Reflections on Cuba: Running Down Hemingway’s Cocktails

[Now that things have calmed down, I wanted to share some personal reminiscences about my time in Havana with the Minnesota Orchestra.]

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“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway

This iconic line, written out by Ernest Hemingway in regards to two of his favorite drinks in two of his favorite haunts in Havana, was an inspiration. I have a long fondness for rum (the essential ingredient for both drinks), and one of my hobbies is putting together craft cocktails. And since no one knew either Havana or rum like Ernest Hemingway… well, I knew that as soon as I had some downtime, I was going to hit the cobblestone streets of Old Havana, find Papa Hemingway’s favorite rum joints, and experience them for myself.

* * *

First a quick word about rum itself. Rum is the Caribbean, and has been for a long, long time. The drink comes from sugarcane… and more specifically the waste products that comes from producing refined sugar. When the cane is harvested, it is crushed to yield a sweet, sticky juice; the juice is boiled, then crystallized, to concentrate and separate what will become the raw sugar. After all this, what’s left over is molasses.

For years, no one knew what to do with molasses—a gooey, “industrial waste” that was accumulating at an ever-increasing rate. At some point, however, someone came up with an idea. The molasses could be diluted and fermented in a process that converts it into a liquid called the mash. This mash, in turn, could then be distilled into alcohol: rum.

The original rum was cheap and unrefined, a strictly low-brow concoction that was little more than fire-water—the perfect brew for pirates and scoundrels. But gradually, people began to see rum’s potential. Innovators started experimenting with such things as maturing the liquid in oak barrels, or adding flavorings to make it more palatable. Gradually the drink became more socially acceptable, and started to become big business.

By the nineteenth century, Cuba became the world’s leading exporters of sugar, and along with it, rum. An 1827 survey counted 300 distilleries in the country. Then, in 1862, a wine merchant in the town of Santiago named Don Facundo Bacardi y Maso began making the rum that would make Cuba famous. In the wake of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba’s various rum facilities were nationalized (Bacardi was forced to start anew in Puerto Rico), and the wide diversity of styles became somewhat blurred. Even so, Cuba still produces some of the world’s most respected brands of rum, which have little in common with the harsh drink enjoyed by sixteenth-century pirates and renegades.

And it remains an astonishingly good bargain—a bottle of rum aged 3 years costs $5, about a quarter of the cost in the United States.

* * *

IMGP5686My quest to track down Papa Hemingway’s favorite bars began well. My cab driver, as it turns out, was quite a musician, and delighted to hear that I was in Havana with the Minnesota Orchestra. We actually got into a lively discussion about Beethoven. It was an intriguing conversation I would have liked to pursue further, but it was cut short when I arrived at my first stop, El Floridita.

El Floridita has a grand history. Originally founded as La Piña de Plata in 1817, it sits at the end of Havana’s famed Calle Obispo, just at the edge of Old Havana. It changed its name to El Floridita in the early twentieth century, and by the 1950s it was named as one of the world’s great bars by Esquire magazine.

The restaurant’s fame is built on a single drink: the daiquiri. Originally a mixture of rum, sugar, lime juice and water, it was further refined in 1918 by El Floridita’s legendary bartender, Constantino Ribalaigua, who experimented by adding shaved ice, using fruit juices, and changing the amount of sweetener.

The hard-drinking Hemingway found his way to El Floridita in the 1930s, and for the better part of 10 years it was one of his favorite spots in the city. He was such an honored guest that a booth was reserved for him, although he reputedly preferred to stand—when he needed to sit, he knew he was done.

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Constantino came up with a unique daiquiri for Hemingway. When the author first sampled Constantino’s concoction, he reputedly said, “Pretty good, but I prefer it without sugar and twice the rum.” The bartender tried again and it was a hit… and thus, the “Papa Doble” was born.

