|June 28, 2011 | Cuba, Photos By J.Yuenger, Travels
Havana, Cuba : We fall into the habit of going to the bar at a fancy hotel every late afternoon.
We are a pair of scruffy rocker-types with tattoos, cut-off black jeans, unruly hair – a species unknown on this island. We walk miles every day. There are aspects of this place that resemble more the landscape of my childhood than that of my present-day life and it is perhaps for this reason that I explore as my ex-self would have, resolutely hopping walls, marching through puddles. There are no emission standards of any kind here, and vehicles spew black exhaust, as do the smokestacks of the factories, and the air is full of soot and dust. I catch sight of myself in a mirror in the lobby and I look like a New Orleans bike punk. We are filthy.
Despite this, the staff is friendly. There is no money in this country, and anybody with a little decorum and the ability to spend 3 times the going rate for a beer (what’s the street-price of a beer in Cuba? $1.08, or about 10¢ if you’re a local. More on that later.) is welcome, even at one of the most expensive hotels in Havana. The bartenders are professionals. They know when to talk, which they do easily while polishing glasses and squeezing limes, and they know when not to ; you finish your drink and they glide over and raise an eyebrow. One of these guys even has an iPhone, the only one I see anywhere, which means that he probably does all right for tips. This place is a refuge from the relentless hustling going on outside, it’s cool, dark, and comfortable, but the real reason we come here are the toilets.
We can’t shit at the casa. The plumbing barely works and even peeing requires a couple of flushes. Most of the toilets we encounter are substandard, chinese-made, inefficient. Toilet paper is usually unavailable and when it is there’s a wastebasket and a sign : Por favor, no se podía tirar el papel. I’m a good traveler, ready for anything, but this is something that has always disgusted me wildly. We each visit the hotel’s men’s room repeatedly, marveling at the extra toilet paper ( which is brown and very rough, but which we have not seen anywhere else in quantities of more than one roll ) and the powerful flush-action of the sturdy American-made plumbing.
There was a period, a couple of years ago, when I got really into mojitos, which were invented in Cuba. I drank them everywhere, developed my own recipe, and lubricated recording sessions in my living room with them. How’s the level in your cans? Do you want reverb on your vocal? How’s your drink? I order one and watch the bartender. As people sometimes do, he adds sugar instead of simple syrup, which seems wrong to me because sugar does not dissolve easily in a cold beverage. He tops my cocktail off with a couple of dashes of Angostura bitters, which surprises me totally. I like bitters. I went once to a bar in upper Wisconsin that has bitters from all over the world and serves them in shot glasses, and I had a fine time that day, but this is not good. A well-made mojito is a perfect combination of sweet, sour, and alcohol, and does not need another component. This man is a good bartender and an affable fellow, so I ask him very carefully if this is his own personal recipe. He assures me that In Cuba, mojitos are always made this way. Later, at a more modest drinking spot which we also frequent, I try another, and it is exactly the same. My recipe is much better.
* Shot glass
* Mixing glass
* Chilled pint glass, or solo cup, or any big cup. This recipe makes a strong drink, so don’t go putting it in a highball glass. I use an imperial pint glass, the official British kind with the crown on it.
* Muddle stick. I went and bought a dedicated muddler, but you can use anything. People often use the butt of the knife that they cut the lime with.
* Bendy straw
* Rum. I use Bacardi, which is pretty cheap and not too bad. You can use rum that’s more expensive, but you’re probably not going to be able to taste the difference. Do not use anything other than clear ( or ‘white’, or ‘silver’, or whatever they call it ) rum, and don’t use any sort of flavored rum, which is for girls.
* Simple syrup. ½ water, ½ white sugar. The simplest way to make this is to get a bottled water, pour half of it out, and fill the bottle back up with sugar. Shake the bottle every couple of minutes until the sugar is completely dissolved.
* Fresh mint
* Club soda
1. In your mixing glass, combine the juice of one half lime ( retain the squeezed-out lime rind ), two shots of rum, one shot ( I usually use a little less ) of simple syrup, and three or four mint leaves.
2. Muddle. Really, what you’re doing here is mixing everything up and tapping the mint leaves to release their essence. You don’t have to smash or tear the leaves, which will leave bits of mint floating in your drink, which you will then suck up with your straw, which is not cool.
3. Transfer the mixture to your chilled pint glass and drop in the squeezed-out lime half. If you want your mojito to be slightly on the sour side ( yum ), drop in the other, not-squeezed-out half of the lime as well.
4. Add ice, fill the glass to the top with club soda, and stir lightly. If you want, you can garnish with a lime slice and a couple more mint leaves, which will give your drink a nice tropical look.
5. Be careful. What you have now is an extremely tasty, very strong cocktail with a straw in it. Unless you pay attention, you will suck it down very quickly, which will be like doing two shots of rum.