When resources are scarce
Cuban people are used to find workarounds due to scarcity and isolation. You’ll see it if you look at their cars or their houses. You’ll learn about it if you talk with restaurant owners or with kids yearning for American music they can’t normally find here. Bars and cantineros also have, inevitably, their fair share of problems. Take it as the funniest aspect of creating cocktails in Cuba: you won’t get hold of everything you need so you have to show some serious creativity to come up with solutions. It’s one thing to invent crazy formulas in London; it’s an entirely different proposition in Cuba. We have seen things in Havana, at the Grand Prix or in the city’s bars; they might inspire you to embrace this particular aspect of Cuba Moderna.
For instance, a Cuban cantinero showed us in 2016 the strainers and bar spoons he had made with scrap metal. He couldn’t find tools to his liking, he said, and decided to call on his work experience in iron soldering – his sector of activity before moving into hospitality – in order to create them. This is, arguably, an extreme case and we don’t expect you to weld your shaker or mouth blow your mixing glass. Still, such handmade and oddly shaped tools might inspire your storytelling.
We’ve already mentioned glasses or serving vessels in a previous article on Havana’s current scene. Havana boasts a fascinating shop with antique glasses. Most competitors rush there on their first day in town. But antiques are very common across the cocktail world. Other things, such as chickpeas jars or tomato sauce cans can be recycled into DIY cocktail receptacles. In some rich, western countries, it’s a bit of an affection. In Cuba, it makes more sense: recycling is a necessity and an important value. You can also give them an extra homemade touch with some artistic flourish: paint something on the glass, surround your metal can with wooden sticks (that’s what the 2012 Grand Prix winner did for his Caribbean inspired julep). Craft markets also provide inspiration.
Let’s move on to the next big issue, which is that some ‘common’ ingredients are lacking. Our Bar Team, the stellar support group making sure that the Grand Prix clock keeps ticking, have loads of story to tell – and if you’re lucky enough to compete at this year’s event, you really should pick their brain. Basically, here, it’s all about your endurance – how much do you want to solve your problem – and your creativity – what do you do with what you find. We still fondly remember the Hotel Nacional Special cocktail the team had to make for a seminar in 2014. There’s not apricot liqueur in Cuba and no apricot liqueur means no Hotel Nacional Special. After much cogitation, the bar team went to the hotel’s kitchen where they got hold of some apricot jam. Mixed with Havana Club 7 and some other ingredients, they came up with a house Apricot liqueur. It worked beautifully, and was more satisfying than just using something found in a shop. Aromatized wines also provide great grounds for experimentation.
Another issue might be linked to the material you get to work with. Who knows if the stove you want to use for a quick syrup will be reliable? One of our past finalists had a brilliant idea when his broke down: he rushed to his hotel room and improvised with the room’s kettle! Technical glitches are a common occurrence in Cuba. Don’t get frustrated, work your way around them, and see them as an opportunity to develop your problem solving skills. Oh, and making friends with the Cubans you meet might open many doors and help you find unique solutions.
Finally, in a country where some produce’s availability is impossible to predict, it’s of the utmost importance not to lose anything. Don’t just throw away stuff, like you would (and really shouldn’t do) back home. You won’t get to desiccate lime wheels in Havana. Find alternative solutions. Your lime rinds and spent shells need not go to waste. In fact, all finalists will be treated to a cocktail sustainability seminar by Trash Tiki before the semis. And we’re sure the one thing that’s very common in Cuba they will tell you not to use: plastic straws. Mix Cuba’s recycling culture with your own environmental awareness and you’ll find great ways to showcase your cocktail. Good luck, cantineros!