Viva La Cuba Libre! A Passionate Defense of a Great Drink

Its popularity, is at the heart of its identity crisis.

The Cuba Libre, a drink that has been around since 1900 and has become so popular that nobody even calls it by the right name anymore.  I ask the bartender for a Rum and Coke and she delivers it with a quick poor and shot from a bar gun, the epitome of efficiency and profit.  Ask for a Cuba Libre and you are likely to get a hesitation while she has to consider what you just said, if she knows at all.  That’s kind of my point here.

The history of the name Cuba Libre began in 1900 when a U.S. soldier asked for some gold Cuban rum to be added to his Coke. The men at the bar loved the drink and toasted to a free Cuba, thus the name.  Enough history let’s talk drinking.

Cuba Libre and Havana Club

Cuba Libre and Havana Club. ©2011 Carlton Grooms

I love the Cuba Libre, it’s my go to drink at the end of my day. I’m typing this article on my iPad on a flight from Florida to Las Vegas and I have a Cuba Libre nervously perched on the small tray by my right hand. I keep Coke in my house and I have a nice and growing rum collection so it seems…well just easy.  That’s the beauty of this drink.

Don’t misunderstand me; I love a Pain Killer. Mai tai? Yes please.  Dark and Stormy, adore them. The problem is the ingredients to make these great drinks aren’t always around.  These yummy cocktails aren’t offered on US Airways currently, I can tell you that.

The popularity of the Cuba Libre, is at the heart of its identity crisis and source of its lack of respect. This is what frat boys drink when they are beered out, except they use cheap rum.  When they grow up, make more money and get sophisticated they look down their nose at the drink that was there for them.  Assholes.

Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre ©2011 Carlton Grooms

Maybe the problem is really that we need to re-learn how to make the Cuba Libre.  Let’s shall we?  A disclaimer before we start, making the same drink as the original 1900 drink is impossible.  Not because we can’t drink Cuban rum in the U.S., don’t get me started on that one or we’ll be here all day.  No, because the Coca Cola that arrived on Cuban shores back then had traces of cocaine in the formula.  Not too popular today and I am most certainly not suggesting you run out to score some blow just to make an authentic drink.

To start I prefer a highball glass.  A smaller glass let’s me enjoy my drink at a leisurely pace without my ice melting. Next is a half lime.  A half is fine. I like Key limes as I own a bikini company based in Key West, Conch Republic Bikinis, and I love everything Keys.  Key limes are tarter and less sweet.  I like to use two entire fruit; they are much smaller than Persians limes.  Squeeze the lime in the bottom of the glass and drop rind in to be muddled. This will release some oil from the skin.  Don’t smash it to oblivion, just a gentle push please. This is called the Kappeler Procedure. Only now should you poor your rum in, I like a double. What type of rum?  Hold that thought for a minute and don’t interrupt me here.  Ice almost to the rim topped followed by topping with Coke. Can you use Diet Coke? Well yes but let’s discuss that.

Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre ©2011 Carlton Grooms

We have Coke, Diet Coke, Coke Zero and on and on.  To further complicate matters, Coke has different formulations around the world.  What to do?  Coke made from real sugar is my preference for an authentic Cuba Libre. American Coke is made with High Fructose Corn Syrup and I’m not putting that crap in my body.  I’ll pickle my liver with rum but no thanks on the HFCS.

In Key West we can go to the Latino markets and find bottles of Coke made in Mexico.  It says Hecho en Mexico if you don’t know what to look for.  This is Coke made from real sugar.  This is your top choice for this drink.  All this searching for the right Coke is too involved and contrary to why this is such a great drink in the first place.  So choose whichever Coke product you like.  I normally go Coke Zero since I think it’s sweeter and closer to the red can.  It also saves on calories.  When you run a bikini company you got to stay in shape when surrounded by all the hot models!

Rum?  I told you we’d get around to this.  The original was made with Cuban gold rum.  I’m not going to get into a pissing match between Havana Club and Bacardi here.  I have and use both.  For authentic, I’d choose Bacardi Gold since you can’t get Havana Club. Viola you have a wonderful drink in your hand.  If you go to the effort to make this tweet me @conch_bikinis so I can toast you back.  Chances are I’m having one as well.

Sailor Jerry, The Kraken & Cockspur Rums

Sailor Jerry, The Kraken & Cockspur Rums ©2011 Carlton Grooms

We’re not done here yet. I’m going to pitch some variations at you, and give you a chance to pitch some back at me.  What other types of rum do you like to use in your Cuba Libre?  Sailor Jerry comes to mind for me.  Spicy with some cherry sweetness it really adds a new dimension.  I’ve been enjoying The Kraken as well.  More molasses but not over sweet, it snuggles up with Coke nicely. Atlantico and 10 Cane are solid choices as well. What do you like to use?  Drop me a line at or comment below.  If you want a more thorough review of rums and rum culture check out my friend Mike’s definitive blog on the subject at

There you have it, the Cuba Libre.  Lend your voice to my defense of this great drink and next time you are in a bar call for one by it’s proper name.  Enjoy the blank look you are likely to get.  And for goodness sake ask for a call brand.


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2 Responses to “Viva La Cuba Libre! A Passionate Defense of a Great Drink”

  1. Damon @ Let's Tiki April 23, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    Great article! I love my Tiki cocktails too, but when that isn’t possible my go to drink is the Cuba Libre. Although, I generally ask for a rum and coke, because like your experience, I find bartenders don’t know what a Cuba Libre is. I have not tried muddling the lime first. That is such an obvious thing. I’m trying that next time. I do enjoy Sailor Jerry in my Cuba Libre. It goes really nicely with the lime and coke. Lately, I’ve been having Cruzan too. I find it a little less sweet and it has a nice oaky flavor to it. Cheers to the Cuba Libre!

  2. Thumbprint Cookies April 24, 2011 at 11:10 pm #

    A thoughtful insight and ideas I will use on my blog. You’ve obviously spent some time on this. Congratulations!

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