By M. Carrie Allan, The Washington Post
One thing that mystifies me about some corners of the cocktail world is the ongoing romanticizing of the American period of Prohibition, the nadir of this country’s strange love-hate relationship with alcohol.
Even now, rarely does a week go by when I don’t get a pitch for some new booze that summons the era or some new speakeasy-themed bar. To be clear, I like hidden entrances as much as the next bookish child who read “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” 30 times. And I like secret bars — even if I do scour the Internet for extremely specific directions before attempting to find one, to make sure I don’t end up wandering helplessly around a hardware store without ever finding the specific hammer I have to turn six degrees to the left to reveal the secret entrance to Tools. (Such ridiculousness is at least better than so-called speakeasies that turn out to be in a hotel lobby, with windows you can see into, and you’re left wondering what the speakeasy element is supposed to be. Is it that one bartender’s mustache? It does seem a little old-timey.)
But really, stateside, Prohibition was a bad time. Today we make cocktails because they enhance and complement the flavors of quality spirits, but much of the mixing that happened during those dark years was to hide the flavors of bad booze. Violent crime increased, and lots of people died drinking denatured alcohol the government had deliberately poisoned to deter people from drinking it. For real: In a letter to the New York Times in 1927, humorist Will Rogers grimly joked that government “used to murder by the bullet only. Now it’s by the quart.”
If you must pine for the past, better to focus what Prohibition wrought across the pond in Europe, where many American bartenders and drinkers headed during the dry years. Or much closer to home, where 90 miles off the Florida coast, affluent Americans gallivanted off in droves to a place where both the literal and tippling climates were warmer. Prohibition didn’t stop Americans from drinking, but it did a heck of a lot for the tourism industry in pre-revolutionary Cuba.
The Cuban bar scene was already swinging by the time Prohibition hit in the States, but the influx of thirsty Americans with money to spend helped push it further. Cuba was the first-known country to have an official bartending association (started in 1924), and from its beginning, the bartending culture that developed was an elegant one. The country’s first guide for bartenders, the 1915 “Manual del Cantinero,” provides an extensive recipe collection — but before that, it gives instructions regarding appearance and deportment, specifying that every good bartender must be well dressed, and that his white vest and shirt must always be clean, and that he should never socialize, play dice, smoke or drink with customers while he’s working.
At least one bartender in Prohibition-era Havana later became very well known for his daiquiris: Constante Ribalaigua Vert of La Florida, better known as Floridita, where Ernest Hemingway drank (and drank, and drank) his preferred Papa Dobles, the rum-heavy daiquiris Ribalaigua named for him.
If you drop the word “cantinero” into a translator, you’ll get “bartender,” but bartending can encompass a lot of different styles and activities, and the translation doesn’t capture the elegance of the Cuban tradition. It’s that style that Julio Cabrera has long been training bartenders in, and it’s that culture that he’s aiming to preserve at Cafe La Trova on Calle Ocho in Miami, his project with chef Michelle Bernstein.
When I previously spoke to Cabrera, it was last year during the craziness of Tales of the Cocktail, the annual drinks conference in New Orleans, before he opened La Trova. It took us about 10 minutes to just cross the lobby to find a quiet place to talk, because young bartenders kept stopping Cabrera with hugs or fist bumps, wanting to catch up with a man many of them regard as a mentor. Cabrera has tended bar in his native Cuba, the United States, Italy and Mexico and has been leading bartender trips to Cuba to increase knowledge of the cantinero style for years.
La Trova, he hoped, would give him a chance to spread the tradition further. He described the project as his “dream bar,” one that would reflect his love of his native country in its food, coffee, live music and drinks.
Open now for six months, La Trova naturally serves (along with an assortment of original cocktails) the most famous Cuban drinks: the El Presidente, the Hotel Nacional (a bright, rum-based sour with apricot liqueur) and, of course, a classic daiquiri and mojito. Those last two drinks are the greatest icons among Cuban cocktails, Cabrera says. And they’ve truly gone global — though with mixed levels of success.
Making a great daiquiri has become a point of pride for many bartenders, as it’s a seemingly simple concoction — just rum, lime and sweetener — that falls apart if any of the three elements are out of balance. (Interestingly, in Cuba, Cabrera says, most bars continue to sweeten all their drinks with sugar rather than simple syrup. “With simple syrup, you’re already mixing sugar with water, so you’re adding dilution before you even start the drink,” he notes.)
If the likelihood of finding a good daiquiri outside Cuba has improved, the picture is less rosy on the mojito front. “Ninety-nine percent of mojitos I have, still, everywhere I go, are not made the right way,” he says. The glitches he sees are multiple: crushed ice rather than cubes, shaking the drink instead of muddling the mint and building the drink right in the glass, or topping it off with sugary Sprite rather than the neutral bubble of club soda.
But when it comes to the cantinero style, a bartender can make a great drink and still not nail the approach. “It’s not just making the cocktail; it’s making it a different way,” Cabrera explains, “with attention to detail and particular flair. Cantineros were known for great technique and hospitality, and they were expected to make good cocktails, but be part of the hospitality and entertainment as well.”
One technique that’s far more common in Cuban bartending is throwing drinks, a mixing technique that hasn’t yet caught on widely in American bars. It’s a delight to watch (and fun to try at home): Rather than shaking or stirring, the bartender “throws” the drink from one container to the other, pouring it from one tin to the other from a substantial distance, creating a long, slender ribbon of liquid that magically goes where it’s supposed to. It adds chill, dilution and texture without the more substantial bubble and froth that comes from a hard shake.
Cabrera takes the cantinero tradition seriously, and noted that La Trova follows the early traditions for its bartenders’ dress and grooming of short hair, clean nails, no jewelry, no visible tattoos. He’s not asking his staff for anything he wouldn’t do himself: At Tales, he was sporting a neat little soul patch, but told me that it would be gone before La Trova opened. When we spoke again, with La Trova up and humming, he confirmed: His chin is now bare, as clean and crisp as a perfect daiquiri.