Spirits: Long live the Cuba Libre
By Jason Wilson,
Although it is refreshing and tasty, there’s simply no getting around this fact: Rum and Coke is a lazy person’s drink. It is the plastic-cup tipple of the all-inclusive resort, the roadside motel and, of course, the college dorm.
“Rum and Cokes are downed quicker and with less thought than cocktails that require patience and precision,” says Derek Brown, cocktail impresario of the Passenger and the Columbia Room. “That’s why I dub the rum and Coke the drink of the shiftless, idle and indolent.” He adds: “I believe I’ve done more stupid things on rum and Coke than any other beverage.”
“It was the first cocktail I ever had in my life,” says Todd Thrasher, bar guru at PX, Restaurant Eve and the Majestic. “Captain Morgan and RC Cola with a lime. My roommate and I finished a 750 [milliliter] of rum and a 2-liter of RC. It was not good the next day.”
The Andrews Sisters once recorded a song called “Rum and Coca-Cola” — the top single of 1945 — without realizing that the lyrics, from a Trinidadian calypso song, were actually about drunken U.S. soldiers debauching Trinidadian women, with a suggestion of prostitution. That sort of obliviousness is the kind of thing that happens when rum and Coke is involved.
Once upon a time, long before even the Andrews Sisters, the rum and Coke had a little bit more going on. Not to say that it was complex or sophisticated, but at least it was in the neighborhood. What we now, prosaically, call a rum and Coke began life as the Cuba Libre, which dates to Havana around 1900, after the Spanish-American War (“Free Cuba” being the battle cry during that conflict, which began and ended in 1898 and led to Cuban independence).
Exactly where and how the Cuba Libre began is murky, like most of cocktail history, and not without its political element. Bacardi (which left Cuba as Castro rose to power) and Havana Club (part-owned by the Cuban government and Pernod Ricard) tell conflicting stories of the drink’s origins, which is unsurprising considering that the two companies have been jousting over trademarks and other issues for decades. (Cuban Havana Club cannot be imported into the United States; Bacardi sells a Havana Club rum in the States that’s hotly contested by the Cuban brand.)
Politics aside, this much about the Cuba Libre is clear: It has always been more than just a rum and Coke. There has always been fresh lime juice squeezed into the mix, and often a few dashes of Angostura bitters. “Coca-Cola and bitters are, I think, made for each other,” says Dave Wondrich, author of the wonderful cocktail histories “Imbibe!” (2007) and “Punch” (2010).
The 1900 original also probably had a little bit of gin in the mix, according to Anthony Dias Blue’s 2004 “The Complete Book of Spirits.” The gin and bitters make even more sense if you consider that pre-1903 Coca-Cola was made with cocaine, with a flavor closer to that of European bitters than to the sweet high-fructose-corn-syrup version we know now.
Regardless, it was the rum-and-Coke rendition that made the leap north and became popular in the American South. Coke, of course, is still the most important ingredient. It’s a very forgiving ingredient, too, which is probably why Bacardi calls it “the second-most-popular drink in the world.”
“Coke is a magical mixer,” Brown says. “It seems to almost always balance out. As opposed to tonic, which requires skilled mixing.”
I don’t want to complicate anyone’s rum and Coke, but I strongly encourage you to try a real Cuba Libre. Although “real” is relative, because everyone has a different way of making it. Wondrich calls for three dashes of bitters. Thrasher calls for Fentimans Curiosity Cola instead of Coke. Some drop the spent lime half into the drink. Some call for a straw.
I like a slightly aged rum rather than a white rum, and I’ve been enjoying my Cuba Libre lately with a new favorite, Ron Abuelo 7-year from Panama. I’ve also been squeezing in Key limes or Meyer lemons, which lend an interesting twist. If I’m feeling truly ambitious, I’ll add a half-ounce of gin, too.
And yes, you layabouts, I know, I know. All of this earnest trial-and-error experimentation runs completely counter to the lazy ethos of your old rum and Coke. I’m sure you’ll e-mail me about it when you get up off the couch.
Wilson is the author of “Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits” (Ten Speed, 2010). Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/boozecolumnist.