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How to Find the Perfect Cocktail in Cuba – Or Make Your Own

A cantinero, or professional Cuban bartender, makes mojitos at La Bodeguito del Medio in Havana, Cuba. Photo by Geoffrey Baer.

How to Find the Perfect Cocktail in Cuba — Or Make Your Own

Some classic Cuban cocktails — such as daiquiris and piña coladas — have become mainstays of American mixology, due in part to the popularity of Cuba as a destination for Americans during the Prohibition era, when they came to Cuba by the scores to legally imbibe amid the palm trees and mambo.

We asked professional Cuban bartenders, or cantineros, to share their favorite recipes for some classic Cuban cocktails — as well as some new takes on the classics — so that we might enjoy the tastes of Havana wherever we are.

The Classic Mojito

Photo by Brian Canelles.

The cleanest, most refreshing Cuban cooler is, hands down, the mojito. During Hemingway’s time in Havana, he reportedly enjoyed his at La Bodeguita del Medio, where cantineros are said to have been the first to muddle mint into the cocktail. Some Havana restaurants, including Dona Eutimia’s, off Plaza Catedral, serve a frappé version, another delicious way to beat the Havana heat.

  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • Juice of one half of a lime
  • 2 sprigs mint
  • 1 shot white rum
  • 2 shots sparkling water

Mix the sugar and lime juice, then muddle the mint into the mixture. Mix in the rum. Add ice and sparkling water.

Cuba Libre

The origin of the Cuba Libre is said to date back to the Spanish-American War: American soldiers brought Coca-Cola to Cuba, their Cuban friends ostensibly brought the rum to the party, and they all toasted a free Cuba, or Cuba Libre. The name — and the combination — stuck. And the rest is history.

  • 1 part white rum
  • 3 parts Coca-Cola

Add a slice of lime and serve over ice.

Photo courtesy Flickr / slgckgc.

The Classic Daiquiri

Photo by Brian Canelles.

The classic daiquiri, popularized by cantineros at El Floridita and championed by Ernest Hemingway, is clean and fruity but not too sweet.

  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • Juice of one half of a lime
  • 1/3 shot maraschino liqueur
  • 1 1/2 shots of rum
  • Ice

Blend and serve.

Tamarind Daiquiri

Variations on the classic daiquiri can be created by adding seasonal fruits. At El Cocinero in Havana’s trendy Vedado neighborhood, bartenders have created a tart and fruity version with their house-made tamarind juice.

  • Dash lime juice
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 tablespoons tamarind (boil the pulp to make the thick juice)
  • Generous shot rum

Blend and add a sprig of mint.

Photo by Brian Canelles.

Coral Dream

Photo by Brian Canelles.

The bartenders at El Cocinero have also concocted this twist on the classic daiquiri, which looks like an adult snow cone when topped with a shot of orange soda.

  • 1 shot white rum
  • 1 tablespoon curacao
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 1 tablespoon lime juice
  • 1 cup ice

Blend and top with a shot of orange soda.

Coctel Vigía

Ernest Hemingway loved Cuba — and he loved a good cocktail. And so, it only makes sense that there would be a small bar at Finca Vigía, his longtime home-turned-museum. It’s simple, like all of the drinks he reportedly loved, and the ingredients — sugar cane juice, lime juice, and pineapple juice — are all squeezed on site, moments before being poured for thirsty visitors. Grab a drink and stroll the grounds, imagining that Hemingway will be joining you any minute.

The proportions vary, but it contains approximately:

  • 1 shot sugar cane juice (or look for guarapo de caña in a Latin American supermarket)
  • 1/2 shot lime juice
  • 1 shot pineapple juice
  • Generous shot rum

Photo by Brian Canelles.

Cuban Manhattan

Photo by Brian Canelles.

The key here is to use a smooth, aged Cuban rum. Cantinero Alejandro Muñoz at El Cocinero prefers Havana Club Selección de Maestros, although several locals tell us they prefer to sip Santiago de Cuba Añejo.

Put ice in a glass to chill. Mix in a shaker with ice:

  • 1/4 shot sweet vermouth
  • 3–5 drops of bitters
  • Generous shot aged añejo rum

Discard the ice from the glass. Shake and strain the drink into the empty chilled glass. Flame an orange peel above the drink by twisting and squeezing the peel just above a lit match to caramelize some of its oils. Finally, drop the peel in the glass.

Piña Colada

The piña coladas found in Cuba are slightly fresher than their American counterparts, as Cubans use crushed fresh pineapple and substitute coconut milk for the coconut cream.

  • 1 shot coconut milk
  • 2 shots crushed pineapple with juice
  • Juice of one half of a lime
  • Generous shot rum

Add some ice and blend. To finish it off, dust it with a bit of fresh cinnamon.

Photo by Geoffrey Baer.