A Bartender's Perspective of Havana
Bartenders and spirits historians are familiar with the remarkable and storied roles that Cuba has played in drinking culture, from propagating a suite of classic cocktails to being the birthplace of rum brands as ubiquitous as Bacardi. But what about today's Cuba? As trade relations soften with the U.S. and tourism continues to pick up speed, we couldn't help but wonder what today's craft bartenders would find in the bars of Havana. So, we asked Joaquín Simó. The owner of New York's Pouring Ribbons recently made the trip down to Havana with a group of industry peers (including our own Ann and Paul Tuennerman, who captured the city through a camera lens).
"I'd always wanted to go to Havana, because it was my father's hometown. He lived there until he was 11 or 12, and that's when the revolution came, and my family left for Puerto Rico. I grew up hearing a lot about Cuba, but I've never had the opportunity to go. It was something I'd been looking forward to for a while, but being half-Cuban, I also had a lot of conflicting emotions while I was there."
"It was very heartbreaking to see just how decayed things really were. We go to places like DUMBO or Red Hook and take pictures of these old weathered-looking buildings with graffiti on them, and people publish books of disaster porn on Detroit, so we do find the beauty in the ruins. I get that, and I definitely took some of those shots myself, but then I'd stand there and think, that was someone's home. It was tough to see that."
"There's a lot of money, you can tell, that's coming in. There's a lot of refurbishing going on. They're certainly shoring up some of the more historic places, and there are some beautiful renovations and new construction happening as well. You can definitely see that maybe it's not long for that [development], but sixty years of no maintenance has definitely taken its toll."
"To me, there was a lot that Havana had in common with New Orleans. Very palpable energy on the streets, music, people always performing and singing and playing instruments. It had a very similar energy in terms of its street culture, and I was struck by that again and again."
"Ingredients are really, really scarce. It's hard to find a lot of stuff, and you can't blame them — it's not like they have a lot of tools at their disposal that they're ignoring. They're not working with a lot. Fresh lime juice was very, very hard to come by. We saw it in very few places. Almost everyone was using lime juice concentrate. I think that was a little surprising given how tropical it was. At a place like La Floridita, where they're doing 3,000 frozen daiquiris a day, you'd have to have a small army sitting back there doing nothing but juicing if you were going to do fresh juice for that. That's pretty tough."
"Casa de las Infusiones was amazing, and that was the best piña colada we had while we were there. The bartender took a lot of pride in his work: young guy, great energy, the hospitality was nothing short of spectacular. That drink was delicious, and he also made the best mojito we had while were there. He crushed it. Those are drinks that, when they're done indifferently, taste that way. And he made really delicious versions of both of those, so that was quite lovely.
"I think the cantineros are amazing. They're really, really, really impressive. These guys are professionals at what they do. We were treated incredibly well by all the bartenders at the bars we went to. We brought gifts for them, I think I had 55 pounds' worth of barware. It's a funny thing, it's like, 'here's a spoon, here's a mallet and a Lewis bag.' They don't have that. So any little thing like that — stuff we just take for granted — they were really excited about. And they received us incredibly warmly. They were so excited by our enthusiasm, and we were struck by their warmth and their professionalism."
"We went to El Centro Asturiano. It was there where Cuban, Spanish, and American leaders all raised their rum and coke in toast to Cuba Libre. While that may not be the most classic of cocktails, it is fairly ubiquitous drink, and considering we all call it that, it was interesting to be in the room where that happened. You kind of kept stumbling into history in that way."
"There was a place called Le Imprenta — I thought I was in Williamsburg or Portland. They took an old printing press, gutted it, hung some of the pieces artfully, with this long gleaming bar. You look around and you're like, huh, this is obviously brand-new and someone who has been abroad and seen a few things. It's probably a lot of the influx of Spanish money and other European money coming in and starting to make their presence felt. You can definitely see what's new there and what shape it's going to be in."
"These are very very well-trained, very proud guys that I think, when they have the opportunity, when they get all the tools that everyone else has had for a long time, and if and when they have access to the same amount and flow of information, that's going to be huge. I think they're going to catch up a lot faster than most because I think they're thirsty for it. I think they're very happy to continue with the same kind of pride and dedication but I think they're going to be very enthusiastic about doing it at a higher level. I think they're going to be enthusiastic of having new toys, new flavors, and having better versions of those things."