A Tropical Wallop

17 Jan. 2019
The seductive drinks of 1919 Cuba

One century ago, on January the 16th 1919, Nebraska became the 36th state to ratify the 18th amendment to the United States Constitution, ushering the prohibition era. Exactly one year later, the whole country went dry. As is well known this had a profound effect, felt well beyond the USA. As one of the States’ closest neighbours and a holiday resort of growing popularity, the impact on Cuba was unsurprisingly strong. Throughout 1919, the press commented on the impact the measure would have on the island.

« Approach of aridity brings joy to Cubans », titled an American newspaper in the early months of 1919. While selling booze was still very much legal Stateside and the well-offs were very busy stockpiling fine bottles in their cellars, preparations were in full swing throughout Cuba. According to one journalist, Cuban hospitality professionals were « gleefully rubbing their hands ». They were not the only ones, as American business interests came sniffing around for opportunities. Before the year was over, John Bowman, owner of the Biltmore chain, had bought the grand Sevilla Hotel on Havana’s Prado. In late August, less than 5 months before the fateful day, the New York Times described Cuba as « the refuge of the frivolous and the thirsty ». Weather and drinks were not the only things the ‘frivolous’ visitors were looking for: « the present is an auspicious occasion to establish Havana as the Monaco of America — a playground on the doorstep of a puritanical nation ». 

This is, as you know, what allowed Havana to take its place in the American mind as a mythical, fascinating city. Much has also been made about people such as Donovan, the Irish-American barkeep who moved his New York bar lock, stock and barrel to Havana. Or Eddie Woelke who came to wow the stars at the Sevilla. But this narrative pushes the locals in the shadows. However, the two articles we’ve already quoted tell us that the Cuban cocktail was in rude health well before American exiles came to shake the city.

The author of the first article we mentioned wrote of « a rare proficiency in concocting some of the most seductive drinks that ever packed a tropical wallop » while the Times quoted an American traveller on the city’s hotels offering « the smoothest cocktails in the world ». « Man, this is the paradise of dry-throated Americans », he went on to prophecy. This is something many cocktail writers and historians tend to forget: Cuban cantineros were already very well known in the 1910’s. And by 1919, the Daiquiri, the Presidente or the Cuban rum Rickey were standards served in all cocktail bars across the country.

Cubans were also very much aware that prohibition would cut them off from some important products. American whiskey, for example, might not have been drunk in quantity in Havana, and it would have been natural to assume most tourists would be happy to drink rum, but it was still important to offer a variety of spirits — and maybe especially the spirits that the neighbouring nation was about to stop producing. Our American traveler told the journalist that he was — at last! — able to have a « drink of good American whiskey » in a high class Havana bar. Cuban hoteliers were buying as much American stock as they could. And European wines and liquors, usually destined for the United States, were arriving in Cuba. So much so that « there is enough liquor now in Havana to keep a million people happy indefinitely. » This might sound like hyperbole but at the same time, there were reports that Havana’s fishing fleet was getting ready to smuggle part of that vast stock back to the US once prohibition kicked in!

Although Cubans were ready, hard cash always wins — many of the opportunities locals had identified were seized by wealthier United States citizens. And as many of the landmark hotels and bars in the city turned American, the Cuban cantineros lost their jobs. « They don’t speak English » was the oft-used excuse. Truth was probably that business owners thought that their compatriots wanted to be served by people with the proper accent. This ostracism is one of the reasons why the Club de Cantineros was born in 1924. Not so much — or not only — to promote the craft, but rather to make sure that locals didn’t lose out. And one of the Club’s most important victories was a law that ordered all businesses to set aside 50% of the available jobs for Cubans. This made it much less attractive for foreign bartenders. Once prohibition was repealed in 1933, it meant that there were still enough Cuban bartenders to make sure that even if the American imports went back home, the Daiquiri could still flow at Floridita, Sloppy Joe’s, the Nacional or the Plaza — all the bars that had become legendary over the last 14 years.

Back in 1919, when the American journalists came to explore Havana in the months before prohibition, this all seemed like a very, very distant prospect. They knew things were about to change, they just weren’t sure how. But they knew that one thing was guaranteed: in Havana you could find « some of the most seductive drinks that ever packed a tropical wallop ». A century on, this still rings true.

François Monti