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Rum Rundown

The Spirit of Sugarcane is Still Cuba's Favorite Quaff. We Taste the Best
Thomas Matthews
From the Print Edition:
The Cuba Issue, May/Jun 99

"I'll make anything you like," promises Nicolas, who has tended bar for nine years at La Bodeguita del Medio. "But everyone here wants mojitos."

The slim young man combines sugar and lime juice in a tall glass, crushes a sprig of mint in the mixture, then adds ice cubes. He pours in a shot of Havana Club Silver Label rum, fills the glass with club soda and pushes it across the bar with a smile. Alas, it's not a great drink: the rum is young and raw, the mint wilted, the glass too small for the $4 tab. But it is clean and refreshing; two quick gulps later, it's gone.

Tourists to Cuba, flush with dollars, can drink Scotch whisky or Spanish brandy if they like. But most follow the example Ernest Hemingway set in the 1940s when he proclaimed his allegiance to the island's classic rum cocktails in Havana's two best bars: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita." La Bodeguita occupies a former carriage house in the heart of Old Havana; the rustic bar opens onto the street, and small dining rooms tucked behind it serve native Criollo dishes such as moros y cristianos (black beans and white rice) and pork. It's famous for the old graffiti that cover the walls, and draws a raucous crowd of tourists who rush the bar, snap a photo, chug a mojito and head down the street.

Not far away, El Floridita is an oasis of elegance and sophistication. The restaurant was founded as Pina del Plata in the 1820s, where Calle Obispo, Old Havana's main street, met the Monserrate Gate of the walls that once surrounded the colonial city. It became El Floridita early this century, and by the 1950s, when Esquire magazine named it one of the world's great bars, it was the center of Havana's international café society.

The restaurant's fame is built on a single drink, the seductive mix of rum, sugar, lime juice and ice known as the Daiquiri. Legend attributes its invention to Jennings Cox, an American engineer working in Cuba after the island's liberation from Spain in 1898. Cox found himself hot and thirsty in the coastal town of Daiquiri (where Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders had landed not long before), a few miles from Santiago, home of the Bacardi rum distillery. Suspicious of the quality of the local water, Cox boiled it, added Bacardi rum and, to make the mixture more refreshing, hit on a blend of lime juice and sugar. In the 1920s, El Floridita's star barman, Constantino Ribalaigua, refined the drink by substituting shaved ice for the boiled water.

Today, El Floridita's Daiquiris are made in an electric blender, but little else has changed over the years. The spacious bar area is designed in an neoclassical Art Deco style, with tall, slender columns and scarlet cocktail tables. Behind it, and three steps up, the round dining room is decorated in cream and gold, with a large mural depicting the old port. The waiters, in red tuxedo jackets and white trousers, are formal but friendly. Musicians serenade the room.

"People come to Floridita from so many places," enthuses Alejandro Bolivar, a young bartender. "Working here is like traveling the world."

Tourists come and go, but El Floridita's refinement inhibits the raucous crowds that stampede La Bodeguita. Inspired by a Daiquiri or two, James Suckling, Cigar Aficionado's European editor, and I decide that it's the perfect place for a full-scale tasting of Cuban rums.

In The Happy Child of the Sugar Cane, Fernando G. Campoamor recounts a history of rum in Cuba, quoting with approval an assessment written in 1925: "In truth, there never has been and never will be rum as good as ours. Those made outside Cuba lack the best raw material that exists, molasses made from Cuban sugarcane."

The sugarcane plant is a tropical perennial native to Asia. European explorers introduced it to the Caribbean early in the sixteenth century. When a slave revolt devastated Haiti's sugar industry in 1791, Cuba became the world's most important producer of sugarcane, and sugar has remained the backbone of its economy ever since.

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