The Cuba Libre holds a special place in my heart, and it’s not difficult to understand why. It’s quick, it’s easy to make, and it does the trick.
And discovering the drink’s history made me fall in love with it even more.
It all began with the U.S. invasion of Cuba on June 22, 1898.
During the Spanish-American War, the United States launched a campaign to liberate the island from Spanish rule (the United States would use Cuba as a springboard for its invasion of Puerto Rico the next month – but liberation would not be the desired effect of that invasion).
As American foreign policy goes, U.S. troops remained in Cuba afterward to monitor the birth of a free and independent Cuba. And as any soldiers stationed in Cuba would do, the Americans drank copious amounts of rum, the cane-growing island’s iconic spirit produced by the fermentation and distillation of sugarcane (historically, all armies run on the three B’s: bread, bullets and booze).
Yet, they didn’t drink just any rum (well, they probably did). The rum of choice in Cuba at the time was Bacardi, founded in 1862 in Santiago de Cuba (a few miles west of where American forces would land 36 years later).
Then, in 1900, a group of rowdy American soldiers sitting in a Havana bar, perhaps looking to mix things up a bit, asked the bartender to pour together some Cuban Bacardi with American Coca-Cola – which had just been introduced the same year.
Raising their glasses, the men toasted ¡Por Cuba Libre!
It’s unclear whether the first drinks had the now-essential lime juice mixed in; nevertheless, the Cuba Libre was born (Coca-Cola still had trace amount of cocaine in it at the time, so that must’ve been one helluva drink).
While Bacardi left the island shortly before Castro took power in 1959 (though it was a strong supporter of the revolution during the 1950s), the Cuba Libre has become wildly popular with people young and old.
Writing for The Washington Post, Jason Wilson describes the Cuba Libre as “a lazy person’s drink…. the plastic-cup tipple of the all-inclusive resort, the roadside motel and, of course, the college dorm.” Cocktail know-it-all Derek Brown labels it “the drink of the shiftless, idle and indolent.”
At first glance, such portrayals sound like insults toward drinkers of this magic potion, but they’re really not. Admittedly, you can’t do much else while sipping on a Cuba Libre, but why would you want to do anything else?
If you have things to do, don’t reach for the rum and coke.
The drink is also popular among Puerto Ricans, whose version uses cherry or vanilla Coke. My paternal grandpa – a short, black Puerto Rican old man who we called “Papi Two” – drank it so much that the bottom of his white mustache was tinted yellow over time.
Knowing the history of the drink and the beloved island of Puerto Rico, I’m saddened a bit whenever I sip my Cuba Libre. Puerto Ricans living on the island during the first half of the 20th century must’ve drank their Cuba Libre with a sense of pride and hope, thinking, “Soon it’ll be Puerto Rico’s turn at freedom.”
For some, it’s still the dream.
But until I can order a “Puerto Rico Libre,” I’ll settle for a rum and coke… and don’t forget the lime.