It’s late summer, and in spite of the tropical environment here on the Isle of Palms in sunny South Carolina, Daiquiris have begun to finally lose a bit of their zest. I’ve spent the last several days indulging in the semi-sweet citrus concoctions, mixed with a healthy diet of jogging twice a day on the Atlantic shoreline, swimming during the hotter parts of the day. Leading such an unaffected lifestyle, cool cocktails comprise the later portions of most weekdays; thus, in a mild state of desperation, I decided to try and spice-up my beverages before fall arrived (and without having to resort to purchasing spiced rum). An attempt to do so led me to an almost forgotten aspect of mixology in my own extensive repertoire, resulting in both a tasty–and semi-historically accurate–mixed drink capable of ending most any business day with a light (sweet) kick: the Cuba Libre.
According to fairly recent legend, “¡Por Cuba Libre!” was the battle cry of the Cuba Liberation Army during the war of independence, which ended in 1878. An infamous collision involving the United States and Spain, the Spanish-American War, upon ending, provided a window by which Teddy Roosevelt and his “Rough Riders” could land for a brief excursion in Cuba. Most proponents of Daiquiri and Rum-and Cokes cite that one hot afternoon, a group of off-duty soldiers from the U.S. Signal Corps met in a bar in Old Havana. A young messenger by the name of Fausto Rodriguez would later recall how a captain came in and ordered Bacardi Gold blended with Coca-Cola (keep in mind, this soft drink wasn’t introduced to Cuba until 1900) on ice with a wedge of lime. The captain was said to have “drank the concoction with such pleasure that it sparked the interest of the soldiers around him.” Thus, the onlookers urged the bartender to mix a round of the captain’s new-found pleasure for them, too. “The Bacardi rum and Coke was an instant hit,” states the Bacardi website, and in honor of their recent battle cry, “¡Por Cuba Libre!”, the beverage was named thusly.
Granted, as mentioned in my earlier parenthetical aside, Coca-Cola wasn’t introduced to Cubans until a good 22 years after the alleged introduction of what is now America’s favorite soda. So what gives? Obviously, there are a few issues with Bacardi’s account; for one, the Spanish-American war was fought in 1898. Cuba’s liberation was also in 1898, and the Rough Riders left Cuba by September of the same year. On the other hand, as previously mentioned, Coca-Cola was not available in Cuba until 1900. Our reckoning historical account, afforded us thanks to a 1965 deposition by Fausto Rodriguez, states that the Cuba Libre beverage was first mixed at a Cuban bar in August 1900 by a member of the U.S. Signal Corps, but could the beverage still have been made prior to 1900 with a different ingredient?
At one time, perhaps the drink was instead made with another ingredient. The use of the kola nut, Coca-Cola’s primary ingredient, appears to have ancient origins. It is still chewed in many West African cultures as a remedy used to restore vitality and ease hunger. However, the history of the kola’s uses aren’t all amiable. In 1911, kola became the focus of one of the earliest documented health scares, which involved the seizure of 40 barrels and 20 kegs of Coca-Cola syrup in Chattanooga, Tennessee by US Government officials. At the time, it was believed that the caffeine in the soda was dangerous to consume, and on March 13, 1911, the government initiated the United States vs Forty Barrels and Twenty Kegs of Coca-Cola, with intention of pressuring the Coca-Cola company to remove caffeine from its formula by making exaggerated claims. Among the rumors perpetrated at the time, it was widely circulated that excessive consumption of Coca-Cola at an all-girls’ school led to “wild nocturnal freaks, violations of college rules and female proprieties, and even immoralities.” Judges later ruled in favor of Coca-Cola, and two bills were later introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives to amend the Pure Food and Drug Act; these included caffeine in a list of “habit-forming” and “deleterious” substances.
Regardless of the negative press, Coca-Cola thrived, and the Cuba Libre still exists as a popular cocktail today, though a bit of contention over its origins still exists. Some scholars of mixology will tell you that the beverage known today as the Cuba Libre here in the states was replaced by the simpler “Rum and Coke” once Castro’s communist influence became a point of national distaste. Elsewhere, in Puerto Rico the Cuba Libre is called the Qbalibre, when the ingredients list Don Q rum instead of Bacardi, which is the preferred rum of most Puerto Ricans. Generally, the proper mixing of ingredients in this cocktail over the years has resulted in this general recipe:
2 Parts Coca-Cola
1 part light rum
A dash of lime juice
Mix contents in a highball glass and garnish with a lime wedge.