Havana Happy Hour

Phil Bayly penned some of his thoughts on a recent visit to Havana, Cuba – viva la Phil!

I’m sitting in a canary yellow 1953 Chevy cruising down the Malecon in Havana and the car’s radio is playing a mambo mixed with a lot of static. The weather is hot, and the breeze coming through the window has a salty taste that’s mixed exhaust fumes.

So this is Habana!

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Getting through immigration is the usual formidably oppressive and suspicious experience that you expect, but once I get through those barriers Cuba opens up and smiles appear. The music begins and I am swept away in this tropical island life of Son, Salsa and cigar smoke. It’s a place adorned by colour, lustrous scents and sounds of the tropics.

What do I know about Cuba? Cigars, Rum, Revolution and Mojitos.” Phil Bayly – owner Café Pacifico, Sydney.

Downtown at Parque Central the city is trucking along at a cool 10-15 miles an hour. Not to fast, not to slow just that easy Havana rhythm that gets you in the local groove.

What do I know about Cuba? Cigars, Rum, Revolution and Mojitos. I’m here to get the inside on the Habana Mojito, so it’s off to Habana Vieja (old Havana) to check out La Bogetita Del Medio. It’s located on an obscure cobblestone street that proves once again that location is not everything.

The place has a beautiful deep aged wood feel to it with high ceilings, the ubiquitous ceiling fans and a tiny bar packed with tourists. Mamello, my bartender, has a Mojito production line in full swing. There are five, ten sometimes even fifteen mojitos being made on the tiny bar top at one time. Sugar, a squirt of lime, some Yerba Buena and a quick muddle Mamello throws on some ice and a splash of mineral water and tops it up with rum.

I must admit, they are tasting mighty fine and definitely one is not enough for me as I’ve got a real Havana thirst on. There is a narrow passage behind the bar that I follow which leads to the restaurant in the back. It’s a rabbit warren of tiny dark rooms that have very high ceilings with walls covered in portraits of celebrities. Between the frames are signatures and messages dating back to 1942. This is a place of history.

Habana’s bars

The bars here in Habana are great examples of colonial American style Bars. One bar I would love to have visited is “Sloppy Joes” (behind the Hotel Parque Central). Once an icon in the fifties, it now stands in a ghostly state of reconstruction. At least half the Mojitos I drank in Habana were served with Angostura bitters, and my conclusion? They all taste good to me when I’m thirsty, and right now I’m sweating from the heat and witnessing sensual grinding moments of life at the raw edge of existence. Viva Cuba!

At the Hotel Parque Central, another of the city’s icon buildings, their Mojito is made with Cava (sparkling Spanish wine) instead of rum, which gives it a light and refreshing taste – delightful! Now it’s in to a 1955 Desoto convertible and down the Malecon to The famous Hotel Nacional which a luxury destination and regular haunt for celebrities such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, and Errol Flynn amongst others (even mobster Rocky Marciano is said to have graced its halls). The Churchill Bar has been serving cocktails since the 1930’s and its filled with a timeless grace and charm. This intimate bar shows its class and reputation with simple classic lines of heavy dark wood and a few interesting stories in the wood work.

As I head out and walk down the street I am fully aware I am in a communist country. Much of the city’s architecture is in decay and Cuba’s decadent past is slowly crumbling away leaving it an unholy future. One local feature that is still powerfully impressive however is the Plaza Cathedral. The Cathedral is a living museum that showcases Cuba’s historic Baroque style. The Cathedral dates back to the 1727 and images of pirates and debauchery fill my mind – maybe it’s the Mojitos.

I head to La Floridita for Hemingway’s famous daiquiri and I enter the bar to be engulfed by a feeling of classic warmth and grandeur. A life size bronze figure of Hemingway secures one end of the bar; it’s a larger than life characterture of the great man and emulates his very existence throughout the room. The decor is slick, elegant and tasteful. The bartenders are middle aged to elderly, dressed in sharp uniforms exuding years of experience. I order a daiquiri and to my surprise it comes from a premix bottle, is then blended, and served in a martini glass. The vibe is half tourist and half local. A quartet is playing some mambo in the corner.  The first daiquiri slides down easily removing the heat and the dust from the streets. Personally I find it a bit bland. Next it’s the Papa Doble, created by Constantino Ribailagua, and a favorite of our literary friend Ernest Hemingway. It is 2 oz Havana Club, juice of 2 limes, and juice of ½ grapefruit, 6 drops Maraschino Cherry Brandy. Served blended in a goblet, (Hemingway didn’t like sugar in his drinks). This one has a much bigger presence with a much fuller livelier flavour.

Ok now let’s try the Floridita Mojito. Alejandro our bartender takes a highball, places about 30ml lime juice, two complete stems of Yeirba Buena and half a spoon of white sugar, giving it a very light muddle with out breaking up the leaves, he then adds ice, about a finger of mineral water and tops the whole glass up with a double portion of Havana 3 year old, adds two drops of Angostura and stirs the whole drink well with a spoon before garnished it with a sprig of mint. The Angostura changes the flavour considerably making it much deeper richer and aromatic.

Habana Libre

Not far away in Habana Libre at the Hotel Habana Hilton is the El Polinesio bar – a tribute to all things Tiki! The bar originally opened in 1958 as a Trader Vic’s and is now run by the Cuban Government. Osvaldo, our bartender, again mixes Angostura for my Mojito and I suck it back with enjoyment.  Still in Habana Libre, the Emperador is an atmospheric kitsch piano cocktail bar for the more affluent Cuban society. Very cool and slick style bar, with great charm and great vibe. Arian makes my Mojito with Angostura again and they are tasting better and better as the night goes on. Arian is a sharp operator with style to boot. He is cool – Cuban cool.

My next port of call is LLuvia de Oro just down the street. This bar is set in an historic bar room that dates back to 1924. Luis Machin, an older man who looks like he has seen it all, greets me as I enter and guides me in to a classic old bordega with high ceilings and a beautiful old wooden bar along the right wall. The soulful sounds of Son drift from a quintet sitting up the back, and, Samuel Dulzades my bartender, gets right into making me up a Mojito. Once again it is using Angostura.

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