On a Friday night in Mexico City, as the gray summer sky threatens rain, packs of teenagers head to their local corner store, OXXO, to prepare for weekend parties. Under the glowing red and yellow marquee, they pool their cash for a paquete—an affordable combo of liquor, soda and ice—for around $15 USD. The simple Cuba Libres they will assemble with the Bacardí blanco and a bouncy 2-liter of Coca-Cola are the fuel of every fiesta, consumed pregame and post (aka el after), where night shifts into the early hours of day.
What Slate writer Troy Patterson has called “a mediocre Caribbean-American highball,” derided for its ease and mass-market appeal, holds steady as one of Mexico’s most consumed cocktails. The drink is emblematic of the turn of the 20th century: the completion of Cuba’s War of Independence in 1898, the development of a fizzy American stimulant, and the evolution of the rum industry in Cuba and beyond. The cocktail quickly spread west and south. Throughout Latin America, the name shifts with local dialect to roncola, cubata, cubalibre, cubita, using the “rum and cola” template modified by the conventions of each metropolis and its denizens.
The Cuba Libre found a natural existence in Mexico, where the enjoyment of Coca-Cola and the dousing of lime and salt on every comestible is a way of life. According to Cantinas ¡Salud por las Capitalinas!, the cocktail was popularized in Mexico City in the 1930s at the bars that line República de Cuba. Back then, a “Cuba,” as it is shortened to in the capital, sold for 35 cents a glass at Los Bohemios, and was made with one part rum, two parts cola and an aspirin dropped in to counter the inevitable hangover.
“I drink it all of the time,” says José Luis Leon, bar manager and partner at Licorería Limantour, ranked on The World’s 50 Best Bars list, “to keep the party going.” Limantour currently serves a clear, clarified version of a Cuba Libre, though, Leon explains: “While it’s a worthwhile exercise playing with such a simple recipe, at its root, it is a democratic drink.”
A bartender makes a Cuba Libre at Mexico City’s El Sella.
Cheap, easily assembled, with the one-two punch of high-octane sugar and caffeine, the Cuba Libre speaks to all levels of sophistication, loved by godínez “working stiffs,” 20-somethings, aunts and grandmothers, hipsters, office workers, cops, wine snobs and teachers alike. It is for anyone who is thirsty and likes to get drunk, because the primary purpose of a Cuba is, of course, to get soused.
This reputation was immortalized by the 1980s Mexican pop-group sensation Flans in the hit song “Tiraré” (“I’ll throw…”), which describes a woman tossing Cuba Libres out of the nearest window because her date is trying to get her drunk:
Tiraré, tiraré las Cubas por la ventana
Mientras él prepara otra Cuba cargada
Otra Cuba cargada, otra Cuba.
“I’ll throw, I’ll throw the Cubas out the window
while he prepares another stiff Cuba
another stiff Cuba, another Cuba.”
For such a straightforward cocktail, idiosyncrasies abound. To cut the sugar, drinkers in Mexico will ask for their Cuba pintada, or “painted,” which counters the sweetness of the Coke with a splash of soda water. Take it even further and you have a campechana, a term that references the state of Campeche and is pirate slang used to describe various liquids mixed into a drink; it has since been extended to describe people, tacos, seafood, etc. In the realm of a highball, it means half Coca-Cola, half soda water, which dilutes the hickory shade to a light tawny. You can also start the Cuba with soda water and paint it with a rivet of soda so the faintest caramel shade permeates the drink. This is the furthest one can downshift a Cuba before it becomes just a cold glass of rum and bubbly water.
One of the drink’s most peculiar iterations is to specify it quemada or quemadita, or “lightly burned.” In this variation, the drink maker rolls the vertical glass back and forth between two palms, the heat of their hands melting the ice into the rum waiting at the bottom, purportedly making for a smoother, softer cocktail. José Manuel del Valle, owner of Bar El Sella in the Doctores neighborhood, counters: “It’s for the show, more than anything else,” he says with a shrug. “I’ve never been able to taste a difference.”
And after three, who can? A Cuba Libre isn’t about taste, anyway; it’s a ritual. At the hundreds of cantinas and other matured watering holes around the city, where the square tables have notches in the legs to hold drinks so the tops remain clear for playing dominoes, the quirks of the Cuba, and the clients that like to consume them, are treated with deep respect. Here, the cocktail is almost always served divorciada, or “divorced,” with single-serve bottles and cans of the sparkling water and Coca-Cola arriving at the table separately, to be mixed by the hand of the drinker, just as they like it.
In this way, the highball has evolved to become less of a cocktail made by a bartender and more of a careful calibration dictated by each patron and their particular taste. If you find yourself at a cantina or as a lucky invitee to a family celebration, or even breaking dawn with the club kids, there will be the inevitable Cuba Libre. The only question is, how do you take yours?