When it come to iconic imagery from a nation few can beat Cuba, they got scenery, revolutions, Mafiosa ties, old cars and lots of drinks. There’s a lot of iconic things about this island country, but Cuban drinks are personally what stands out for me.
To read about May Day in Cuba click here
A background to Cuban drinks
Cuba was a Spanish and then a pseudo-American colony that produced a lot of sugar. Where there is Sugar there is rum and this was where Bacardi was born. From here one might argue that Cuba was at forefront of inventing ocktails, with the Cuba Libre – AKA Rum and Coke and later interventions by a certain Ernest Hemingway giving rise the Daiquiri.
And then of course you have indigenous Cuban rum, great fruit juices and of course the modern middle-class and the new hipster bar-scan of Havana and beyond. When it comes to Cuban drinks there truly is a whole world to explore out there…..
Contemporary Cuba and the drinks scene
I personally first visited Cuba in 2004 and in the last 17 years have seen a lot of changes. Back then drinks were limited, technically you could still get a cocktail, but the reality was different. I remember going into a place in Santiago De Cuba, the most prestigious place in town no less and ordering a Cuba Libre. I was thus told “no Coke”, then “no ice”, then “no lime”. I had a straight rum.
Since the opening up of the economy though the supply runs now are less dry and there is a hip and happening bar scene, particularly for the wealthy Habanero’s!
Cuban drinks – There is more than meets the eye!
As with all of our national drinks pieces we will look at different sectors of the Cuban drinks scene, including soft-drinks, rather than just list cocktails. We will also deal wit Cuban beer, BUT this is Cuba, so Cuban cocktails will certainly be a large part of the list.
Aside from this Cuba is also one of the most self-sufficient places on earth, mostly due to the blockade, but also by it socialist nature. You will therefore find a couple of interesting curveballs in the domestic Cuban drinks scene, all of which we will take a little look at today.
So, lets start with Cuban cocktails. Cuban cocktails are predominantly rum based, as this is very much a rum drinking nation. The range is not as eclectic as many people might think, but the cocktails Cuba has are damned good and mostly moulded by the items available in the country. This means there really is a simplicity to many of the cocktails – which is what makes them so good.
The Cuba Libre
Literally “free Cuba”, came about in the days of Spanish colonialism, with the freedom being sight from Spain, rather than the US. Originally a Bacardi WHITE RUM and coke. Nowadays it is a Havana Club white, with Cola. It is not just any rum and coke, and certainly not dark rum.
Generally speaking a dark 3 year old Havana Club, or 7 year old with coke. This differentiates it from a Cuba Libre. Adding of lime is a must in both cases. The kind of drink that goes great with a Cuban cigar.
My least favorite of the bunch, essentially it is Bloody Mary, but you swap vodka for white rum. Sadly lag of ingredients means you are lucky to find Worcestershire Sauce and Tabasco, still it helps with the inevitable Cuban hangover.
The perfect Hemingway invention – shaved ice and, lime sugar and rum. This has turned into a blended frozen drink over time and can include anything from Mango to Jager. I actually feel I invented the Jager Daiquiri in Vietnam. Forget the Hemingway Bar, far too touristy and instead head to the Hotel Nacionale, still touristy, but with the wonderful gardens they have a great day out.
Can you talk about Cuban drinks without bringing up the Mojito? Another drink that has been gentrified, hipsterfied and dare I say bastardized over the years. This drink is Cuban white rum, mashed mint leaves and Cuban sparkling water/Club Soda. There are variations of the classic, but most are made badly. Point very much made.
Daiquiri and Beer
I cannot remember where I got this drink, but the photo says it all. The tiger beer seeps in as you drink the rum and juice. An eclectic mix, but brilliant – try it if you get the chance. I am sure this bar was somewhere in the old town.
Other Cuban cocktails
One could literally go on when it come stop Cuban cocktails, but these really are the mainstays – although if you hit the new hipster bars of the capital you will see people trying many over variations, often utilizing the fruit of that region.
In Trinidad for example the go to is the Canchanchara, which has been made since the 19th century and consist of honey, lime, sparkling Cuban water and lots of ice. A real refusing one when you are doing the rounds in this colonial city.
Another section of Cuban drinks that needs more than just a cursory glance! There area couple of decent Cuban beers, most notably Crystal that get exported and are well known, but then in very communist style there is Cuban draft beer that costs just a few cents, might give you the runs, but is cheap at least. I do like a state run draft beer bar!
To read about North Korean beer click here.
Most well-known beer
When it comes to Cuban drinks and Cuban drinking you will see Cristal as the main weapon of choice for people. A light-pilsner it is also exported and you will see it everywhere from the Cayman Islands to Canada. Of course these means from a Cuban point of view it one of the more expensive beers too, so not what your average peso drinker has.
Cuban Beers – Bucanero
Not the most famous, nor most popular, but for any regular visitors to the island this is the beer to drink. A little more bitter and more importantly stronger at 5.4%.Still refreshing on a hot-say, but wary of the Buccanero hangover!
