The Daiquiri, the Mojito and El Presidente are among the classic cocktails that call Cuba home. But another drink—one sipped everywhere from Havana to Helsinki—also has an identity that’s indelibly bound with the island: the Cuba Libre.
A simple highball comprised of rum (traditionally Cuban), cola and lime (as garnish, or squeezed into the drink, or both), the Cuba Libre has a past that stretches back more than a century, according to cocktail historians Anistatia Miller and Jared Brown, who detail the drink’s past in their 2012 book Cuban Cocktails. Miller says it’s important to remember that there’s a thin, green line that distinguishes a Cuba Libre from the more familiar Rum & Coke. “The Rum and Coke doesn’t specify the lime garnish (and frequently a squeeze of lime) that goes into a Cuba Libre,” she says.
But how did a simple combo come to earn such a notable name? Miller and Brown note the Cuba Libre name (and expression) originated in the mid-19th century, when Cubans adopted the “Free Cuba” cause during the struggle for independence from Spain. During the Ten Years War from 1868-1878, fighters sipped a drink dubbed Cuba Libre, purportedly a mix of honey or possibly molasses and water, though Miller notes that aguardiente (a generic name for spirits such as rum) was likely a part of the equation.
The term came into heavier circulation two decades later, when “Cuba Libre!” was appropriated as a call to arms in the buildup to the Spanish-American War, and in 1898, a U.S. Army camp in Jacksonville, Florida was dubbed “Camp Cuba Libre” while staging operations during the island invasion. American soldiers and businesses flooded into Cuba after Spain capitulated, and one of those businesses was the then-new Coca-Cola, which began sending its cola syrup to Cuba beginning in 1902. At the time, American drinkers were already adept at mixing highballs of all stripes, including Coca-Cola doctored with a dose of spirits, and in 1928, Basil Woon made the connection clear in When It’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, noting the availability of the Cuba Libre at the American Club in Havana.
The drink’s sailed under other flags over the decades—in addition to the more pedestrian “Rum & Coke,” it also briefly traveled as the Carioca Cooler in advertisements from the Puerto Rico Distilling Company in the 1930s—and in Cuba today, it’s typically prepared with the island-made tuKola in place of American brands. But regardless of the name you choose, when mixed with a crisp, Cuban rum and a spark of lime to cut through cola’s sweetness, the Cuba Libre remains a highball mainstay.