A Bartender In Cuba – A Cocktail Pilgrimage
theloft - 4th Jul, 2012
Marko Farac from theloft shares with us his experiences from his recent trip to Cuba!
I recently came across some wonderfully honest and beautiful video scenes from Old Havana, which made me feel like I was back there again. It captured what a visit to the city is all about. The main thing to see there is everyday living as is — the resourcefulness and creative solutions, lots of people spending time observing the same things they see every day, the prominent mellowness and seriousness that ‘it is what it is’ but can also belie spirited living, the unique characters that isolation develops… some of the things that make it impossible to compare Cuba with anywhere else, the elements of Cuba that make it so strange and so enticing.
Having 4 days to kill from a trip to Guatemala to the Ron Zacapa (rum) distillery in early February with other fellow bartenders Tim Phillips and Luke Redington, I had the chance to embark on my own little adventure in the Caribbean. Where else but Cuba! It is a melting pot of cultures, especially Spanish and African. In addition to the natural beauty, many tourists come here to immerse themselves in an experience straight out of the 1940s and 50s. Considering that the embargo set in the early 50s has created this narcissistic approach to their separation from the United States, it’s funny to observe the irony in how much of Cuban living is surrounded by American developments.
Scavenging foreign travel websites all written in Spanish I knew that getting there was going to be a problem. After eventually finding an appropriate means of travel, I was able to pinpoint my destination: Havana, home of the Mojito and the famous Daiquiri. A city that is as beautiful as it is dangerous, but behind its rugged exterior lies a foundation of picturesque seascapes and vintage culture that has shaped this city into a tourist haven.
As many an enthusiast of rum cocktails has journeyed around this tropical playground searching for understanding of this ambrosial beverage, so too must I indulge in my own bartender’s pilgrimage.
Leaving Guatemala at an ungodly hour in the morning, I headed to Guatemala City from Antigua to find out whilst boarding to Costa Rica, that I needed a Cuban VISA. From a week of solid Ron Zacapa binge drinking, my pretenseless thinking escaped me for the most part. Touching down in Costa Rica for a brief stop off I was lucky enough to purchase a Cuban VISA at a small ticket booth prior to boarding for a bargain price of $US 15!
With my stress levels back to a reasonable level I set off to Havana. Dressed to kill, I landed on the tarmac and like a boss I headed to the arrival terminal. Greeted by a small Cuban fella, whose name escapes me, I had to go to the nearest ATM to withdraw some funds (there’s a point to this story). Whilst trying to piece together what little Spanish I knew and trying to understand what he was blurting out I was getting my green to find that my Credit card did not eject from the machine.
Realising that I had withdrawn money from 3 different ATMs in 3 different countries on the same day, I came to apprehend that I made yet another boo-boo. So it was safe to say that the ATM had a nice little Australian NAB breakfast or desayuna in the local language (yep, I learnt something).
Luckily I had 200 Peso’s (equivalent to $US 200) on me to last the trip. Rushing to my accommodation I explained the situation to the host who then gave me a brief run-down of the town and where to go.
So where was I?
Oh yes… Rum
First day of exploring was one for the books as not only was I alone, with bugger all money on me, but I soon came to grasp that Cubans will try almost ANYTHING to get every peso from you.
Strolling down the Malecon my first stop was La Bodeguita del Medio, famous for its mojitos and a watering hole of Ernest Hemmingway. Great cocktail bars have great stories that go with them. La Bodeguita del Medio’s story started way back in 1942 in Havana when a man named Angel Martinez bought a small warehouse in the middle of Empedrado Street and first called it “Casa Martinez”. Initially, the warehouse sold just local produce, but eventually, the editor of a publishing house moved next door. Since the publishing house printed mostly art and literature journals, a number of artists, writers and bohemians began hanging around Empedrado Street.
Martinez then brought on the opportunity to feed them Creole food like minced pork, beef jerky, black beans, rice and beer. This is how La Bodeguita went from being a store to a restaurant and bar, and in 1950, the name was changed to La Bodeguita del Medio, which roughly translates to “The Warehouse in the Middle”.
After indulging on numerous Mojito’s and chatting to the bar staff (who all spoke reasonably good English), I headed back to call it a day.
Upon waking up to the Cuban sun, I quickly made my way to El Floridita, the ‘cradle’ of the Daiquiri. The bar itself was classically built and left as it was when it was erected in 1817. Originally, the restaurant and bar was named “La Pina de Plata” or, The Silver Pineapple but after an influx of North American tourists came to visit, they persuaded the owner to change the name to “El Floridita”.
Like many other bars, Hemmingway made this bar even more famous after drinking daiquiris there regularly.
Serving Daiquiri’s by the bucket load, Floridita was jam-packed for every minute that it was open. Along with the incursion of tourists to the venue, the room was filled with Cuban musicians and lovers of this benevolent cocktail.
Randomly meeting up with a few Australians, we tackled one of the many cigar-packing factories within Havana. No Cuban trip is complete without going to one of these, as it is one of the few establishments where you pay a small fee to get to the crux of their developments and it was truly amazing operation.
Now that I have had time to reflect, I can attest that this was one of the most vivid and exciting journeys of my life. Cuba lived up to my idealized version of the country, from strolling through the backstreets of Old Havana to stumbling into old bohemian hangouts, my time in Cuba was gone as quickly as it came. And to top it all off, I still had a few peso’s for a Mojito or two.