(This is part of the Jersey City in Havana Series, multimedia stories produced by St. Peter’s students who spent Spring Break in Cuba.)
By Tristan Cotto and Norky Torres, Class of 2018
An island not too far off the coast of Florida is one that we all know of yet do not really know much about. Of course, we hear all of the political news associated with Cuba, but up until recently not many Americans have traveled to the long forbidden land and experienced its life.
From the second upon exiting the plane onto Cuban soil you look around and know that you are in a country that is completely different from the United States. It feels almost like traveling back in time. The airport is a small single building with outdated utilities and furniture. We heard before we left “Did you bring soap and toilet paper? Because trust that you learn right away that you will need it.”
Aside from the lack of toilet paper, the island is beautiful and rich in heritage. Christopher Columbus was not wrong when he exclaimed “This is the most beautiful island human eyes have ever seen”.
For all the classic car lovers, the first sight you see is all the classic cars parked in the airport parking lot. It is like being thrown into a vision of 1950’s America for a moment until you realize it is all very real and that you are indeed in Cuba. Then there are Cuba’s famous drinks.
Everywhere you go, if you ask what drinks they have you will hear: Cuba Libre, Daiquiri, Mojito, Piña Colada and occasionally a canchanchara. Some places will differentiate their drinks by presentation or even offer a wider variety of flavors for certain drinks like daiquiris which can come in flavors like strawberry and mango .
And not to mention the beers on tap…Well actually, make that beer on tap. The only beer from tap I came across was called Cristal. There is not much selection or diversity but they sure do make up for it with volume and cheap prices. What would cost you about 6 to 8 USD in the states, or even 11 to 18 USD in areas like New York City, a mixed drink in Cuba will cost you only 2 CUC (About 2.22 USD).
The volume of alcohol they put in the drinks is also generous and not watered down. When they serve you, they serve you! However, scarcity is an issue in Cuba therefore some places just do not have the available stock to make the drinks or will even run out. The first night the bar my group went to was very lively and the bar busy. It was not long before they ran out of cola to mix for the Cuba Libre which to my disappointment was taken off the menu just as fast as I was acquainted with its taste.
Most of the bartenders we encountered were young. From the bars and restaurants I visited, I noticed that a large part of the employed demographic is male. While most of them can speak and understand English, as surprisingly many Cubans can, as someone who is not fluent in Spanish it was difficult to carry conversations. They were all friendly and patient enough to work with our broken Spanish and communicate the best they can.
In an interview with Raynier a bartender/waiter in a restaurant named El Cheverongo he was asked where he learned how to mix drinks. He replied “[translation] The knowledge, you just know.”
It is very interesting coming from a country where one usually needs to go to classes to learn how to mix drinks properly and become a licensed bartender. In Cuba, you have bartenders like Raynier who did not go to any special bartending school, but know how because it is considered common knowledge.
The rum industry is booming in Cuba–not just in the bars, but the rum many tourists are bringing back to the U.S. Since bans were lifted under the Obama administration products such as rum and cigars were finally available to purchase and bring back to the U.S. what was previously considered contraband. Although you will not find Cuba’s selection of alcohol like Havana Club, Santiago Cuba, etc in U.S. bars and liquor stores because there are still a ban on imports for commercial and distribution use.
The super cheap prices and sweet tastes makes you want to bring back a few bottles. In the Palacio de la Artesania, an Italian style gift shop plaza, the liquor store let us try samples of Legendario: Elixir de Cuba which is a very sweet rum that the liquor store owner said was a popular top seller. It was the sweetest alcohol I have ever tasted. The 7 on the top means that it was aged for 7 years. For a liter of this delicious quality alcohol the price is unbelievable! If you thought an $18 liter was a decent price at your local liquor store try $6.50–Some even less than that!
We asked some local Cubans what their favorite drink was. It turns out that the canchanchara is very widely enjoyed by locals. It is made with lime juice, honey, and white rum. We spoke with a tobacco farmer who also favors the taste of this Cuban drink.
He said, “Canchanchara is original from Trinidad, but here we make it better.”
His family puts a little spin on it — instead of white rum they use Guayabita which is a liquor made from guava fruit. This liquor itself is interesting because it is not classified as rum, whiskey, or any other type for that matter. Is simply just a flavorful liquor. According to a Cuban website Cubalink.org, its roots of origin comes from tobacco farmers who used to drink alcohol early in the mornings as a way to stay warm during the cooler months in the Pinar del Rio province of Cuba. It was a flavorful twist the farmers brought to the drink especially those who like a sweeter taste to their cocktails.
So if your a rum lover make it a goal to to try the authentic tastes of the once “forbidden fruit” that is Cuban rum.
Watch the Making of a Piña Colada by Brian Bates, Class of 2021