Cuba is many things to many people. For vacationers from Canada and Europe, it is a tropical Caribbean getaway. For cigar aficionados the island is renowned for its celebrated stogies. For music lovers, Cuba is a jazz hotbed that spawned legendary performers like Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, and the Buena Vista Social Club. It is a place to step back in time and wander the narrow streets of Old Havana and watch the antique cars cruise along the oceanfront Malecon roadway.
For drinkers, not only is Cuba the rum-soaked first home of Bacardi, it also holds an important spot in cocktail history. The daiquiri and mojito are two noteworthy drinks that trace their earliest roots to Cuba.
The Museum of the American Cocktail hosted a seminar at Georgetown’s Mie N Yu restaurant in June celebrating the rich cocktail history of Cuba. Phil Green, a founding member of the museum, and Charlotte Voisey, an internationally renowned mixologist, emceed the event. Attendees were treated to a range of drinks, including the historical El Presidente cocktail and the Moveable Feast, a Hemingway-inspired punch that Charlotte created for a Cuban-themed lounge in New York.
Charlotte and Phil discussed the history of Cuba, as a Spanish colony, during independence and post-Castro. Much of the evening was focused on Cuba’s role as a drinking destination during Prohibition.
When alcohol became illegal in the states, Havana became the unofficial U.S. saloon. It was easy for Americans to travel there. Airlines offered non-stop flights and steamer ships transported merrymakers from Florida. Popular bars such as the Floridita (Hemingway’s favorite), the U.S. Bar and La Bodega del Medio catered to American travelers.
During this time, a myriad of talented bartenders fled the U.S. in order to work in their professions. Phil described Cuba, along with England, France, Italy and others, as being one of the “carriers of the torch,” keeping the craft of the cocktail alive. In an effort to appeal to tourists, many cocktails were named after celebrities like the E. Hemingway Special, the Mary Pickford and my favorite cocktail of the evening, the Josephine Baker.
Famous for her risqué costumes and no-holds-barred dance routines, Baker, an American expatriate, became the talk of Paris during the Prohibition era. Her namesake tipple lives up to the hype of this notable entertainer.
The concoction is forged from a mixture of cognac, Port wine and apricot brandy, combined with an egg yolk for a frothy texture. The cocoa-colored cocktail has a sophisticated taste and a thick, smooth consistency. Its multi-layered flavor is subtly fruity and not overly sweet. A dusting of cinnamon adds a spicy kick.
While it may not be possible for U.S. passport holders legally travel to Cuba on a cocktail pilgrimage, the Josephine Baker is an easy drink to whip up at home.
1 1/2 ounces Cognac
1 1/2 ounces tawny Port wine
1 ounce apricot brandy
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 egg yolk
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass, garnish with lemon peel and dust with cinnamon. If you are concerned about consuming raw egg yolks, use pasteurized eggs.
Ingredients to make the Josephine Baker are available at Dixie Liquor at 3429 M St. in Georgetown. For more information about the Museum of the American Cocktail, check out their Web site at www.museumoftheamericancocktail.org.