There’s this little… thing… that some bartenders, like myself who are from a certain generation do, and I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why we do it. And it’s probably going to sound super weird to you at first, but hopefully by the end of this piece you’ll be convinced and might even want to try it for yourself. What is it? Well, I put a splash of gin in my Cuba Libre.
Okay. So while the most bartenders will tell you that a Cuba Libre is just a Rum and Coke with lime, I’m going to disagree with that dismissive statement and try to convince you that the Cuba Libre can be elevated to new heights by the addition of gin. Here goes nothing.
The Cuba Libre was reportedly created sometime during the Spanish-American war, when America was helping Cuba fight for its independence from Spain. Coca-Cola was a hot new beverage in the States, limes practically grew on trees, and Cuban rum was actually available to Americans. (Yes, this was quite some time ago.) The Cuban and American soldiers toasted the future of a free Cuba (Cuba Libre) with their new concoction, which they drank and drank.
After Prohibition, when rum was again (legally) plentiful in this country and Americans had a fever for all things Carribean, the Cuba Libre enjoyed widespread success. The drink even spawned a hit song by the Andrews Sisters, which helped further the public’s awareness of this hot new drink:
If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time
Drinkin’ rum and Coca-Cola
Go down Point Koomahnah
Both mother and daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee dollar
But there was trouble in paradise, as some folks weren’t too enamoured with the drink’s syrupy-sweetness. Charles H. Baker writes about the drink on page 27 of his Gentleman’s Companion of 1939:
The only trouble with the drink is that it started by accident and without imagination, has been carried along by the ease of its supply. Under any condition it is too sweet.
Not too worry, however, the ever-opinionated Baker offers a solution:
The improved Cuba Libre consists of 1 big jigger of Carta de Oro Bacardi, the juice of 1 small green lime, and the lime peel after squeezing. Put in a Tom Collins glass, muddle well to get oil worked up over sides of the glass, add lots of ice lumps, and fill up with a bottle of chilled coca cola. Stir up once, and salud y pesetas!
Sure. Drink’s too sweet, so let’s add a bunch of fucking lime juice and muddle the peel so the bitterness overpowers everything. It’s a nice thought, but an amateur move. How about we try something a little more elegant?
Paul Harrington, in his 1998 book Cocktail – The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century also grappled with the sweetness of the drink, and laid part of the blame on the now-sanitized formula of Coca-Cola…
Coca-Cola no longer contains exotic ingredients, but we’re still convinced that the soda made in South America tastes better than that mixed elsewhere.
…and offered his own gin-spiked solution:
Whenever we consider the Cuba Libre our best option at a given bar, we remind ourselves that this drink was once viewed as exotic, with its dark syrup – made, at that time from kola nuts and cocaine. A few American drinkers had hoped that this wonder … would go on to compete with the great bitters of Europe. The drink, when worth drinking, contains 2 to 3 ounces of the new far from exotic soda, the juice and hull of ¼ lime, 1 ounce of rum, 2 dashes of bitters, and ½ ounce of gin. (The last two ingredients are our own additions.)
An elegant solution, with an eye on former production methods, an attentiveness to modern palates and a sharp degree of sophistication. Take that, Baker.
Isidro Gutiérrez, a bartender at Town at the Chambers Hotel in New York City, offered up a strikingly similar recipe to the New York Times in 2002:
Mr. Gutiérrez cites a 1952 article from a Cuban newspaper suggesting that some turn-of-the-century Cubans drank a Cuba Libre with a decidedly different kick, one including cocoa beans, gin, bitters and a splash of cocaine. (In its early days, Coca-Cola also contained trace amounts of cocaine.)
So Mr. Gutiérrez, who fancies himself something of a drink historian, decided to bring back that type of Cuba Libre — minus the cocaine, of course. He also dropped the cocoa beans after he discovered they were a bit too bitter.
As a side note, I would like to remind you, the reader, that gin and white rum have a very similar flavor profile, an as an experiment suggest you try substituting white rum for gin in your favorite gin cocktails. You’ll find that a whole new world of interesting (and yes, potentially disgusting) mixological options awaits you.
Cuba Libre (Harrington's Proportions) Print Me
- 2-3 oz/60-90 ml Coca-Cola
- 1 oz/30 ml rum
- ½ oz/15 ml London dry gin
- 2 dashes Angostura bitters (Fee Brothers Old Fashioned Bitters are super good here, too)
- 1/4 lime
- Mix the Coca-Cola, rum and gin in a highball glass.
- Add the bitters and squeeze in the juice from the lime, dropping the hull in the glass.
- Top up with ice and serve.
Recipe printed courtesy of jeffreymorgenthaler.com