Club Cocktail Grand Prix. Of course, it’s hard to resist a stunning drink that builds on the perfection of the Daiquiri or the Mojito. But we are told the judges will be looking for a bit more creativity. And so, once again, we strongly urge to have a look at the cantineros corpus to find lesser know Cuban classics that might provide you with some inspiration. Here are a few examples…
1) Think about the base – No, we’re not saying you should make your cocktail with a non-rum base. That would not get you on the plane to Havana. But the cantineros made great cocktails with other spirits and infused them with Cuban soul. What about picking apart one of those drinks, building on its affinities with the flavour profile of Havana Club rums and creating something new? The welcome drink at Sloppy Joe’s was made with cognac. Try Selección de Maestros instead and take it from there. Or think about the Colonial, a hefty dose of vermouth spiced up with Amer Picon, Curaçao, bitters and mint. Add Havana Club and you’ll ‘only’ end up with a sort of Manhattan. But consider the simplicity of the service, the type of flavours, and maybe, just maybe, the creative juices will start flowing.
2) A citrus is not only about its juice – How do you add citrusy flavour without diluting your drink? The cantineros found a very original and sure-fire way to do exactly that: they routinely added the peel of a lime in their shaker or in their mixing glass. La Chaparra would have been just another rum, vermouth and sugar number if it weren’t for the lime peel thrown in the mixing glass. As it is stirred, the drink becomes flagrant, with lighter flavours and a slight bitterness. At Floridita, when they blend the Daiquiri #3, they don’t just use the juice of the grapefruit – they throw in a small wedge of the fruit. So please think outside the (citrus) box.
3) Make it long or make it fruity, but make it interesting – The Hotel Nacional Especial is an icon of the Cuban golden age. Yes, it builds on the Daiquiri formula, but the creator wasn’t lazy about it. He decided to add layers of flavours to come up with something truly unique. Pineapple (freshly pressed, please) is typically Cuban, has been used in countless local drinks and works well with lime. So in it went. For the sweetener, instead of just balancing out and matching flavours, playing with contrasts is always a welcome surprise. So in went the apricot liqueur. Close to us and in a different country, Audrey Saunders has often described her Old Cuban as a Mojito twist. Yes, in essence, it’s a Mojito topped up with champagne. But in using aged rum and serving it short in a cocktail glass, she has defied expectations. So for god’s sake, take your inspiration where you want, just don’t be lazy.
4) Forget about Cuba  For a start at least. That’s what the cantineros did. The Ideal is basically a Bronx. Instead of orange, it calls for Cuban grapefruit. You can perform the same trick, finding a drink or an ingredient that speaks of your own bar and heritage. And once you found it, remember Cuba and look for ways to make it enter in a fruitful dialogue with the cantineros. When 1930’s Cuban bartenders were making a (Whiskey) Old Fashioned, they shook it with lime peel and mint. They served it with a pineapple wedge. Sounds sacrilegious? Tastes delicious! Your own culture mixed with Cuban culture in a sacrilegious yet delicious drink? You might be onto a winner…

François Monti