My article, Four Cuban Cocktails that Circled the Globe, first appeared in The New Worlder.
Updated November 4, 2019
Rum: The Common Ingredient in Cuban Cocktails
Daiquiri, Mojito, Cuba Libre and Canchanchara — all Cuban beverages and cocktails that conjure up images of swaying palm trees, balmy breezes and rhythmic island music. With origins in Cuba and rum as the common ingredient, all four Cuban cocktails have made their way into bars around the world, but their individual histories and how they catapulted to global fame might surprise.
As a major source of foreign income, rum is as serious of a business in Cuba as sake in Japan or champagne in France. Rum masters study for decades before they can claim the prestigious title and there can only be ten rum masters in existence at any given time.
Rum was first produced by African-born Caribbean slaves as they made fermented molasses from sugarcane, and fermentation produces a crude rum which eventually evolves into the aged liquid used in these now-famous Cuban cocktails. As a primer on Cuba’s most famous export, we take a closer look at each rum cocktail, how it originated, and how it made its way into the hearts and cocktail glasses the world over.
Historians say two foreigners, American mining engineer, Jennings Cox, and his Italian friend, Giacomo Pagliuchi, were the architects of the drink’s popularity. Cox worked in the iron mines in the small village of Daiquirí outside of Santiago when some American friends visited him. Seeing he had no gin to serve them, he improvised by serving white rum mixed with sugar and a squirt of lime to smooth the taste. Everyone loved it. Pagliuchi christened the drink “Daiquiri” in honor of the town where Cox worked.
The two men brought the concept to a nearby bar where one of the patrons, Emilio Gonzalez, brought it to Havana and showed it to the owner of the Floridita, Constantino Ribalaigua. Ribalaigua experimented with the ingredients until finally achieving the world-famous concoction we are familiar with today. But the Daiquiri really owes its fame to writer Ernest Hemingway who drank it near-daily at the Floridita. Today, at the bar in Havana, there is a much-photographed statue of Hemingway sitting at the bar.
The Mojito, the mother of all Cuban cocktails
The legends surrounding the origin of the mojito, considered by many to be Cuba’s national drink, are certainly colorful. One story implies that the native Indians used aguardiente, a form of rum, along with lime, sugarcane juice and mint – all ingredients that go into a mojito – to cure certain diseases.
The early explorers and settlers saw that some diseases, most notably scurvy, were indeed cured by this concoction. The fact that they got a nice buzz along with a cure was a happy bonus. Unsurprisingly, the drink’s popularity endured. Over the years it morphed into what we recognize today. And the name? Many believe it is a derivative of the word mojo, a Cuban marinade used to season many dishes.
Ernest Hemingway is also indicted with immortalizing the mojito by drinking it regularly in the Bodeguita del Medio Bar off Cathedral Plaza in Havana. One of the characteristics of Bodeguita is that patrons write their name on the walls. A sentence found on one wall there reads, “Mi mojito en la Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita” or “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” The signature below? Ernest Hemingway. Take that with a grain of salt, or sugar, in this case, but it’s still a worthwhile story to pass along.
Canchanchara, the underrated and less known Cuban cocktail
The canchanchara is not as well-known as the daiquiri or the mojito — maybe because it never bumped into the apparently unquenchable Ernest Hemingway. But it is just as delicious with a combination of rum, honey and lime. One of the oldest Cuban cocktails, it possesses an oral history passed down through the generations.
Most people believe the canchanchara originated in a tavern of the same name in the colonial city of Trinidad, as that’s where it is most popular. However, the drink came to eastern Cuba as a medicinal remedy used by Cuban soldiers fighting for independence against Spain in the late 1800s. The soldiers drank canchanchara warm, like a toddy, to protect against chills and respiratory diseases. Like the original mojito, the rum-based drink’s popularity grew with people consuming it whether they felt ill or not.
Still, there is no denying that Trinidad is almost singularly responsible for raising the canchanchara’s profile. A major tourist destination, the city has restored a 1736 colonial mansion and named it The Canchanchara. Tourists flock to the mansion’s leafy patio to listen to local musicians, dance, and sample the drink, now served cold and in clay pots.
The Cuba Libre
The Cuba Libre is also associated with the Cuban War of Independence from Spain. The Spanish-American War began in 1898 with the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor. This prompted the United States to enter the war helping Cuba gain her independence. The battle cry of the Cuban patriots was “por Cuba Libre!” or “for a free Cuba!”
Later that same year, Cuban patriots, Teddy Roosevelt, and the Rough Riders took San Juan Hill in the eastern province of Santiago prompting the end of the war. The United States then occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902 bringing with them many Americanisms including the pinnacle of Americana, Coca-Cola.
Once the war was won and Coca-Cola was being sold throughout Cuba, Cubans and Americans mixed the two beverages, toasted the end of the war with the original battle cry and the drink’s name was immortalized. By the early 1900s, the Cuba Libre was a popular and firmly established drink, but in the 1920s, the cocktail received another boost in popularity with American expats who were avoiding prohibition by traveling to Cuba to indulge.
The Drinks Are Here to Stay
In the decades before the 1959 revolution, Cuba was a major tourism destination for Americans. At the center of it all was the Hotel Nacional, the still beautiful, Grand Dame of Havana hotels. Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra gathered here and were photographed imbibing the cocktails.
Such sensational press further raised the cocktails’ profile to the point that it is now a challenge to find a high-end bar anywhere in the world that won’t serve you a mojito, daiquiri, or a plain old rum and Coke. Cocktails steeped in legend, interwoven throughout the history of Cuba, and enjoyed by shiny, happy influencers throughout the ages. If history is any indication, it looks like they are here to stay.
If you are heading to Cuba soon to sample one of these, I suggest Airbnb, and here is a $40 credit towards your first stay.
And don’t forget my new book, The Ultimate Cuba Travel Guide, available on Amazon, along with these other reference materials.
You might also enjoy these Cuba posts.
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