Food & Drink | The Cuba Libre - Cocktail Hour - Apéritif Time
CUBA LIBRE! The very name - meaning Free Cuba - is like a revolutionary rallying cry, a call to arms, that you can hardly say without shouting it and raising a clenched fist. The name demands an exclamation mark after it. Instinctively you reach for your black Che Guevara beret with the star on the front. Black and white images of a young cigar-chomping Fidel Castro flicker across your mental screen… Now, growing up in the late 1960’s and 1970’s with Che Guevara posters on every student’s wall, I could never understand why a drink apparently celebrating Cuba’s communist independence from hated capitalist America would feature a mixer from the very epitome of capitalist America, Coca Cola. But in fact this cocktail predates Che and Fidel’s 1950’s communist insurgency by over 50 years. See the full story further down...
The Cuba Libre is one of the most popular cocktails in the world, thanks to the affordability and wide availability of its ingredients and to the relentless marketing efforts of the Bacardi company. But first we need to deal with some barracking from the back row: “It’s just a rum and Coke! That’s not a cocktail !” Oh but it is: it’s a rum and Coke with lime. And if an Old Fashioned is a cocktail - just whiskey and a bit of muddled sugar & bitters - then a Cuba Libre certainly is too. Plus Coca-Cola contains traces of lemon, orange, lime, cinnamon, lavender, coriander, nutmeg and neroli (an essential oil from blossom of the bitter orange tree, similar to the more familiar bergamot) - a bunch of flavours that go well with rum. Indeed, most of them feature in rum punch recipes. So rum and Coke suiting each other is clearly no accident - it’s quite possibly hardwired into the fabric of the planet.
A word about rum
It is a distilled spirit made from sugarcane molasses or directly from sugarcane juice, so naturally it's home is in the Caribbean where sugarcane is a staple crop - indeed every island in the Caribbean claims to make ‘the best’ rum. Having said that, serious quantities of rum are also made in the Philippines whose geography and climate suit sugarcane, plus they have a Hispanic colonial heritage like much of the Caribbean. The young spirit is a clear liquid, known as light rum, but it can then be aged in oak barrels for a couple of years, which turns it a pale golden colour and mellows it's flavour; or for longer in which case it's called “Añejo”. Dark rum is dark because it's made from caramelised sugar or molasses and is generally aged longer in heavily charred barrels, giving it hints of spices and a much stronger flavour than the light or gold rum. Most dark rums come from Jamaica, Haiti, and Martinique.
The Cuba Libre
2 pts Rum. A light rum is usually used, but if you prefer dark rum that works nicely too.
½ pt Lime juice, freshly squeezed. That is the juice from half an average lime.
4 pts Cola - doesn't have to be cola from the Coca-Cola Corporation: you can use other brands of cola or an artisanal cola - but I suggest one with zero sugar. If you can get some Mexican Coca-Cola that is sweetened with cane sugar, it will be more authentic than the American or European Coca-Cola which is sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup.
A lime wedge and sprig of mint (optional) for the aromatic garnish.
Squeeze the juice of half a lime into a tall (“highball”) glass.
Add ice cubes, then the rum.
Add the cola.
Serve garnished with a lime wedge and sprig of mint - and enjoy!
In previous articles - where the spirits are not diluted 2:1 by fizzy mixers - I have advocated investing in the best spirits you can afford. But, while the last 15 years may have seen a rum renaissance and we're happy to ride that wave, it's not necessary to spend a lot on a top rum for this cocktail. The cola will hide its more nuanced qualities. But don't go for a bottom shelf cheapie either. Get something of quality in mid-range.
Don't underestimate the importance of the lime juice: it lightens up the drink and cuts through the sweetness of the cola.
If you want to make a more complex drink, after squeezing the half lime, drop it into the serving glass and muddle it (i.e. squash it a bit) to release the bitter citrus oil and strong aroma from the rind. Then remove the half lime before adding the other ingredients.
The market leading rum producer is Bacardi, originally from Cuba but now based in Puerto Rico, churning out a massive 17.4 million cases per year. In second place is a Filippino brand called Tanduay - which I have to say I'd never heard of - with 16.7 million cases annually. Well known brand Havana Club - a 50:50 joint venture between Pernod Ricard and the Cuban government - is in 5th place producing a mere 4.2 million cases per year.
It was in 1862 that Don Facundo Bacardi Massó purchased a rum distillery in the town of Santiago de Cuba on the south coast of the island, for 3,500 pesos (€120), and there he pioneered making rum with a lighter flavour than old-style dark rums, which meant that it could be mixed successfully with other flavours like mint and lime without dominating them or disappearing beneath them. The result, during the 20th century, was a new style of light, crisp and refreshing cocktail like the Cuba Libre, the Mojito and the Daiquiri (the latter two will feature in articles soon). Since the beginning eight generations of Don Facundo’s family ran and developed Bacardi’s business and, with mergers and acquisitions, it has expanded into a global drinks company which today owns dozens of well known drinks brands in addition to Bacardi, like Martini & Rossi vermouths, Dewar’s scotch whisky, Bombay Sapphire gin, Eristoff vodka and Patrón tequila.
