Shaken or stirred, straight up or on the rocks, all of Cuba’s signature swills will immediately transport you 90-miles off Floridian shores.

By Melanie Lieberman
May 19, 2015
Credit: Melanie Lieberman

The sugarcane-carpeted valleys of Cuba have, for centuries, produced some of the world’s best—and most coveted—rum. With no shortage of the tropical spirit, Cubans have learned to mix this liquor with, well, just about everything.

Improved relations between Cuba and the United States (and an exciting new proviso allowing up to $100 in Cuban rum to be brought back as a souvenir) has renewed interest in some of the country’s most famous rum cocktails.

Of course, it’s not just the sense of intrigue that comes with sipping one of these clandestine drinks that makes them so enticing. No, a love affair with one of Cuba’s classic cocktails is very much like reuniting with an old friend, or stumbling upon a bit of family history.

Take, for instance, the Cuba Libre, which is storied to be the creation of a U.S. Army Signal Corps Captain, who toasted ¡Por Cuba Libre! after the Spanish-American War concluded with a glass of rum, coke, and a wedge of lime. It’s just one of the various concoctions that serve as the less-literary works of the curmudgeon-y expat, Ernest Hemingway. Read on for more.


The Colonial town of Trinidad is known for cobbled streets lined with hand-embroidered linens for sale, the exquisite mansions of sugar barons, and the canchanchara. This mixture of raw rum, honey, fresh lime or lemon juice, and water is thought to be the elixir of life for Cuban guerillas during any one of Cuba’s many battles for independence. Who needs water, coffee, or painkillers when you have this tincture of aged rum, fresh limejuice and honey?


Credit: Melanie Lieberman

Melanie Lieberman

The mojito’s origins date back long before its rise to popularity during Prohibition, though historians are in perpetual disagreement about its exact creation. Some say the drink was born on the ships of Cuba’ first explorers, as a medicine to combat scurvy. Others insist its genesis was in the sugarcane fields, when African slaves used lime and mint to mask the flavor of cheap rum. Centuries later, Hemingway rediscovered this local beverage at La Bodeguita del Medio, an assuming bar that has since become a popular tourist destination. Mix white rum with limejuice and sugar (granulated, or the sugar cane syrup guarapo) and muddling the ingredients together with fresh mint leaves. Pour over crushed ice, and top with club soda.

Cuba Libre

Forget the red Solo cup filled with cheap rum, Coca-Cola, and garnished with a stray Ping-Pong ball of your college days past. The original Rum and Coke has a revolutionary history, born in a celebratory toast between the soldiers of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1900. Captain Russell supposedly ordered a glass of rum with Coke and a wedge of lime, and celebrated the island’s independence against Spain by exclaiming ¡Por Cuba Libre! Ironically, you can’t get American cola in post-Revolution Cuba, so a Cuba Libre in the drink’s home country is made with tuKola: a different caramel-colored soft drink.


Before the daiquiri became a Styrofoam cup filled with frothy, fruity, neon-colored slush, it was the drink of choice for brawny, rifle-wielding writer Ernest Hemingway. Its story begins in the early 1900s, when an American engineer, Jennings Cox, ran out of gin while entertaining and improvised a pitcher of light rum, fresh lime juice, and sugar. He named the drink after a nearby village. But the modern daiquiri began at the bar, El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s favorite Havana haunts. The bartender swapped the sugar for grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, mixed the ingredients in a blender, and named the potent version Papa Doble, after Hemingway himself.

Havana Special

Credit: Melanie Lieberman

Melanie Lieberman

You won’t likely find this cocktail outside of Cuba, but when you’re on island time, it’s the one to order. White rum—like the three-year-old blend by Havana Club—maraschino liqueur, and fresh pineapple juice are the base for this cocktail, which is served straight up with a slice of pineapple or a lemon twist.