Tony Conigliaro | GQ | June 29, 2014
With Cuba’s longstanding drink traditions experiencing a boom right now, GQ’s cocktail columnist Tony Conigliaro travels to Havana to seek out the spots where you should enjoy the country’s legendary rum-based concoctions…
It’s almost impossible not to be seduced by Cuba. The feel of the place, the way everything is connected: The music is the perfect accompaniment to the drinking culture, the humid heat and the lingering sweetness of the air are befitting to the music. Once you’re in it, Cuba completely envelops your senses.
I’ve been to Cuba several times, each time growing an ever more willing victim of her delightful charms. What struck me on my most recent trip, however, is the sense of optimism in the air. It’s a really interesting time for Cuba: citizens have many new freedoms afforded to them and that includes the advent of money being allowed in the country. This means that Cuban nationals can open their own places with finances from outside investors and loans from the state. Such a profound change in available resources means that an explosion of really great cocktail bars and restaurants have been opening up. And with them comes a new and exciting extension of Cuban cocktail culture which, as amazing as it has always been, is now sating the younger generations’ burning creativity outside of the state establishments.
In the past, finding drinks that weren’t part of that Cuban staple – Mojitos, Mary Pickfords and Daiquiris, was tough. Traditionally, Cuban drinking culture has always centered on hotel bars, the ones that have been there forever such as El Floridita and Vista al Gofo – which are, understandably, real tourist hotspots. Though these are still very Cuban in their essence and still very fun, there is now a wealth of bars, restaurants, live music venues and after-party spots catered to Cubans – not tourists. In this sense, Cuban food and drink is experiencing a modern Renaissance, where it seems like anything is possible and entrepreneurship is the word on everyone’s lips. The new restaurants are eager to experiment with innovative ingredients, recalibrating Cuban classic cooking with influences from abroad, and this is a feeling which feeds back into cocktail culture in terms of both new drinks and a re-exploration of old ones.
The reason for this latest trip was as a judge for the Havana Grand Prix – one of the most important competitions of the cocktail calendar. Forty-one countries compete to create 3 new cocktails with Havana Club rum and entrants are judged on their knowledge, mixing techniques and the quality of their drinks. The presence and influence of Havana Club rum is really felt in its capital and every single bar stocks it as their main (if not only) rum. It’s a great way to support Cuba as a place and, as such, it has become immersed in its incredible culture.
One of my favourite new bars is the Esencia Habana. It has a strong sense of historic Cuba, housed as it is in a beautifully restored colonial house, but with the manager of Cuba’s infamous band Charanga Habanera at its helm, it seamlessly blends a youthful social scene with incredible drink-offerings. Don Cangrejo, a seafood restaurant, is the master of Friday night live music. And Bertolt Brecht’s, which epitomises sixties’ cool, still can’t be beaten for its musical offerings – the perfect accompaniment to a fantastic Daiquiri. In fact, some of the music I heard on this trip was inconceivably good; 18 year olds who belt out songs with the soul of someone in their 60s. It really adds a richness to the drinking experience – Cuban music has so much feeling and emotion and such an intuitiveness to it. The rhythm and the movement can be really transportive. It’s hard to describe, but the combination of Cuban cocktails and music is incredibly uplifting.