Grape & Grain
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The best places for updated Cuba libres in Hong Kong

The Cuban/American cocktail, which was named after a battle cry during the 1898 Cuban War of Independence, has been given a 21st-century makeover

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 January, 2017, 5:52pm

With Cuban American relations finally returning to some degree of normality – subject, of course, to any bright ideas President Trump may have – there is a buzz of interest surrounding Cuban drinks such as the Mojito, the Daiquiri, and particularly the Cuba libre.

In many bars, the Cuba libre is less grandiosely referred to as a simple rum and coke. There seems to be no meaningful distinction between drinks presented under either name, except that the former has an official International Bartenders Association recipe which includes fresh lime juice, while for the latter, the citrus element is optional.

The drink, the main ingredients of which are distinctively Cuban and American respectively, is more than 100 years old. Nobody knows for sure who first mixed it, or when, but the earliest probable date is 1900, the year Coca-Cola was first exported to Cuba.

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It takes its name from a battle cry of the Cuban War of Independence of 1895 to 1898, which ended, along with the Spanish American War, with the Treaty of Paris of 1898, under which the United States and the former colonial power, Spain, both recognised Cuban independence.

The cry was “Por Cuba Libre” meaning “For a Free Cuba” and it became associated with the drink because, according to legend, an anonymous member of the US Signal Corps mixed it in a bar in Old Havana and proposed “Por Cuba Libre” as a toast.

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It was probably first made with Bacardi rum, which has not been distilled in Havana since 1960, when the late Fidel Castro’s government confiscated the company’s Cuban assets, but Bacardi has traded increasingly in recent years on its Cuban heritage.

For this year’s Bacardi Legacy Competition, Honi Honi general manager Stephane Levan decided to create a cocktail, derived from the Cuba libre, which he calls the Libertad – Spanish for “freedom”.

“I wanted to take two really classic Cuban drinks, and then combine them by reducing the Cuba libre into a daiquiri. That is basically what this is, while adding a Chinese touch with some Sichuan pepper,” says Levan.

When the Cuba libre was first mixed, he points out, Coca-Cola would have seemed a lot more exotic than it does today. It had only been around since 1886, and hard though it may be to believe, was actually being promoted as a health drink.

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Levan’s recipe requires about 60ml of Bacardi Carta Blanca, 20ml of the juice of one freshly squeezed lime (“to get the full flavour out of the fruit”), 20ml of Coca Cola syrup, 15ml of Sichuan pepper syrup and four drops of cherry bitters, shaken with ice, then double strained into a martini glass. The glass is rimmed with caster sugar, powdered citric acid, and Sichuan pepper.

The syrups are house-made, Sichuan peppercorns are blended with sugar syrup, and one litre of Coca-Cola is reduced down to 100ml of syrup.

The aim of the drink, says Levan, as well as putting an Asian twist on two Caribbean classics, was to evoke childhood memories through the familiar sweetness of the Coca-Cola. At the same time the drink delivers the more adult pleasures of alcohol and spice.

It achieves that objective, and for those of us who have lost the taste for sugary soft drinks, it’s probably more palatable than the Cuba libre itself. I tasted both and prefer the new interpretation.

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As just about every bar in town has rum, Coca-Cola and fresh lime juice readily available, you can get a passable Cuba libre anywhere, but Levan and Honi Honi are unusual in having come up with a genuinely original twist on it.

Another bar which has decided to vary the formula a bit is The Envoy where Antonio Lai and his team offer a Cuba libre sundae.

That drink combines genuinely Cuban Havana Club 3 Anos Rum with Coke, house-made lime sherbert and vanilla syrup. Again it’s for the sweet of tooth, but an unusual twist on a formula which, for many, has stood the test of time. If I were back in Havana, though, I’d be drinking Mojitos or Daiquiris.

Honi Honi Tiki Cocktail Lounge, 3/F Somptueux Central, 52 Wellington Street, Central, tel: 2353 0885

The Envoy, 3/F The Pottinger Hotel, 74 Queen’s Road Central, Central, tel: 2169 3311