Our month long jaunt into the world of classic Cuban cocktails concludes this week with the most famous yet simplest of them all, the Cuba Libre. Named in honor of Cuba's struggle for independence from Spain, "Cuba libre!" or "free Cuba!" was the battle cry of Cubans seeking freedom from Spanish rule, whose centuries-old grip over its colonial territories was finally beginning to weaken by the late 19th century.
Cubans were finally able to kick out the Spanish in 1898, but they soon realized that the "libre" part of their rallying cry would be deferred, as America moved in and replaced Spain as the new colonial aggressor. It was not until more than half a century later when the Cuban Revolution set out to finish the business of the original Cuban independence movement--that is, to finally obtain the "libre." The timing of today's topic could therefore not be more appropriate, as this past Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the day the first shot was fired in the Cuban Revolution.
The story of the Cuba Libre (the drink, not the aspiration) begins at the turn of the prior century. Although the passage of time has blurred a few details, the consensus is that the drink was first mixed in Cuba in 1900, when an American stationed in Havana mixed the locally available rum with the Yankee staple Coca-Cola (which had just become available on the island that same year) along with a squeeze of lime. The resulting potion was then called a "Cuba Libre" as a toast to the newly liberated Cuban nation.
2 oz gold or anejo rum (Cuban rum if you have it)
half a lime
2 or 3 large ice cubes or chunks
chilled Coca-Cola to top (opt for the Mexican variety made with cane sugar)
Glass: highball or other tall glass
Squeeze the lime into the glass, then drop in the lime shell along with the rum. Muddle the shell briefly to release a bit of its oil, add the ice, and top with the Coke. Give it a light stir and enjoy. For a nice twist I sometimes add a dash or two of grapefruit bitters--Fee Brothers makes a decent variety or you can follow Jeffrey Morgenthaler's recipe to make your own.
When making a Cuba Libre it's really important to use a good rum as the base spirit. I used Ron Caney Anejo Centuria but if you don't have Cuban rum simply use a gold, or better yet, anejo rum of your choice--Appleton Estate V/X or Pyrat XO Reserve work especially well. You'll find that the anejo rums produce a much richer tasting Cuba Libre, and also stand up well to the Coca-Cola, which tends to overpower white rums.
Another key component of a good Cuba Libre is to lightly muddle the lime after squeezing in the juice. This was part of Charles Baker's advice for an "analyzed and improved" Cuba Libre, written in his 1939 Gentleman's Companion. Releasing the citrus oil from the skin into the drink adds a dimension that's otherwise missed.
Last but not least, it's necessary to expound upon the virtues of good vs. bad Coke. Mexican Coke = good; American Coke = terrible, beyond bad. The difference? Mexican Coke is made with cane sugar, and the American variety is made with high fructose corn syrup (but be advised, some Mexican Cokes are now made with HFCS, so read the label on the bottle). Although I've not tried it myself, I've been told Kosher Coke that's made available during Passover tastes similar to the Mexican variety since it's also made with real sugar. You may not realize there's a difference before you taste it, but you certainly will afterward, as it's not stick-to-your-gums sweet like corn syrup based Coke. Using Coke made with real sugar will also bring your Cuba Libre closer to what the original ones would have tasted like--absent of course, the decent amount of cocaine found in the original turn of the century Coca-Colas. I suppose though, if you're really seeking authenticity you could do a line then take a sip of your Libre.
The beauty of the Cuba Libre is in its simplicity, though by now it should be evident this is not the simple rum and Coke that your local lazy bartender might throw in your glass, which if you're lucky will include a dried out piece of lime that had been sliced weeks ago. With maturity comes the ability to appreciate subtlety; in this case the subtle differences are enough to place the Cuba Libre in a completely different category from that other thing you may have been served before.
Viva Cuba libre! (Long live free Cuba!)
*Got a cocktail question? Hit me on twitter @paystyle, email me at payman(at)lifesacocktail(dot)com, or simply drop me a comment below!
Paystyle was born in Tehran and grew up in Los Angeles (aka Tehrangeles) before moving to Brooklyn with his wife and co-pilot Vanessa Bahmani who provides the stunning photography of Pay's cocktail concoctions. Return every Wednesday for his weekly Happy Hour column.