“You must see it before it changes forever” is the phrase on the lips of many who have been lucky enough to experience Cuba. The fading grandeur and upbeat atmosphere have not yet been overwhelmed by the weight of America influence. That Cuba will change is certain, but it’s not going to happen immediately.
All the iconic sights are there: the sleek American cars of the 1950s, and beyond them, the classic Spanish colonial-era architecture. In a free market country, gentrification and modernisation would have seen off many of these buildings, but here they still stand, ancient and crumbling. Some only just hang on, slowly descending into a venerable old age, old aristocrats in an extended, decades-long autumn. This might seem a bleak picture, but the views are far from bleak; there’s brightness everywhere.
Cubans love colour; they might not have sufficient funds to repair their buildings, but they can still afford to paint them. Façades are multi-coloured; azure vies with sunflower yellow and vivid green. An intense palate of luminous blue and turquoise wins the day. These two colours dominate the landscape, which is appropriate considering Cuba is a Caribbean island.
Cuba is synonymous with rum and rum-based cocktails. It is the home of iconic bars such as El Floridita and La Bodeguita Del Medio, the celebrated basement jazz club La Zorra y El Cuervo, and classic drinks including the Cuba Libre, daiquiri and mojito.
The rum to drink is Havana Club, and the Havana Club bottling of choice should be Selección de Maestros, which is created by all eight of the rum masters in Cuba (irrespective of the brand for whom they work), headed by the company’s Maestro del Ron Cubano, Asbel Morales. The competition in most other countries would make this collaboration near impossible. In Cuba it seems perfectly straightforward.
As a visitor there is little opportunity to become involved in the everyday life of Cuba: no holiday homes to be bought or restaurants to invest in. All we can do is extol the culture, history and spirit of this extraordinary, vibrant island, and there’s no finer medium for doing so than rum.
Where to try rum
Having a mojito at La Bodeguita Del Medio is a must. It is a small bar that finds just enough space for a band to play in the corner, and to pour and serve mojitos en masse. The majority of the drinkers congregate outside, extending the boundaries of the bar. Then, like a pilgrim ticking off holy sites, you have to take a daiquiri in El Floridita. The younger generation of Cubans hangs out in the lesser-known bars, experimenting with different ingredients in their cocktails, but always the same spirit. The biggest of the rum brands in Cuba, and the only one distributed out of the country, is Havana Club.
Where to learn about rum
A visit to Museo del Ron Havana Club is the best place to learn about rum production in Cuba, the facts and figures, and the processes and the people who create it. But it’s in the smaller bars where one can really learn about the culture of rum. Start with the traditional, Bar Monserrate, with dark wood décor and bow-tied barman; it’s like being on a film set. For views, there is El Polvorin, with its vista over Havana harbour. For the modern, there is Roma. Owned by Cuban DJ Alain Dark, it plays mostly electronic music and often features international DJs on the rooftop terrace. It is a snapshot of how the contemporary Havana bar scene is developing. One of the best all-round bars for cocktails and food, which is not on the tourist trail, is Chanchullero. It has a relaxed atmosphere and wittily undercuts the classic tourist perception of Havana: one poster insists, “Hemingway was never here”.
Where to buy rum
The pinnacle of the Havana Club range is the Icónica Collection – a set of super-premium rums designed to showcase the high quality of Havana Club and appeal to spirits connoisseurs and collectors alike. The rums have all been created by Asbel Morales and feature some of the oldest aged rums in the Havana Club portfolio. There is no best place to buy rum. All the shops have the same pricing; Communism still rules in Cuba.
La Zorra y El Cuervo
Avenida 23 | Entre N y o, Havana, Cuba
Obispo 557 Esquina a Monserrate esq. a Monserrate, Havana Vieja, Havana 10100 Cuba
La Bodeguita del Medio
Empedrado No. 207, Havana, Cuba
Museo del Ron Havana Club
Avenida del Puerto 262, esq. Sol, Habana Vieja Cuba, Havana, Cuba
Monserrate No. 401 La Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba
La Habana, Havana, Cuba
162 Aguacate, Havana, Cuba
Teniente Rey, 457A bajos Plaza El Cristo Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba