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Cuba Libre: Drinking like Hemingway 

Wednesday, Sep 23 2015

When the U.S. announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, much attention was focused on the economic boon it would bring to the beleaguered nation.

But the Caribbean's largest isle is hardly the sole benefactor. Americans now have the opportunity to acquaint themselves with a foreign culture long shrouded in mystery. Whether it be through a guided excursion into the country — already far more feasible than many people realize — or through the exquisite spirits and cigars that will soon land upon our shores, the Cuban experience is unfurling before our eyes. Here's how to glean a more intimate glimpse.

Cuba's capital city of Havana is equal parts vibrant and gritty; it's dilapidated and often seedy, but never menacing. It's also at the very heart of the country's famed cocktail scene. Towering above the bustling promenades of Old Town, pinker than a flamingo, is the Hotel Ambos Mundos. In a city notoriously regarded as a relic of a bygone era, this historically preserved structure manages to tap into early-20th-century nostalgia like no other. At the edge of its bulky lobby is an unassuming lounge where barkeeps would fix Ernest Hemingway his signature cocktail.

"If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars," noted the legendary author and drinker.

For a proper taste of a Hemingway Daiquiri in a city where the name "Castro" has quite a different association, Blackbird and 15 Romolo both toll that bell. Blackbird's rendition, which remains off-menu, is a faithful recreation of what you'd taste at the Ambos Mundos lounge. It might even contain rum bootlegged straight from the Communist regime — for added authenticity. Papa, it turns out, was a diabetic, and so his namesake libation supplants sugar with grapefruit juice to a tangy conclusion, and 15 Romolo's rendering is high-octane. With liberal doses of white rum and citrus zest, plus an almond-y note owing to a charge of maraschino liqueur, it drinks much more likeEl Papa Doble, a fiercer variation prepared for Hemingway at El Floridita, one of Havana's most classic watering holes.

Neither of these drinks, of course, can eclipse the prominence of Cuba's most famous rum cocktail: the mojito. In the Mission, Destino pays a pitch-perfect tribute to the classic mixer, with a version that's refreshing and not overly sweet. Yet for a relatively straightforward tipple, similarly impressive riffs can be frustratingly elusive in San Francisco. In Havana, it's not a question of how good it's going to be, but how you might want it, because the drink's allure comes from the particular type of mint used to prepare it. Cubans rely on yerba buena, which is slightly different than the more familiar mint most American bartenders use. Theirs is gentler, but they tend to apply it with a heavy hand. After muddling much of it with copious amounts of sugar at the bottom of the glass, and diffusing it with white rum, soda water, and lime juice, an almost shrub-sized sprig is generally used to top it all off. The resulting drink is as much an experience for the nose as it is to the tongue. (A skilled drink-maker will slap the mint on the back of the hand before dropping it in, to release some added aromas.)

At Plaza Vieja, in Old Town Havana, you can sip away the afternoon on mojitos spiked with a house-brewed beer. Either a crisp German-style lager or a Belgian-fashioned wit replaces the soda water in a traditional mojito, packing in a backdrop of spritely bitterness along with the fizz. Ask for this unusual elixir here in the city. Really. And pay no mind to the bartender's incredulous gaze as he arranges it.

At the core of most of these drinks is Cuba's highest-profile booze, Havana Club. It will be labeled as "Havanista" when it ventures north. Pernod Ricard, the French spirits company that now owns the rum brand, is positioned to have it stateside by 2016.Whenthis happens, immediately seek out Pernod's 7-year-old Añejo Reserva. The brown liquor, aged in oak, sips like a cognac, with a luscious, velvety mouthfeel, and bottles will likely hit shelves in San Francisco priced to sell at around $25.Expect it to spread soon thereafter into cocktails at places like Nopa or Smuggler's Cove, where plays on Cuban drinks already figure into the menu. Teeth SF (formerly Dr. Teeth) in the Mission featured an Old Cuban that riffed on rum and bitters; look for it to return with a more authentic flair. SOMA's Bar Agricole, with a heavy focus on the spirit, also figures to be an early Cuban rum adopter.Whether you can make it to the island or not, with more than 50 years of soured relations to make right, there's a whole hell of a lot of rum drinks to catch up on.


About The Author

Brad Japhe

Brad Japhe

I enjoy my whiskey neat, my beer hoppy, and my meat medium rare. I have been covering craft spirits, suds, and gourmet cuisine for a decade, with work published from New York, across Montana, and up and down the Pacific Coast.


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