On a Friday evening in Mexico City, as gray summer skies threaten rain, groups of teenagers head to their local convenience store, OXXO, to get ready for the weekend parties. Under the bright red and yellow marquee, they pool their money for a pack– an affordable combo of liquor, soda and ice – for around US$15. The simple Cuba Libre they’ll put together with the Bacardí blanco and a bouncy 2-litre Coca-Cola is the fuel for every fiesta, consumed before and after the game (aka he after), where the night turns into the early hours of the day.
What Slate writer Troy Patterson called it “a mediocre Caribbean-American highball”, derided for its ease and mass-market appeal, remains stable as one of the most widely consumed cocktails in Mexico. The drink is emblematic of the turn of the 20th century: the conclusion of Cuba’s War of Independence in 1898, the development of an American sparkling stimulant, and the evolution of the rum industry in Cuba and beyond. The cocktail quickly spread west and south. Throughout Latin America, the name changes with the local dialect to roncola, cubata, Cuba Libre, cubitusing the “rum and cola” model modified by the conventions of each metropolis and its inhabitants.
Cuba Libre found a natural existence in Mexico, where the enjoyment of Coca-Cola and the sprinkling of lime and salt on every food item is a way of life. According Canteens ¡Salud por las Capitalinas!, the cocktail was popularized in Mexico City in the 1930s in the bars that line the República de Cuba. At the time, a “Cuba”, as it is abbreviated in the capital, sold for 35 cents a glass in Los Bohemios, and consisted of one part rum, two parts cola and an aspirin for counter the inevitable hangover.
“I drink it all the time,” says José Luis Leon, bar manager and partner of Licorería Limantour, listed on the World’s 50 Best Bars list, “to keep the party going.” Limantour currently serves a clean, clarified version of a Cuba Libre, however, Leon explains: “While it’s a worthwhile exercise to play around with such a simple recipe, at its core it’s a democratic drink.”
A bartender prepares a Cuba Libre at El Sella restaurant in Mexico City.
Cheap, easy to assemble, with the one-two punch of high octane sugar and caffeine, the Cuba Libre speaks to all levels of sophistication, loved by godinez “hard workers”, 20s, aunts and grandmothers, hipsters, office workers, cops, wine snobs and teachers. It’s for anyone who’s thirsty and likes to get drunk, because the primary purpose of a Cuba is, of course, to get drunk.
This reputation was immortalized by 1980s Mexican pop group sensation Flans in the hit song “Tiraré” (“I’m going to throw…”), which describes a woman throwing Cuba Libre out the nearest window. because her date is trying to catch her. drunk:
Tirare, tirare las Cubas por la ventana
Mientras el prepara otra Cuba cargada
Otra Cuba cargada, other Cuba.
“I’ll throw, I’ll throw the Cubas out the window
while he prepares another stiff Cuba
another steep Cuba, another Cuba.
For such a simple cocktail, idiosyncrasies abound. To cut the sugar, drinkers in Mexico will ask for their Cuba guinea fowl, or “painted”, which counteracts the sweetness of Coke with a touch of sparkling water. Go even further and you have a campéchana, a term that refers to the state of Campeche and is pirate slang used to describe various liquids mixed into a drink; it has since been expanded to describe people, tacos, seafood, etc. In the realm of a highball, that means half Coke, half soda water, which dilute the hickory hue to a light tawny. You can also start the Cuba with soda water and paint it with a soda rivet so that the faintest caramel hue permeates the drink. That’s the farthest you can downgrade a Cuba before it becomes just a glass of cold rum and sparkling water.
One of the most peculiar iterations of the drink is to specify it quemada Where quemadita, or “slightly burnt”. In this variation, the drink maker rolls the vertical glass back and forth between two palms, the warmth of their hands melting the ice into the rum waiting at the bottom, supposedly creating a smoother, smoother cocktail. . José Manuel del Valle, owner of Bar El Sella in the Doctores district, retorts: “It’s for show, more than anything else,” he shrugs. “I could never taste a difference.”
And after three, who can? A Cuba Libre is not a matter of taste, anyway; it is a ritual. In the hundreds of canteens and other mature watering holes around town, where square tables have notches in the legs to hold drinks so the tops stay clear for playing dominoes, the quirks of Cuba and the patrons who enjoy consuming them, are treated with deep respect. Here, the cocktail is almost always served divorceor “divorced,” with bottles and cans of sparkling water and single-use Coca-Cola arriving at the table separately, to be mixed by the drinker’s hand, however they like.
In this way, the highball evolved to become less of a cocktail made by a bartender and more of a careful calibration dictated by each customer and their particular taste. If you find yourself in a canteen or as a lucky guest at a family party, or even at dawn with the kids in the club, there will be the unmissable Cuba Libre. The only question is, how do you take yours?