Cuban Beer – Mayabe
The cheaper of the Cuban beers and popular in the state-run stores and restaurants. Only 4%, but with it being cheaper is a popular accompaniment to buying a “carton” of rum when you go drinking on the Malecon – a must when visiting Cuba.
Cuban street draft beer – Tinima
Throughout Cuban you will see little state run bars selling draft beer. I discovered the in Matanzas. I order a glass gave a dollar and got 90 cents back. I thus carried on to drink 10! Some places charge foreigners up to 50 cents, but still the cheapest way to drink in beer in the country.
This was perfect when I did my living on a dollar a day challenge in Cuba, which you can read about here.
Drank by itself, mixed with coke, with fruit juice, as part of a cocktail, or even from what looks like a juice carton, rum is THE Cuban drink.
Havana Club Rum
They do white, yellow, 3 year, 5 year, 7 year and the premium 15 year old, as well even more expensive bends such as San Christobal. You can visit the museum and drink lots in Havana. My personally tipple is the 7 year old on ice with a coke chaser, or if I can stretch to $10-15 a glass the San Christobal. Havana Club took over from Bacardi when they vacated the island, so this is arguably THE original rum.
Santiago De Cuba Rum
The second most prestigious of the rums, they again offer a fine range of different ages versions. More popular when you head to the east of the country, but also available throughout the land.
I have not found this online, nor since my first trip to Cuba. Another fine rum from the east of the country, cheaper than the other two, with me managing to pick up a 15 year vintage almost 20 years ago for under $20. If you find this, then buy this.
Tumbao Silver Rum – AKA Rum Cartons
A small carton of silver rum that costs pennies. This is not great, nor that bad a rum. You buy this when you head to the Malecon and you drink it is nature intended, by the carton! Very much the Cuban way and you will often see Cubans sneak it into more expensive bars.
Literally “fire-water” and not technically a rum, but a super strength liquor made from the left-over bits of rum. Not for the faint hearted and can literally be fixed with nothing. You simply have to man up and drink the bad boy!
With this being Cuba we could talk about Cuban rum all day, but this will do for now as we have barely scratched the barrel! There are also things like coconut rum, local variants and even thousands of dollar exports. The Cuban drink world of rum is no small affair.
Lest do some quick myth-busting, you CAN get Coca-Cola in Cuba, although that was obviously not always the case, or at least not officially. This has meant Cuba have long made their own Cola.
Cuban Drinks – TuCola
A joint-venture with a company from Brazil TuCola is actually one of the best colas on the planet. The company also made a version of sprite and some fruitful sodas, such as Pineapple. The TuDrink range is pretty good, cheap and awesome. Therefore a true Cuba Libre has TuCola, not coke.
To read about North Korean coke click here (link to Visit the DPRK).
I had this drink once when I was in Cuba, but since then cannot find it, nor even find reference to it. It is almost like I made it up, but I swear I did not. Thankfully a Cuban based friend of mine was able to locate it for me, and goes by the name of Irn-Beer, or Iron Beer, a definite homage to the original Irn-Bru. Yes this is Cuban Irn-Bru and it is blood good.
To read about Colombiana click here.
Cuban Fruit Juice
If you are shopping on a budget then Cuban fruit-juice is where its at! Of course if you go to fancy restaurant these can cost lots of money, but on the street, back in the old peso days a glass could cost as little as 10 cents. Guava, Tamarind, Coconut, to name but a few.
OK, so Cuba is not exactly famous for win, but in the slightly more temperate region of Vinales there is indeed a wine-growing industry. The wines are not earth shattering, but are decent enough. Mains specialities being dry whites. You can also visit vineyards in the region, perfect for a trip to Cuba.
To read about independent tours to Cuba click here
Cuban Liquor and liquors
These Cuban drinks could get their own entries each, but I have decided to bunk them together for fear of this turning into the length of an academic paper. Cuba made their own vodkas, gins, triple-sec and all manor of liquors to suit the local cocktail needs. Cuba has suffered from some of the craziest sanctions any other country has been on, bar perhaps North Korea. Thus has though meant that Cuba has done its own thing and to an extent prospered. Is Cuban vodka any good? No it is not, but that is not the main point here.
And last, but by no means least Cuban Water
Cubans like a drink, but for Cuban drinks of course you have to include water. Can you drink Cuban tap-water? It depends on the region, but I have personally drank it whilst living there, or at least used it for cooking no issues.
Cuba though do make their own bottled water with the main brand being Ciego Montero. It should also be noted that these fine chaps also make Ciego Montego sparkling water, which is far superior to a Club Soda and is what is ned in lieu of it in most cocktails!
And that is the Street Food Guy’s very in-depth look at Cuban drinks! I have spent 18 years visiting Cuba, have lived here and have loved here, there’s been good times and bad, but I have certainly never gone thirsty here.