The Cuba Libre cocktail isn’t just a rum and Coke with lime, it has a fascinating story.
In Canada, I don’t drink rum often, but in Latin America it’s a different story. There’s something about the Cuba Libre cocktail that transports me back to such good memories.
I’ve never been to Cuba (edit: that changed two months after writing this) but rum in Latin America is different. In Nicaragua we drank it straight or with a bit of water. It wasn’t harsh and just sweet enough.
A Classic Cuba Libre
But the best way to drink it is with lime. It seems like such a small detail but it brings back such great memories of sunny days and humid nights. It wasn’t a time I felt carefree at all, instead I was so focused on figuring out what I should do with my life.
Eventually I learned that I didn’t need to figure out what to do, I was already living life and that was enough.
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Anyone who has traveled south knows the Cuba Libre cocktail it as rum and Coke. But it’s not as simple as that. Because I hate the traditional sweet-on-sweet rum and Coke cocktail, but somehow I love Cuba Libres when traveling. It’s for two reasons:
1) Sugar is cheap in the Carribbean and Latin America so most soda is made with real sugar instead of corn syrup.
2) Lime is used, not as a garnish but as a flavour to cut the syrupy sweetness of the rum and Coke you’ve known to abhor
The national drink of Cuba celebrates its independence. And that is complicated, and so if you get a good one it’s complex as well. The traditional recipe includes muddling the skin of the lime in the bottom of the glass. With this you get the bitterness of the skin and the aroma.
The Invention of Cuba Libre
The story is a bit complicated and while everyone seems to agree it’s a toast to celebrate a free Cuba, the details are a bit fuzzy. Maybe from too much rum. Rum maker Bacardi lays claim as the original choice of rum but some dates don’t quite add up to the legendary story.
It’s often tied to the Spanish-American War because the literal translation is Free Cuba, which was the battle cry for independence. However, the war happened in 1898 and Coca-Cola wasn’t available in Cuba until American troops introduced it in 1900.
Rum maker Havana Club, doesn’t lay claim to it, only stating it was it was introduced in 1900s in Havana. Others say the Cuba Libre cocktail was invented in 1901 or 1902.
Regardless of the year, it’s generally believed to be a toast to the country’s independence. Perhaps most notable because Americans avoiding prohibition in the United States toasted a free Cuba, in a high ball glass of rum and Coke.
Why Mix Rum and Coke?
The popularity of this drink in America is actually quite simple. Both were cheap.
After the second World War, American distillers were low on product as they had forfeited production space to the war effort. Caribbean spirits were cheap, especially Caribbean rum, which increased 400%. Interestingly, these countries also capitalized by producing gin and vodka from sugarcane to meet American spirits demand.
The war also created sugar rations; however Coca-Cola was exempt. So while it was difficult to find ginger ale and other colas needed for cocktails, Coca-Cola was cheap and plentiful.
Cuba Libre Cocktail Variations
The Cuba Campechana is rum mixed with an equal amount of half soda and half Coke.
Cuba Light uses rum and diet Coke.
Cuban Missile Crisis is the same recipe as a Cuba Libre cocktail but uses a higher proof rum.
Cuba Pintada or “stained Cuba” uses twice as much soda to rum and just a tiny bit of Coke so that it is stained.
Cuba Libre Preparado in Venezuela uses less Coke, a bit of gin and Angostura bitters
Hot Cuba Libre adds a dash of hot sauce and is popular in the West Indies.
Midas substitutes cream soda for Coke and spiced rum for regular rum. It’s called Mias because it’s bright gold.
Nica Libre uses Flor de Caña Nicaraguan rum.
Santo Libre in the Dominican Republic uses local rum and Sprite.
Witch Doctor substitutes the Coke with Dr. Pepper.
Where to Drink a Cuba Libre in Cuba?
Due to the American embargo on Cuba, Coca-Cola is banned in Cuba. However, you can find the Mexican version in Cuba. And that is a good thing. Over the years American Coca-Cola started using corn syrup instead of sugar in its products, which just doesn’t taste as good.
Cuba Libre Cocktail Recipe
The official recipe uses a highball or tom collins glass. I prefer a shorter glass using the same amount of lime to make the cocktail less sweet from the Coca-Cola.
Also this recipe really needs fresh lime as you want the aroma and bitterness from the peel. This is not the time to use the juice from the plastic lime or lime syrup.
Love the Cuba Libre cocktail? Let me know where you last had it in the comments below.
Images of Havana (c) Pedro Szekely
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