Nick Strangeway

17 Oct. 2018
From Floridita to Edition B: the 20 Cuban years of a top UK bartender

One of the guiding principles of the newly launched Havana Club Professional Editions is that their development involves top bartenders. If, for Edition A, things were kept strictly at home with Floridita’s very own Alejandro Bolivar, Edition B broaden the horizon, enlisting legendary UK bartender Nick Strangeway to work alongside maestro ronero Asbel Morales.

Nick had previous with Cuba: at the turn of the century, he worked on the opening of London’s Floridita. The project led him to travel to Cuba - « I fell in love with the place » he inevitably tells us - to try and understand what made the bar so special and significant. « Cuba is based on trust, and that’s something I had to build with the Floridita people. I needed them to understand I was not going to bastardise their brand but that I needed to tweak it to make it more contemporary ». Part of the process also involved showing them how things were made in the UK. « I was shocked that bartenders who were making Strawberry Daiquiris didn’t know what a fresh strawberry tasted like », Nick recalls. « I was lucky enough to take a few of them to London, have them taste all sorts of produce and tell them ‘Look, that’s why my drinks are different’ »

The cantineros were of course limited by their resources (although, Nick hastens to add, « all things considered they were making a pretty decent Strawberry Daiquiri with a poor strawberry liqueur form god knows where because they were trying to balance their drinks ») in a way Asbel Morales and the maestros roneros are not. But as the guardians of a storied, noble tradition, maybe they don’t always appreciate the scope for changes or innovation. « In Cuba, you inch forward, you don’t make leaps. The history and the style of Cuban rum are important, but it also needs to move forward and it’s important for them to understand that outside of Cuba things are a bit more dynamic. It doesn’t mean it’s better, it’s just a new thing. »

When we talked, Nick had just spent a week with Asbel Morales, finessing the rum that would become Edition B. « Seating with him was very good », he told us. « It’s difficult for him to understand what I want and it’s difficult for me to understand what he can do. » Cocktails played a big part in the process: « Making drinks allowed him to see the potential in the product ». In a sense, Nick played the part of an intermediary or a facilitator: he didn’t just work with Asbel, he also led panel tastings with leading bartenders. « I understand Cuba to a certain extent, and I understand what bartenders want to a slightly greater extent. It’s a difficult conversation, sometimes, and I could filter it slightly »

Part of the problem on both sides came from the concept behind Edition B: a Cuban rum reminiscent of Havana Club 7 años made with four bases, one of which was aged (not finished) in Islay cask. Although common for other spirits and some rum producer, this type of cask was completely new to Cuba. On the bartenders’ side, they either wanted the final blend to be more like 7 años or more smokey. « The debate was that they love the tradition of Cuba - even if they’ve never been there - and Havana Club is their favourite rum for Daiquiris and yet at the same time they wanted them to break up the rulebook and create, for example, something out of a pot still. That is not going to happen. »  

Once again, the answer came in the shape of drinks: « When you’re a bartender and you buy a product, you’re not normally intending to use it neat, you mix it and it should be part of the range of colours you’re painting with. In that sense, I thought it was an interesting product that really brought something different to the category for bartenders to play with ». As an example, Nick mentions the Hotel Nacional Special cocktail, a drink that has (sort of) obsessed him for the better part of twenty years. « Edition B really brings things to drink I didn’t really like. I can now make the Hotel Nacional Special. I had been wondering for years why I didn’t like it. What was different from when it was created? Was it the pineapple? The apricot brandy? The rum? Thing is, pineapple and smoke are great friends, so Edition B makes the formula work really well ».

Although Nick’s example is a classic, the great think with Edition B is that it will let bartenders not only give new life to classics but also allow them to create flavour profiles for their drinks other Cuban rums never allowed them to. It’s true to Cuba and innovative at the same time. In a word, it’s what we’d call, in Cuba’s favourite sport, a ‘jonrón’ (a home run) - that the word rhymes with ‘ron’ can only be a coincidence… 

François Monti