HAVANA, Cuba — Hurtling down the rutted roads of Cuba in a lime green 1957 Ford Fairlane in search of the perfect daiquiri seems a little bizarre, if not completely nuts.
But, hey, there we were in an oil-burning, gurgling hulk of a pre-Revolution U.S.-made clunker with “millions” of miles on it travelling for two hours on the bone-shaking roads from Varadero to Havana where, rumour had it, the world’s best daiquiri is created hundreds of times daily at a bustling little bar called the Floridita.
(Note: This piece was originally published in Quench Magazine)
Let’s not even discuss the fact that our Spanish-speaking driver and English-speaking guide who picked us up at the entrance to our resort weren’t actually the ones our concierge hired for us. No, these two pretenders were part of a vast empire of clever grifters in Cuba who have mastered the fine art of deception to otherwise separate you from your pesos. But let’s not go there. Turns out they were nice people, delivered a service (maybe not quite the service we wanted) and got us to the Floridita and back in one piece. We didn’t even know we were duped until we returned to the resort.
We had made it our mission to break away from the “all-inclusive” resort routine and breathe some authentic Cuban life into our vacation for at least one day. The daily program at most Caribbean resorts is pretty simple: Sun, sand, pool, mediocre meals three times a day at a range of themed restaurants and all the booze you can handle. You lack for nothing, yet yearn for so much more.
I kept a diary of the alcohol consumed during the vacation (I don’t recommend doing this) and it quickly became obvious that some drinks had to be eliminated from the daily regime.
• Cuba libre (cola, lime, white rum, ice cubes)
• Margarita (tequila, triple sec, lime, crushed ice)
• Daiquiri (rum, citrus juice, sugar, crushed ice)
• Brandy (served with a Cohiba Robusto cigar)
• Cristal (Cuban beer)
• Sparkling wine (from Spain)
• Havana Club 7-year-old dark rum (served neat with a Monte Cristo #5)
By day two, the drinks served with crushed ice had been eliminated, which makes sense. Undoubtedly you have heard of Montezuma and his cruel revenge. It’s all in the local water, so try to exclude it wherever you can (like all forms of ice).
The “house” wines are generally from Spain (not bad, not great), Chile (so-so) and Argentina (a little less so-so). We brought a couple bottles of our own wine, a 1989 Chateau Longueville au Baron de Pichon-Longueville for a special birthday, a Jackson-Triggs Reserve Merlot 2012, and a bottle of Camus Cognac VSOP Elegance.
By the end of our trip my consumption had happily found a comfortable ebb and flow with absolutely no revenge included: Cerveza, aged dark rum (straight up, no ice), a Cognac nightcap and a boatload of Spanish sparkling wine. Life was good, but we longed to find that perfect Cuban cocktail, one that didn’t use raw sugar as the main ingredient.
And that’s how we came to be on a long, pock-marked highway with two professional con artists steering us straight for Havana.
The Floridita — it shines like a beacon at the corner of Obispo and Monserrate Streets in the bustling old part of Havana — opened its doors in 1817 as the Piña de Plata. This is the same bar later made famous by Ernest Hemingway, author of the Old Man and the Sea and so many other beloved classic novels. Tourists and locals alike gather today to experience the magic of the Floridita and drink the famous daiquiris made by the bar’s red-coated “cantineros” who preside over the long, curvaceous, mahogany bar that shows traces of its glorious history dating back 200 years.
It was in 1932 that Hemingway, who was residing at a nearby hotel while finishing his masterpiece For Whom the Bell Tolls, stumbled into the Floridita by accident to use the toilet. As legend goes, when he came out, the daiquiris that the patrons were knocking back looked too good to pass up. He ordered one and declared: “That’s good but I prefer it without sugar and double rum.”
The bartender prepared a special version of the cocktail, with a double shot of white rum, fresh lime juice, grapefruit juice and maraschino, and thus was born the Papa Hemingway. It so impressed the author that he made the Floridita his home bar and was a daily visitor for years to come (he once drank 13 double Papa Hemingways in one sitting), arriving usually by 10 a.m. A life-size bronze statue of Hemingway is perched at the last seat of the bar with photos of the Nobel prize-winning author adorning the walls.
How cool to sip the Papa Hemingway, a jarringly refreshing take on the sweet daiquiri, with lip-smacking citrus fruit and spicy Havana Club rum that melts away the stifling Cuban heat with each generous gulp. It was magical to watch cantinero William create this divine elixir with such care and expertise, as if each daiquiri was the last he would ever mix. We drank ours with profound satisfaction, drinking in the history, savouring the moment as well as the booze and comfortable in the knowledge that such a venue had inspired one of the world’s greatest authors.
Indeed, as the large sign engraved behind the bar declared, we were in The Cradle of the Daiquiri. And it felt so right.
How to make classic Cuban daiquiris
Classic Daiquiri Floridita
- 1.5 oz of light rum
• quarter oz of lime juice
• 1 teaspoon of sugar
• 5 drops of maraschino
• 4 oz of crushed ice
Mix the rum, the lime juice, sugar and the maraschino in a blender with crushed ice and serve iced in a cocktail glass
Papa Hemingway Daiquiri
• 2 oz of white rum
• juice of one half lime
• 2 oz of grapefruit juice
• 1 teaspoon of maraschino
• 1 lime twist
• 4 oz of crushed iced
Mix the ingredients in a blender with crushed ice and serve in tall cocktail glass with a grapefruit garnish