What American Bartenders Can Learn from Cuban Cocktail Culture

havana drinking culture

Alejando Bolivar Rodriguez pouring Daiquiris at El Floridita.

With a long-chilly relationship warming between the United States and Cuba, more Americans are turning their attention to this island neighbor. In recent years, increasing numbers of American bartenders have visited Cuba to learn from Havana’s cantineros, sample Cuban rum and experience cocktail culture in the Daiquiri’s home country—we take a deeper look at the drinking culture in Havana here and also asked a few of these bartenders to share their experiences for Cuba-curious imbibers.

Along with his business partner Sean Muldoon, Jack McGarry recently opened the Cuban-themed BlackTail in New York City. The pair ventured to Havana earlier this year to research rum, Cuban cocktails and Havana’s bar culture. “Cuban bartenders have an overriding sense of hospitality,” says McGarry. “You’re not going to go to Cuba and be blown away by the drinks—but you’ll be blown away by how they take care of people. All bartenders, myself included, need to be reminded of that. Working in a big city, where people are distracted and looking at their phones all the time, you can get quite jaded. But in Cuba it’s not like that; they don’t have the same distractions, so the bartenders focus on delivering a special level of hospitality.”

Miami’s proximity to Cuba and large Cuban-American population gives the city a relationship to Cuba like none other, and John Lermayer from Sweet Liberty in Miami took the educational value of his trip to Cuba seriously. “I don’t think you can begin to study modern American cocktail culture and NOT talk about Cuba,” he says. “I often feel like the Caribbean’s place in cocktail history gets undersold, from the punch history of Barbados to all the essential Cuban drinks. Havana is a museum of essential drinking history—from the Hotel Nacional to El Floridita, you know you’re standing at the same bars as some of the most historic drinkers. Learning the history and the fraternal order of the cantineros gives you a close-up of how integrity and community was brought into bartending. Cuba will also give you detailed insight on how politics and drinking culture affect one another. It’s an absolute must for anyone who geeks out about cocktail history.”

And as proprietor of Cane & Table, a rum-focused bar in New Orleans, Nick Detrich has made multiple visits to Cuba to better understand its rum and cocktail culture. “Cuba has had a long and lasting influence on American bartending, with a great deal of their cocktails creeping into and ultimately dominating a good bit of what was in demand in 20th-century American bars,” says Detrich. “What I found to be most inspiring is the dedication that the cantineros have to their craft, and the respect that visitors and citizens of Cuba have for them. I consider myself very lucky to have been able to learn from these fine people while in Cuba, their approach to technique and hospitality were simultaneously warming and revealing. I also found their technical approach very interesting—it’s not as pedantic as the American approach, especially in regard to rigid ratios and the like, but more concerned with texture and presentation.”

For Audrey Saunders, owner of Pegu Club in New York City, a trip to Cuba opened the doors to exploring the island’s extensive history with rum. “I was given the opportunity to spend an extensive amount of time sampling not only the entire line of Havana Club’s bottlings, but to taste many of their individual basés [the component rums that go into a finished blend] as well,” she says. “I was profoundly moved by the integrity of the entire lineup—each bottling was distinctive and complex, yet elegant all at once, and each had incredible finesse. Because of the continual preserving, re-aging, and blending back of the basés (some of which extend back 100 years), there exists this ‘infinite lineage,’ and this homage to tradition speaks deeply to me. I think the best way to describe them would be as a perfect balance between chemistry and art; the maestros roneros are modern-day alchemists, and their rums clearly express all the pride and passion of Cuba.”

San Francisco bartender H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir, encourages visitors to look at Cuba as a rich cultural experience. “Cuba’s bar culture is full of romance, history, characters, drama and lessons,” he says. “Like a good book that everyone’s talking about, you want to read it because you know it’s going to be rewarding. As a society that has been kept from us, we want to share in what they have, and show them what we have. I had the same experience traveling in Eastern Europe in 1991—you hear about it, but being there and experiencing it is an absolutely memorable experience, especially knowing that it is on the cusp of changing completely and never going back to what it was. We have to help Cuban bars and bartenders retain their sense of place and identity in the wave of changes to come. The people are friendly, inviting and fun, so talk to them (you’ll need to speak Spanish in most cases, and be able to adjust to the Cuban accent). Havana is fascinating and spellbinding with its post-apocalyptic 17th-century Spanish architectural backdrop, so take all of that in. Get to the private paladars [restaurants] for amazing, cheap food and drinks. And of course, talk to your bartenders for some fascinating stories.”

The final word goes to Jeff “Beachbum” Berry, owner of Beachbum Berry’s Latitude 29 in New Orleans; Berry visited Havana while researching his history of tropical drinks, Potions of the Caribbean. “The Hemingway Daiquiri, the Hotel Nacional Cocktail and the Sloppy Joe Special were all invented in Havana … and almost a century later, you can still drink each of them in the bar where they were actually created,” he says. “For a cocktailian, does it get any cooler than that?”