Feature: Cuba Libre, cocktail with a dash of history

by Raul Menchaca

HAVANA, Sept. 9 (Xinhua) -- One of the world's most popular cocktails, the Cuba Libre calls for one part rum, two parts cola and a generous dash of history.

Better known to English speakers as a rum and coke, the drink traces its origin back to a crucial episode in Cuba's history, the 1898 Spanish-American War, in which U.S. soldiers helped Cuba fight for its independence from Spain.

As Cubans tell the story, in the festive aftermath of the Spanish surrender, an American officer mixed a bit of the island's famed rum with Coca Cola and as a toast, said "Por Cuba libre," or "Here's to a free Cuba."

Sticklers for detail point out that the origin story of the legendary cocktail predates the actual arrival of Coca-Cola in Cuba, which wasn't until 1900.

According to some, Cuba already had a rum cocktail called a Cuba Libre even before the island's first attempt at gaining independence, known as the Ten Year War (1868-1878) or the Great War, and it looked a lot like the U.S.-influenced version, though instead of cola it contained honey.

"Cuban and Spanish historians agree the (Cuban) rebels had a drink with the same name long before the Great War, but it was made with honey, water, rum and lime. But the fact is that the mixture of rum and cola prevailed as the Cuba Libre known today worldwide," bartender Arlena Garcia, 19, told Xinhua.

The cocktail gained fans beyond Cuba in the 1940s, as World War II saw rum and coke-drinking U.S. servicemen posted abroad. The drink's popularity was even reflected in the music of the time, with famous American singing trio The Andrews Sisters recording the calypso-rhythm "Rum and Coca Cola."

Though some recipes for Cuba Libre play down the lime juice, calling for a wedge of lime instead of a squeeze, a few drops of lime are essential, according to Garcia, who last year won a contest of women bartenders in Cuba.

"The Cuba Libre includes lime juice, and therefore it should not be confused with simply mixing rum and cola," she said.

The Cuba Libre, along with the Mojito and Daiquiri, is among Cuba's best-known cocktails, which is why it starred at the recent 22nd Pan-American Bartenders Championship in Havana.

A group of Cuban bartenders mixed the world's largest Cuba Libre, a gargantuan 540-liter cocktail blended in a huge glass placed in the lobby of the Habana Libre Hotel, host of the regional competition.

Sergio Serrano, bar manager at the Habana Libre and winner of the Bartenders World Championship in 2003, noted the late revolutionary leader Fidel Castro installed his headquarters here during the first days after the triumph of the 1959 Revolution.

That's why "this is truly a Cuba Libre," he said, referring to the giant cocktail.

A group of bartenders led by the president of the International Bartenders Association (IBA), Spanish-born Pepe Dioni, participated in the preparation of the cocktail, which required 144 bottles of Havana Club rum.

Preparing the cocktail took about 30 minutes and involved bartenders from the United States, Uruguay, the Dominican Republic and Spain, among other participants in the Pan-American championship, which drew competitors from 16 countries.

A unique moment was the presence and participation of Cristobal Martinez, 94, who is the oldest member of the Cuban Association of Bartenders, which he joined in 1947.

The massive drink was distributed to the public free of charge.

Havana resident Adrian Alvarez tried it and said, "this is the first time I have tasted it and I really liked it."

The Cuba Libre goes by different names in different countries. In Spain it is called a Cubata while in Chile it is a Roncola. In Mexico it is simply known as a "Cuba."

Cuba, a member of the IBA since 2002, has a long tradition of bartending, since it was the first country in the world to organize a club for these professionals on June 27, 1924.

"Cuba Libre ... is a cocktail to enjoy all night long while conversing and having fun with friends. It is a piece of Cuban history and of the Caribbean breeze served in a glass," Garcia said.

[ Editor: WPY ]


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