Editor’s note: Sam Spector, our incredible traveling rabbi here at The Royal Tour, never does anything halfway. While I wrote about a single cocktail in Puerto Rico, here he runs down the spectrum of some of Cuba’s most famous libations. Enjoy, and click here to read the rest of Sam’s amazing writing!
This past week, Jonathan wrote about the best pina colada spots in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was so enthused by this that I am headed down there to try them out myself next week! While I’m sure that San Juan takes the crown as the pina colada capital of the world, I think that the cocktail capital of the Caribbean, if not the world, is a next door neighbor to the American territory. Of all the places in the world that I have been, the best town for cocktails has to be Havana, Cuba. This city has created so many world renowned cocktails, and all of them have one common ingredient: Havana Club Rum.
Havana is one of my favorite cities; there is an electricity in the air. It has a boastful pride that is hard to come by, while still having a sense of humility. People dance down the street and everything is colorful, from the 1950’s cars in perfect condition to the buildings themselves. But perhaps one of this city’s largest boasts is that they have had a knack for inventing some of the best and most loved cocktails found around the world. One of the people, though, who is given the most credit for promoting the success of Cuba’s beverages was an American, the legendary author Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway spent much time in Cuba, and it was there that he wrote perhaps his most famous book, The Old Man and the Sea, which won a Pulitzer Prize and led to Hemingway being the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. While visiting Havana, many take a journey to visit the Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm), a 15-acre ranch where Hemingway lived and worked on his writing.
While living in Havana, Hemingway would frequent the Floridita Bar, and it was here where he popularized the daquiri. Today, tourists line up at this fish restaurant in Old Havana to try a Hemingway Daquiri in the place of its origin. The ingredients for one are:
- 50 ml Havana Club Rum aged 3 years
- 5 ml Maraschino cherry liqueur
- 35 ml pink grapefruit juice
- 10 ml of simple syrup
- ½ a lime
During a hot day touring the many sites of Old Havana, make sure you take a midday stop for this refreshing beverage! On the side of the Floridita Bar is an inscription that is claimed to be a quote from Hemingway himself, which reads, “My mojito in the Bodeguita del Medio and my daquiri in the Floridita.” Indeed! Not only did this man create some of the greatest literature written in the 20th century, but he also is credited with popularizing two of the world’s best cocktails. At the Bodeguita del Medio, a hole in the wall bar located near Havana’s legendary Malecon seaside promenade, you can find the birthplace of the mojito. The recipe is simple to make and the perfect refreshing beverage:
- 2 oz of Havana Club white rum
- 1 oz lime juice
- ½ oz of simple syrup
- 8 leaves of mint
- Topped with club soda
However, if there is one cocktail that speaks to Cuba’s history and instills patriotism with its very name, it is easily the Cuba Libre (what many Americans call a “Rum and Coke”). The Cuba Libre was created following Cuba’s independence in the early 1900s after the Spanish-American War. It was at this time that American products flooded into Cuba before they were taken away during the Castro-era embargo. With the thrill of receiving the popular beverage Coca Cola, the Cubans created perhaps the simplest cocktail recipe out there, which swept through the island and became popularized in the United States. Even if you have no bartending abilities, you can make a Cuba Libre that tastes like you are in Cuba by following this no-fuss recipe:
- 120 ml Coca Cola
- 50 ml white Havana Club Rum
- 10 ml lime juice
- Poured over ice and garnished with a lime wedge
After a long day of touring in Cuba’s capital, head to the Hotel Nacional for sunset. Every capital city seems to have a legendary, iconic hotel where dignitaries and celebrities once stayed. For Havana, that is the Hotel Nacional. Walk around in the incredible halls and see all of the pictures and decorations inside this Vedado-neighborhood hotel that was built in 1930 to exhibit luxury to American tourists. Grab a seat and watch the sunset over the Gulf of Mexico, which the hotel overlooks, and drink their signature cocktail, the Hotel Nacional:
- 1 ½ oz of Havana Club white rum
- ¼ ounce of apricot liqueur
- 1 oz pineapple juice
- ½ oz of lime juice
- ½ oz of simple syrup
- Garnished with a lime wedge
With all of these refreshing cocktails to choose from, there are other ways that you can also enjoy the spirit of this city. Another iconic enjoyment of Cuba is their legendary cigars, considered to be the best worldwide. Make sure that during your trip to Cuba, you take a bottle of Havana Club, a shot glass, and a cigar, and enjoy the waves from the Malecon hitting the seashore of this magical city. While in Cuba, I was introduced to a new type of smoking a cigar, doing it “Che style”, as the Cuban revolutionary would enjoy – dipping the end of the cigar in honey, and tasting the sweetness of the honey with the smoothness of the cigar. From now until my dying day, whenever I have the opportunity to enjoy a cigar “Che style” I vow to do so.
A must-do while in Cuba is to go to a show at Tropicana Club, a club with dancers and singers in spectacular costumes capturing the best of Cuban culture that feels as though it is out of a 1950s movie. I would say that in all of my travels anywhere, the night I spent at a show at the Tropicana Club has to easily have been the most fun and best performance I have attended, and I think my wife (who was pulled up onto stage to dance with the performers) would agree. Each table is given their own bottle of Havana Club, which leads to a lot more fun and dancing, and each gentleman is given a cigar on arrival (they gave one to Jill too when I prodded them for another). Easily, without a doubt, going to the Tropicana will be one of the most exhilarating, best experiences of your life, and was maybe the single greatest highlight of my time in Cuba. However, if you want a more relaxed, but also fun vibe, my favorite bar in Cuba was the Submarino Amarillo (Yellow Submarine), a Beatles themed bar that played classic rock – and also jazz, which is popular throughout Havana.
Make sure you bring plenty of cash with you to Cuba as credit cards and debit cards do not work there due to the embargo. You will need it, because even though the cocktails are spectacularly only a few dollars apiece, you will have quite a few of them while you are there. Travelers love to say “When in Rome do as the Romans,” Well, when in Cuba, do as the Cubans, and enjoy the best cocktails in the world in the place where they were created.
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