This was the drink Hemingway had in mind when he wrote in Islands in the Stream:

He was drinking another of the frozen daiquiris with no sugar in it, and as he lifted it, heavy and the glass frost-rimmed, he looked at the clear part below the frapped top, and it reminded him of the sea. The frapped part of the drink was like the wake of a ship, and the clear part was the way the water looked when the bow cut it when you were in shallow water over a marl bottom.

Later, bartender Antonio Meilán added Maraschino liquor to the mix and balanced the lime with grapefruit, creating the definitive Hemingway Daiquiri. While I shake my version over ice rather than blend it, I make a pretty good Hemingway Daiquiri myself.

Nowadays, El Floridita’s creates its daiquiris with an electric blender instead of shaved ice, but little else has changed over the years. Havana Club rum is the spirit of choice, and the drinks are made in brisk fashion. Crisply done, with an elegance of presentation that I can readily admire. This must have felt like the embodiment of elegance back in the 1940s.

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But what makes the experience is the ambiance. Overall El Floridita is a scene of faded elegance and sophistication, swimming in memories. Its neoclassical Art Deco style shows a bit of wear, but it would still be immediately recognizable to Papa Hemmingway today.

Well… except for the hordes of Hemingway-inspired tourists.

My arrival coincided with the arrival of a substantial tour, whose members flooded the room and began lining up to take pictures of all the various Hemingway paraphernalia, including the bronze statue of the author at the end of the bar. When I could, I made my exit to search out the next spot: La Bodeguita del Medio.

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La Bodeguita occupies a former carriage house in the heart of Old Havana. It’s a rustic bar that opens onto the street, with a small dining room tucked behind it that serves Cuban comfort food. If Floridita is faded elegance, La Bodeguita is funky—the walls are covered with old graffiti and framed memorabilia from the glitterati who have visited. Patrons often add their own signatures and messages to the mix… so much so that the owners report that they have to repaint the walls regularly.

Here, the mojito is king. In fact, the bartenders will preemptively make one for you the minute they see you come in, assuming (rightly) it won’t go to waste if you don’t.

For a place with such a laid-back vibe, there was a ruthless efficiency for how the drinks were made. The bartender lined up the glasses with lime and muddled mint, and then zipped down the line with Havana Club rum, soda water and finally ice.

All in all, my visit there was a blast. A live band crammed into the corner added to the feel of the place, as did the gentle hum of the ceiling fans. For some reason, this felt more authentically like the kind of place Hemingway would hang out than Floridita.  Heck, right there and then it felt the embodiment of all Cuba.

Again, my thoughts were interrupted by a group of tourists who seemed to be more interested in a photo stop than a classic cocktail (even one bathed in history), and I was happy to give up my chair.

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As I reflect on this experience, the bar hound and literary junkie in me are absolutely delighted… I feel like I had a real experience, even though my time at both places was brief. I think anyone who loves Hemingway would love to stop by and take in the ambiance in either place; in their own ways, both reveal a bit about Papa’s character.

I am, however, a bit melancholy. My fear is that these two world famous bars are on the cusp of becoming tourist attractions entirely for their historical connections, instead of the quality of their libations. What will happen to the quality of the drinks if both places are overrun by tourists more interested in taking their picture with the Hemingway statue than actually drinking their cocktail? It’s no different than from any “it” restaurant that decides the tourists are so concerned about the name recognition that they won’t care about the food.

I’d hate to see these bits of culture lost.  For me, what made my bar-hopping tour so enjoyable was that I was able to savor the experience as a whole… of slowing for a moment, enjoying the ambiance, and letting the experience wash over me.

But let’s not get carried away. Right now, both bars, so very different from each other, provide a wonderful link to Havana’s past, and allow visitors to touch that living history in a real, tangible way.

And for that, I raise a glass and say, ¡salud!

Xochipilli

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on Cuba: Running Down Hemingway’s Cocktails

  1. Rum is my favorite spirit, too. The daiquiri & mojito are 2 of my favorite drinks-I had my first mojito 15 years ago in Miami International Airport of all places (mixed by a Cuban bartender), but what an awakening! I’ve had a very hard time finding another mojito that tastes like that first one did… Gracias y salud, Scott!

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