"Cuba Libre" (Free Cuba) was the slogan of the Cuban independence movement during the brief 10-week Spanish-American War of 1898 when the US backed a Cuban revolt against Spanish colonial rule - quite ironic when you consider US support for the moribund Batista dictatorship in Cuba 50 years later when it was struggling to contain a popular uprising lead by the charismatic Guevara & Castro duo. Some claim that the cocktail originated with the American influence in 1898 too, but this couldn’t have been the case since Coca-Cola was first imported into Cuba only in 1900. A Bacardi advertising executive claimed he was in Havana in 1900 when the drink was first mixed: a young US army captain ordered Bacardi rum with Coca-Cola and a slice of lime, and proclaimed a toast: “Por la Cuba libre!”. A competing story is that the cocktail was first mixed at the La Florida restaurant in Havana in 1902 on the anniversary of Cuban independence from Spain.
In any event the cocktail became popular after the turn of the century due to the sizeable presence of Americans, both servicemen and civilians, who remained in Cuba after that brief war with Spain and, for the Cubans, what better way to celebrate a successful coalition with the yanquis than to mix some yanqui cola with a healthy slug of native rum? The popularity of this drink in America, however, is actually quite simple to explain: firstly, during the Prohibition era of the 1920’s and 30’s the high proportion of cola masked the fact that the drink contained a large slug of illicit hooch, and secondly both main ingredients were cheap. After the Second World War Caribbean spirits were cheap and plentiful and, while the war had created sugar rationing, Coca-Cola was exempt (one wonders why?). So while it was difficult to find ginger ale and other mixers needed for cocktails, Coca-Cola was cheap and readily available.
Unfortunately as a result of the Cuban civil war in the 1950’s (Batista’s corrupt and dictatorial régime supported by the US versus Fidel & Che’s revolucionarios supported by the Soviet Union) the Americans embargo’d Cuba and Cuban products for decades which made it tricky - dammit! - to make a genuine Cuba Libre for the remainder of the 20th Century.
The Cubans themselves, however, who had the rum but not the cola, resorted to making Cuba Libres with their own TuKola cola.
In any case a really real Cuba Libre was already on the way out by the 1960’s with the original, ahem, ‘energising properties’ of Coca-Cola - i.e. the narcotic coca leaf - causing the corporation to fret about this ‘active’ ingredient and their brand’s claim to “keep people up all night”... So the original coca leaf ingredient was already being quietly phased out.
I have to declare an interest here: not that I was a closet communist revolutionary, but that as a teenager in the 1970’s I - like many others - discovered the Cuba Libre while holidaying in Spain. Now the Spanish may have their flaws - Spanish flu, the Inquisition, Sergio Ramos spring to mind - but a lack of generosity when it comes to pouring liquor into your glass isn't one of them. While in England a standard 25ml pub measure of a spirit like rum hardly covers the bottom of your glass (thanks to those pernicious bloody optics; a work of the devil) in Spain, by contrast, the barman will tip the bottle into your glass and turn to watch the football on the TV for a couple of minutes, then turn back and stop pouring. Now that is a respectable measure. With the rum and the ice you need a tall highball glass to have any room for the cola! So you really do taste that liquor; it is not and should not be swamped by the cola.
Sadly, you're unlikely to find Cuba Libres at the trending cocktail bars in London, New York or LA. They aren't taken seriously like the Negroni or the Manhattan - and this is bonkers! The Huffington Post recently did a Cuba Libre taste test, blind tasting six different rum and cokes, using good old red label Coca-Cola for each of them but mixed with different rums (that's a shame; should have tried different colas) - from bottom shelf gut-rot rum to the popular rum choice for Cuba Libres, Bacardi, to top shelf sipping rum - and a few in between. The rums they tested were all from different countries. First, they learned that high end rum does not make a better Cuba Libre: the nuances in expensive rums are often masked (and sometimes altered) by the cola, rendering the expense pointless. However they also decided that the bottom shelf stuff always tastes like bottom shelf stuff. So it's in between that the magic happens. Secondly, they found that some rums add their own unique flavour notes, like coconut or vanilla, which made the resulting Cuba Libre a slightly different drink. So one needs to be discerning.
Cuba Libre Real: Jesse Vida, head bartender at the award-winning Blacktail in New York City - a bar with a seductive retro Cuban theme - has elevated the standard Cuba Libre by replacing the Coke with a mix of cola syrup and Champagne. The resulting cocktail is brilliant - an elegant mix of sweet, bitter and spritz.
Cuban Missile Crisis (well someone had to do it): The same recipe as a Cuba Libre but using a higher proof rum, such as Bacardi 151 at a mind-bending 75.5% !
Cuba Libre Preparado from Venezuela: It uses a light rum, a small measure of gin, a dash of Angostura bitters, and less Coke. This has quite a following among aficionados.
Polska Libre: Mixed using rum and the Burn energy drink instead of cola (don't worry, Coca Cola aren't missing out as they distribute Burn) - the drink turns red, the principal colour in the Polish flag.
Next week : We stay in the Caribbean for an elegant Daiquiri. Join us for another drink.
The Elegant Daiquiri
Next Week on Chrystal.eu
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Disclaimer: This article is not for commercial ends and no gratuities were received from any products mentioned herein. Chrystal 2019