Friday, September 28, 2012

Cocktail of the Week: The Cuba Libre

We’re not talking about a simple rum and Coke here. It’s called a Cuba Libre. If you want to sound knowledgeable, pronounce it Kooba Lee-Bray. If you really want to sound knowledgeable, guzzle them while grousing about goddamn Kennedy calling off the additional air cover back in ’61. This will ensure that the seats on either side of you at the bar remain unoccupied.

True confession time: I never had respect for the rum’n’Coke. And I wasn’t alone. Spirits writer Jason Wilson dubs it “a lazy person’s drink.” The venerable Kingsley Amis took issue with the Coca-Cola half of the equation, feeling that rum was “quite wasted in my view when teamed with that horrible stuff. I love America, but any nation that produces drive-in churches, Woody Allen and cola drinks can’t be all good.”

The story goes that the Rough Riders brought the then now-in-bottles! soda to Cuba when they went to liberate the island nation in 1898, mixed it with the native flavoring rum, and drank to their inevitable success with the battle cry of “Free Cuba!” Too bad the timeline doesn’t quite work out; the drink didn’t catch on until after the Spanish-American War. I have visions of servicemen stationed in Havana once hostilities had ended offering the toast ironically but that too is wrong, irony not being invented by Madison Avenue advertising men until the mid-1960s.

Order a rum and Coke in many bars and you’ll receive a bonus lime wedge if you’re lucky. It’s here that the problem begins; no mere garnish, lime was originally an essential ingredient in the Cuba Libre. In The Gentleman’s Companion, Charles H. Baker, Jr. lamented the cocktail’s popularity in the 1930s. “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. What’s to do?” Baker, engaging in “clinical experimenting for which our insurance carriers heartily dislike us,” determined that the juice of one small lime was necessary. He also suggested muddling lime peel in the glass before building the drink. The Joy of Mixology author Gary Regan finds that step excessive, but observes that lime juice is necessary “to balance out the sweetness of the cola.”

Another statement from Gaz worth noting: “This drink is seldom held in high regard, but when made properly it can be a heavenly potion.” Which explains why the Cuba Libre and its variations turn up with regularity in craft cocktail bars.

Many such establishments make their own cola. I don’t. What got me to take a fresh look at the Cuba Libre was the abundance of cane colas now commonly available, including Mexican Coca Cola and my default choice, Trader Joe’s Vintage Cola. These are truer to the cocktail’s history and easier on the teeth. Turns out the experts are right; the addition of an ounce of lime juice turns a frat boy’s stalwart into something worth lingering over. Provided you brush afterwards. (This message brought to you by the American Dental Association.)

Jason Wilson suggests other changes that push the drink toward its tropical origins. (Good luck getting authentic Cuban rum – or authentic circa 1900 Coca-Cola with that extra snap of cocaine, for that matter.) Meyer lemon or key lime juice instead of regular lime, a few dashes of Angostura bitters, even – madre de Dios – adding some gin. I’ve laid on more soda, prepared to indulge in some clinical experimenting of my own.

The Cuba Libre 

2 oz. rum
1 oz. lime juice
approximately 3 oz. chilled cane cola

Build in the order given in an ice-filled Tom Collins glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.