The Cocktail History of Cuba
Updated: Mar 29
Cuba as an island has one of the most mysterious, chaotic but never-the-less utmost important histories surrounding cocktail culture. This is the island that gave us the Mojito, the Daiquiri, El Presidente, El Nacional & the Canchanchara! In the last 150 years it has been the centre of political turmoil, mafia run gambling hotspot, a rum war & most importantly the birth of some of the most important aspects of bartending innovation past the Prohibition period. Here at Cocktails For You we've searched far & wide to give you some insight into one of the most important countries in the world in cocktail culture!
It always start with the American Prohibition
The following words are from 'asocialnomad'. It would be easy to think that cocktails didn’t exist in Cuba until after the Spanish-American war and the increased American influence in Cuba. Or that no one ever drank a daiquiri until Hemingway sat at the bar of El Floridita in Havana.
It’s true, that following prohibition the influx of American bartenders and tourists to Cuba increased phenomenally. Cuba became the pleasure island for glamourous, perhaps even hedonistic tourism. Cuban bartenders – cantineros – became skilled at changing recipes and cocktails to suit the palate of their new customers.
Cuba is located just 180 kilometres from the mainland USA, so a logical solution to those wanting an alcoholic drink in the Prohibition years. Prohibition in the USA was a nationwide constitutional ban on the production, import, transport and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. Prior to the implementation of Prohibition many bars and hotels in Havana were acquired by American’s, shall we say, planning ahead. American bartenders were hired and sent to Cuba.
This led to the formation of the Club de Cantineros in 1924, this association of Cuban bartenders had clear aims to train its members to compete with the influx of American bartenders. The Cuban Bartenders Association, the Club de Cantaneros de Cuba still exists today, and it’s a member of the International Bartenders Association, the IBA.
The Cantaneros published magazines and in 1930 issued an official manual. While the manual is based on the 1914 “Drinks” by Jacques Straub, it has considerable additions – 60 – many of which were Cuban originals.
La Bodeguita Del Medio From a bohemian hub in the 1950s, then a regular restaurant mostly frequented by Cubans in the 1980s, to now being one of Havana’s main tourist attractions—the popularity of La Bodeguita del Medio has gone nothing but up since it was established in 1942.
In fact, its success goes way beyond its physical limits in Old Havana: four replicas with the same name operate in Spain, and there are more La Bodeguita del Medios scattered across 14 other countries, including the United States, the UK, Germany, Australia and Mexico.
The place started as a convenience store in the middle of Empedrado Street—hence the origination of the bar’s name, which can be translated as, “the small store in the middle”. The owner, Angel Martínez, would sell snacks and drinks to some regular customers; these included a number of intellectuals who would hang out there after running errands. By 1950, the official name, Casa Martinez, was hardly used by anyone, and the popular denomination, La Bodeguita del Medio, was officially adopted.
As the clientele grew, so did the bar’s offerings. Food and drink became its main business and the venue started to be frequented by the local bohemian community of writers, musicians and journalists. Legend has it that one regular, journalist Leandro García, signed his name on the restaurant’s walls and this started the tradition of contributing to the signatures that today cover the place. The list of celebrities who’ve visited is hefty and includes Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, President Salvador Allende, Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, Nat King Cole and Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway had a special connection to the place, which, in turn, owes part of its popularity to his legacy. In the late 1930s, when Hemingway lived at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, La Bodeguita and El Floridita bar were two of his favorite local spots. These he continued to frequent even after he made his home on the outskirts of Havana, far away from the old quarter. A giant framed autograph attributed to him is proudly displayed today at La Bodeguita, underneath his statement, “My mojito in La Bodeguita. My daiquiri in El Floridita”.
This is where things get quite spicy when it comes to one of the twists when it comes to the legacy of Cuban cocktail culture. We've established that US bartenders came to spice things up in Cuba & brought their expertise, drinks & style to the local bartending scene. The local Cantineros hit back with their own unique cocktails, drinks & incorporated local knowledge to cocktails. One of the key elements of this was a technique dubbed ever after as the "Cuban Throw" which become synonymous with the unique style of Cuban Cantineros.
This technique was imported to Cuba by none of than Miguel Boadas, a Catalan native from Barcelona, who has travelled for work to Cuba. The story goes as such Next to the square of Alvear, at the corner of Obispo and Montserrate streets, just where formerly the old walls of the Montserrate Gate were located in Havana, there is a place of much tradition and fame called “El Floridita”. Anyone who currently visits the capital of Cuba hears about this unique establishment celebrated for its daiquiris and for having enjoyed the favor of a champion of the drink as noted by Ernest Hemingway.
The original name of the La Floridita was none other than the 'Pina de Plata' & only after prohibition & the Anglo-Saxon influence was it renamed to the ' La Florida' & eventually to the "La Floriditia'. The tavern passed to other hands that modernized it, turned it into a cocktail bar and, by the work and grace of Narcís Sala Perera, a prominent director of the “Center Catalá de l´Havana".
El Floridita soon became known as "la cuna del daiquiri," the cradle of the daiquiri — much because of the cocktail artistry of a hardworking Constantino Ribalaigua Vert "El Rey de los Coteleros," The Cocktail King of Cuba.
He had learned how to tend bar from his father. In 1914, the 26-year-old worked behind the mahogany counter at El Floridita, the American-style bar at the end of Obispo Street. By 1918, he had saved up enough cash to buy the place.
For the next three decades, Ribalaigua catered to tourists, artists, actors and expats, creating craft cocktails at a time when working with liquor was hardly considered an "art." Eventually, his craft would make El Floridita world famous.
Even after Prohibition ended, Hemingway still swilled his daiquiris at El Floridita — and this, too, was because of Ribalaigua. In a letter dated June 5, 1943, Hemingway wrote to his third wife, Martha Gellhorn, "Everything is lovely here at the Nacional and the only thing lacking is you dear if you could only see the view from my room looking out over the beautiful gulf stream and Oh those daiquiris that nobody makes like old Constantino."
"He brought everyone who visited to see Constantino. They all would go to the Floridita to have drinks," says Hilary Hemingway. Ava Gardner and John Wayne dropped in for Constante-crafted cocktails. Over a bottle of Gordon's Gin at El Floridita, Spencer Tracy convinced Ernest Hemingway that Tracy should play the part of Santiago from The Old Man in the Sea. Hemingway once notoriously whispered to a fellow patron seated at the mahogany bar that there were FBI agents from the U.S. sitting just tables away, investigating his every move.
From all this we can summarise the importance that Cuba has played in cocktail culture as it attempted to survive after Prohibition as well as thrive under new tutorship in Cuba. Remember your past so you can proudly walk into the future!