Ah…the Cuba Libre. Undoubtedly one of the simplest “cocktails” to be awarded the name. It’s a rum and coke…with lime. Although some people argue either that the addition of lime is optional, or not authentic but actually a later addition. Either way, it’s a very simple drink. So why are drinks like the Cuba Libre and the Screwdriver considered to be cocktails when a gin and tonic is not?
But I have a couple of theories. And in examining them we uncover a fair number of tall tales and historical trivia. Enough to be worthy of a respectable and interesting post.
However, first things first…
Coca Cola and its various knockoffs/competitors is pretty much ubiquitous in our modern world. So much so that the introduction of a Coca Cola bottling plant to a new country is seen as a marker for that country’s political stability and adherence to international law. We think nothing of mixing spirits or liqueurs with coke and consider that to be a simple drink. What we’re forgetting is that Coca Cola is actually a seriously complex beverage in its own right.
The actual ingredients of Coca Cola are a supposedly closely guarded secret. Though it is likely that the Coca Cola company has historically played up this idea for marketing purposes. It has also changed over time. Which is probably a good thing since the various original recipes all contained significant quantities of cocaine. Sugar and caffeine are bad enough, but add cocaine to the mix as well and a single bottle would surely keep anyone up all night. And would make adding alcohol to the mix an even worse idea.
The name Coca Cola came from the use of Coca leaves and Kola nuts, from which came the cocaine and caffeine respectively. While it seems fair to assume that at least some extracts of these remain in the modern version, we can’t say for sure. Other suspected ingredients include essential oils from various citrus fruits to spices such as nutmeg, cinnamon and vanilla. Whatever the truth, it seems fair to claim that Coca Cola is among the most complex of non-alcoholic mixers a cocktail bartender is likely to have access to. Something to remember the next time you take its presence for granted.
But let’s get back to the Cuba Libre. Which means Free Cuba in Spanish. A phrase or slogan you could easily imagine as rebel battle cry for a Spanish speaking people fighting for their freedom. Or alternatively as a joyful exultation of victory after that freedom has been realised. Which raises the question: freedom from whom?
The answer is freedom from Spanish rule. As the first European nation to engage in conquest and colonization in the New World, Spain quickly seized vast territories in the Americas. At its greatest extent a line could be drawn from California to Florida and almost everything to the south of it belonged to Spain. With the notable exception of Brasil.
But the Spanish Empire was already in decline when the US fought its own War of Independence. And in the decades following it lost control of all its mainland holdings. Mostly to revolutionary independence movements in what became Latin America, plus a few deals and treaties. By the end of the 19th century all that remained of the once mighty Spanish Empire was a few scattered islands such as the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba. None of whom wanted to remain under Spanish rule.
Meanwhile the US was on the rise, and took on the guises of both a liberator from European domination. And a growing imperialist power in its own right looking to expand its own power and reach.
An armed insurrection against Spanish rule began in Cuba in 1895. It was not the first, but was the most successful. Some historians argue that it would have succeeded in kicking the Spanish out of Cuba even without American intervention. Though this claim is controversial at best. Regardless, after the Maine Incident in 1898 in which an American warship was sunk by an explosion in Havana harbour, the US declared war. The Spanish-American war was swift and decisive, with Spain being roundly beaten and ceding all claim to the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Cuba.
It is highly likely that the US actively picked this fight with Spain to increase their influence and power. But if so it was masterfully done as they were able to portray themselves as the victim of what would now be termed a terrorist attack upon their warship in Spanish waters. Also, by not directly annexing the Philippines, Puerto Rico or Cuba (aside from a small coastal area around a bay called Guantanamo), they were able to claim the role of liberator instead of conqueror. Nevertheless, regardless of the legal situation, these territories came decisively under American control.
The US would come to dominate Cuba so comprehensively that it ultimately sparked a second successful attempt by Cubans to break free from foreign control. This is known to history as the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro which ultimately succeeded in overthrowing the government in 1959. Given the geopolitical context of the Cold War at the time, this movement later organised itself under Communist lines and was embargoed by the US. This trade embargo has only begun to soften in the past few years.
Creation and Metaphor
The cocktail the Cuba Libre was created after the conclusion of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The result was Cuban independence and ever increasing commercial ties to the US. And with increased US commercial interest came Coca Cola – which was first introduced to Cuba in 1900. This was only a few years after its creation, and so had not yet settled down to the modern Coca Cola we are now so familiar with.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before some bright spark had the idea of mixing the ubiquitous Cuban rum with newly available Coca Cola. Though there are a few claims to its creation they all seem a little ridiculous to me. After all, it doesn’t take a mixologist to mix a rum and coke. Even for the first time. So I expect that it emerged independently many times over. Though likely in Havana, since this was where there was the highest concentration of wealthy Americans who liked Coca Cola looking to relax and spend money. And because it was already a city which had an established US tourist trade. Even going as far as to import ice for iced drinks to suite the American taste for them. Not easy, at the time.
That it would be named Cuba Libre seems almost pre-destined by recent events. A grand statement of the new world order taking shape. Taking rum, the old staple spirit of the imperialist European Powers and applying it to Coca Cola, the growing icon of American global capitalism. To result in something both new and yet reassuringly familiar. With a little optional lime juice thrown in for good measure. Quite the metaphor for the future.
Now for practical matters. Making a Cuba Libre is simplicity itself. Build the cocktail in a tall glass by pouring some Coca Cola over ice. Add a good slug of rum (two shots seems about right) and some freshly squeezed lime juice to taste. Then top it up with more Coca Cola and stir slightly before garnishing with lime.
That you should use Coca Cola over its competitors/knockoffs is clear. Both for historical and taste reasons. As I have stated the use of lime is somewhat optional. When made in a bar I would include the freshly squeezed juice of half a lime. But in general, that is simply a matter of personal taste.
Naturally enough, a Cuba Libre should ideally be made with Cuban rum. However, due to the US trade embargo this is quite difficult in the US. Though not so in the UK and other countries. As such my go to rum for this and other Cuban classics like the Mojito is Havana Club rum. Usually the light Havana 3 y/o rum. Though provided you use decent rum you should be fine. And if you prefer to use darker rum, also fine.
Just as long as you don’t use Bacardi. Not only is that NOT Cuban rum, it is also very low quality. So low it gives a false impression of what rum really is. Although, like Coca Cola itself, Bacardi has always employed excellent marketing techniques and campaigns to boost the sales of their inferior product.