For decades, a bottle of Havana Club rum has been the holy grail for bartenders and cocktail lovers alike.
But Cuba—off limits to U.S. travelers for years despite being located a frustratingly close 90 miles off the coast of Florida—was just out of reach for law-abiding drinkers. Havana Club’s famous rum was, naturally, smuggled home in suitcases from trips abroad, and some daring souls made clandestine missions to the country through the Caribbean or Mexico, bringing back stories of visits to all the famous bars the rest of us could only dream about.
Thanks to fomer-President Barack Obama’s administration, it is now much easier for Americans to visit Cuba (complete with direct flights on JetBlue) and the country is suddenly within reach for those dreaming of an Ernest Hemingway-inspired bar crawl. But there is a sense of urgency to visit Havana before the city is overrun with American tourists and Starbucks and McDonald’s line the streets. Potential cruise ship traffic could also drown the city in a sea of fanny packs, and that’s not to mention the current administration’s ideas about trying to undo Obama’s moves and limiting access for Americans once again.
So to capture Cuba’s bar culture before the flood gates open, The Daily Beast’s own Sara Sayed recently visited Havana to photograph some of the city’s classic watering holes, as well as some of its new spots.
It’s practically a rule that if you make it to Havana, you need to have a Daiquiri at Floridita. Constante Ribalaigua Vert, arguably the country’s most famous bartender, ran the joint for years, and it was a favorite of Hemingway. According to lore, it was where he supposedly invented his eponymous (and boozy) version of the Daiquiri. To honor his patronage, there is a bronze statue of a thirsty Papa resting one arm on the bar and a photo of him with Castro on the wall.
Like a good cocktail, Sloppy Joe’s is a mix of old and new ingredients. The bar was one of the country’s most popular and was supposedly one of John Wayne’s favorites, as well as author Graham Greene and other celebrities. It didn’t hurt that the institution boasted one of the longest bars any drinker had ever seen. Castro closed it in 1965 and it remained shuttered for 50 years, before the Cuban government decided to restore and reopen it. Sloppy Joe’s is packed once again, with a mix of tourists happy to get access to such a famed Havana landmark.
LA BODEGUITA DEL MEDIO
For such a small island, Cuba boasts a number of famous rum cocktail specialties, including the aforementioned Daiquiri, the Cuba Libre, and the Mojito. While no one is sure who created the Mojito, La Bodeguita del Medio takes credit for the invention. The jury is still out on that claim, but the charming graffiti-covered bar serves up dozens and dozens of the drink every day.
Sloppy Joe’s isn’t the only establishment to get a makeover. Dos Hermanos, which opened more than a century ago, was remodeled and spiffed up. It’s another popular spot for people on a historic Havana bar crawl.
If you’re willing to try a spot that didn’t host Hemingway, have dinner and drinks on El Cocinero’s beautiful outdoor patio. You’ll have no problem finding the restaurant, since its name is emblazoned on an old smokestack that anchors one of its corners.