In the heavy humidity of Havana, the mojito is the drink that should always be closest at hand. You quickly get in the habit of throwing back these refreshing cocktails like water; a big shot of white rum, pure cane sugar syrup, a squeeze of lime, and a handful of fresh mint (roots and all) pounded into the bottom of the glass to give this sweet delight an earthy grunt. It’s the fuel that keeps human motors running in Cuba.
In any bar, the waiter places a rum bottle on the table beside your cocktails. It’s your choice to tip in more, if you want to follow their preference for a stronger kick. Such extravagance hardly breaks the bank: a bottle of white rum costs about $2, while Reserva rum (the dark seductress, aged for years in oak barrels) costs about $9 a bottle.
It explains why mojitos are available everywhere, although it’s worth making the pilgrimage to Bodeguita del Medio, the place that Ernest Hemingway declared made the finest mojitos when he lived in Havana in the 1930s. Nothing much about the place has changed, except for the impenetrable layers of graffiti on the bright blue walls, scrawled with the names of revelers from around the world. A barman is feverishly at work preparing long rows of mojitos at a steady pace. Don’t insult him by ordering just one; this is where you settle in for a session.
Hemingway enthusiasts also flock to La Floridita, which invented the frozen daiquiri and now declares itself “la cuna del daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri), but the pink-walled restaurant and bar is largely a tourist trap, fleecing customers more than double the price of the same drink from a street bar.
Better options can be found in unexpected places, such as the 3J Tapas Bar in Vinales, within Cuba’s western tobacco-growing country. This place serves a daiquiri like a fierce rum martini. It exploded within me like a depth charge.
Such pleasure comes at a cost, and I can only say beware of the rum coma, since the following eight hours are lost from my memory. Admittedly, this came largely as a consequence of that day’s seven-hour bus trip across the country, from Trinidad to Vinales. Each passenger had a bottle of rum in their bag, eager to share and make merry, but without much in the way of mixers.
Why not indulge when the spread of white rum cocktails continues to surprise? Pina coladas, which I remember unkindly as sickly sweet concoctions from the 1980s, proved a revelation. Made with freshly-crushed pineapple and coconut milk, they were a gloriously potent shake. Or switch to dark rum for an enticing Cuba Libre, a tall drink on ice with local cola and a squeeze of fresh lime.
In Belize, the rum brand is different, but the cheap price and clean flavor is consistent. My pick of the local brands was Travellers gold rum, reminiscent of the gorgeous Goddards Gold Braid Rum that was imported from Barbados but bottled and marketed by SA liquor merchant G.F. Cleland & Sons, until production was inexplicably stopped in the late 1980s. Tears were shed back then. But sitting on a balcony in hilly San Ignacio with a bottle of Travellers and a bucket of ice brought a big dreamy smile back to my face.
In Guatemala, rum is only made from sugar cane honey rather than molasses, and created as a luxury commodity as well as a common drink. The Botran family is rum royalty, using sugar cane from the family estate in Retalhuleu to make superb rum that is aged in oak barrel soleras. Visitors are discouraged from going to the factory at Quetzaltenango in central Guatemala—there is no tasting room, nor organised tours. It was therefore a surprise to find the lavish La Casa de Ron (House of Rum) in Antigua, a sumptuous tasting room for Botran’s suite of premium rums, including Ron Zacapa, the world’s most expensive rum.
Giant crystal tasting balloons are brought to your table with great pomp and ceremony, encased in a smoke-filled glass dome that is removed extravagantly. It’s almost comical, but don’t laugh. Drinking elite rum here is a serious business. Adding ice raises an eyebrow; adding water draws a frown; adding cola would probably incite aggravation. This is a pure essence, best enjoyed neat, akin to cognac but with a friendlier sweet note among its dark caramels.
If this is all too sedate, you only have to walk two blocks to taste something much wilder. El Barrio is a dangerous place; Graveyard Tattoos is located within its courtyard, circled by five bars. Leering old American guys laugh hysterically with skinny blond European backpackers at one bar, while a young local lay slumped beside the entrance, only an hour after sunset. Within The Whiskey Den, its Irish owner makes more than a dozen of his own rum infusions—with apple, with blueberry, with bamboo, with carrot, with cinnamon, with peach. Not many succeed, but how can you tell if you don’t do the research?
All photos courtesy of David Sly—All Rights Reserved
This post first appeared online at The Adelaide Review