Live from Cuba: Drinking Like a Local
Who hasn’t heard of a mojito at this point? From Burbank to Bali, the minty rum-lime elixir that delivers a happy buzz has gained fame as the quintessential Cuban cocktail. And visitors will be drinking freshly-made and expertly-mixed versions of this potent potable throughout their travels.
The thing is, Cubans don’t drink mojitos all that often. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw a friend or colleague quaffing one – even daiquiris, another classic rum cocktail, seem more popular in these parts. Highballs of high-quality Havana Club rum on the rocks are more popular still, especially on sultry evenings.
Designed as a companion piece to Feasting on Traditional Comida Criolla, this post explores the drinks – alcoholic and not – that drive Cubans wild. Some are unknown beyond these shores, but all are easily found the length and breadth of the island. Whether you’re visiting Pinar del Río, Guantánamo or anywhere in between, you’re invited to raise a glass of one of the following popular Cuban drinks.
When you do, don’t forget the classic toast ‘salud, por que la belleza sobra’ (to your health, since you’re already so beautiful) and the obligatory splash of liquor on the floor – “for the saints” – upon cracking open every new bottle of booze.
Guarapo – Fresh-pressed sugar cane juice served over copious amounts of cracked ice is a classic summer cooler in Cuba, beloved as much for its super sweet flavor as it is for the shot of energy it provides. You’ll likely see lines two to three deep at the local guarapera, where cane stalks are jammed into a press, cranked through, and the resulting frothy liquid sold for one peso a piece (about 4 cents). Many tourist spots in the countryside also serve guarapo for 1CUC a glass.
Planchao – Known as the “juice box for big kids” this rotgut rum is sold in individual Tetra-Paks and you’ll see folks around town partying with their box of Planchao. Produced on the island, the name is a charming Cubanization of ‘planchado’ (pressed or flattened) since this is what a box or two will do to you.
Garapiña – Homemade juice made from covering pineapple rinds in water and letting them sit for about a week, most Cubans have made garapiña at one time or another (and tend to love it or hate it). It can be alcoholic or not. Not surprisingly, Fruit (guava, apple) and rice wines are a popular home brew – there are even some private businesses selling them.
Aguardiente – Every culture has their version of ‘fire water’ or unrefined, high-proof liquor that will put the proverbial hair on your chest, and Cuba is no different. Santero, with its iconic tambor player logo is a popular brand sold in stores, while chispa de tren (literally ‘train spark,’ due to what you see when you drink it) was all the rage during the infamous economic crash known as the Special Period.
Malta – This is a sickly sweet, non-alcoholic beverage which Cubans adore – lactating mothers are even advised to drink it to stimulate milk production. Look for brands like Tinima (in bottles) and Bucanero (in bright yellow cans). Ask any Cuban kid if they’d like a malta with condensed milk and they’ll give you the ‘that’s a stupid question’ look accompanied by an emphatic ‘claro que sí!
Cubanito – The Cuban version of a Bloody Mary, this cocktail is made with tomato juice and rum. Another, lighter version is a mix of tomato juice and beer. An unlikely combination, perhaps, but folks swear by it.
Red Bull – Not Cuban at all of course, but the wild popularity of this energy drink is a phenomenon worth mentioning. At $2CUC (or more) a piece, it’s a status symbol – drivers hang the cans from their cars’ rearview mirrors and kids walk around with Red Bull cans refilled with Planchao to look cool. The company also sponsors concerts, parties and extreme sporting events here, so don’t be surprised if you see the iconic blue, red and yellow logo emblazoned on the VIP tent.
Conner Gorry is Senior Editor at MEDICC Review and author of the Havana Good Time app, available for iPhone/Pad and Android. She blogs at Here is Havana and has two Cuba stories in the anthology Best Travel Writing 2012.