Every island has an indigenous drink, a drink that is original to that place. The Dominican Republic’s native drink is Mamajuana. Mexico’s drink is the margarita. The Bahama Mama comes to us by way of Jamaica – I kid – from the Bahamas. And Cuba is no exception.
I consider myself lucky to be Cuban. Being Cuban stands for a lot of things: hard work, struggle, survival, gusto, controversy. It also stands for the national drink trinity: The Mojito, The Daiquiri, and The Cuba Libre. That’s right – Cuba boasts the birth of three of the yummiest and most popular signature cocktails served at any bar.
When we were in Cuba this summer, I noticed how similar these drinks were (in rum count) and yet how each one represented something different about Cuban culture. Each drink a symbol of a characteristic, typical of many Cubans. Let’s take a look:
THE CUBA LIBRE
What it represents: controversy
Like many things Cuban, it wouldn’t be a part of our history unless there was a disagreement around it. Just ask Husband – we Cubans like to argue. In the case of the Cuba Libre, there are a few. The first argument is that a rum and coke is not a Cuba Libre unless you’re using Cuban rum (example: Havana Club) and lime. Another debate is how the drink got its name. There are variations of the story dating back to Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders when soldiers of the Cuban Liberation Army expressed llantos – or cries of a Cuba Libre – a Free Cuba! But I’ve also heard that the name took ground when politics in Cuba grew more unstable and confining. Without full freedom of speech, one couldn’t go around demanding a Free Cuba!… but you could order one. Many used the drink’s name as a covert way to voice their opinion without repercussions, which I find both badass and funny. Give me a Cuba Libre! What?! I was just ordering a drink? The name has apparently continued to evolve with some Cuban exiles calling it a Mentirita – a little lie – a #kiddingnotkidding type joke and a way for them to oppose the Communist Castro rule. For some exiles, what is a Free Cuba if not a little lie?
Somewhere in Little Havana [Miami], cigar-smoking old men are loudly arguing about politics, slamming down their dominoes, and drinking a Cuba Libre. And all is right with the world.
What it represents: gusto
What was the first thing you ordered on vacation when you were old enough to order an alcoholic beverage? Yeah, me too. A daiquiri was definitely the first drink I ordered, and I have Cuba to thank for that.
Daiquiris, like Cubans, are fun and upbeat. Nothing can bring down a daiquiri… or a Cuban. Have you ever gone to a party where the bartender is mixing up daiquiris and not had a good time? Me neither. It’s impossible.
I learned from my visit to El Floridita, the birthplace of The Daiquiri, that the original daiquiri recipe was a lime daiquiri: the juice of two limes, a teaspoon of sugar, and white rum. First recorded by F. Scott Fitzgerald and named after the town, Daiquirí, in the province of Santiago, it was made world famous by Ernest Hemingway, the human form of a daiquiri: full of zest for life and gusto.
Even the bartenders can’t help but have fun making this drink, but not as much fun as I have drinking it.
What it represents: hard work & struggle
Like The Daiquiri, mojitos were popularized by Hemingway at a different bar, El Bodeguito del Medio. Probably most like the Cuban people is The Mojito because who else but Cubans would have their national drink be such a laborious one. It isn’t a quick-make – it is for the patient and resolute. Cubans are known for being hard-working and mojitos are no exception; the struggle is real. The Mojito is a labor of love: muddling sugar and mint leaves, squeezing fresh lime. But as the saying goes – and as Cubans will tell you – hard work pays off. Mojitos are perhaps so enjoyable because you have to put in the work to reap the reward.
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For a place that has been stuck in time, where people struggle to find what they need, and ingredients are often rationed per month, Cubans really know how to make do with what little they have and I feel honored to stand among the greats.
What’s your rock’s signature cocktail?
*Previously published on Drinking the Whole Bottle