Benito Cuppari

Words by Luca Rapetti (intro by Simon Difford)

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Some cocktails become well-known and perhaps even household names while their creators remain anonymous or forgotten. The Barracuda, created in 1965 and enjoying renewed notoriety with resurgence in popularity of tropical drinks, was such a cocktail.

Like most, I was unaware of the bartender who created the Barracuda when I listed the cocktail on Difford's Guide, but a fellow Discerning Drinker helpfully left a comment on the page saying it was the creation of Benito Cuccari, an Italian bartender working on the Michelangelo cruise ship which sailed from Europe to the Caribbean so leading him to mix tropical ingredients with Italian liqueur and champagne. In turn, this led Luca Rapetti to add:

"I personally interviewed Mr Benito Cuppari (not Cuccari) few years ago when I published a full article on Barracuda's history, complete with pictures. Let me know if you wish to have more information on this cocktail."

I gratefully took up the offer and Luca sent me the following translated version of the article he wrote for Italian bartending magazine BarTales after meeting and interviewing Mr Benito Cuppari in 2015. He also forwarded these pictures kindly provided by Cuppari family.

Genoa, one of the most important and well-known Italian cities, home of Pesto alla Genovese, Blue Jeans and Cristoforo Colombo. Its location on the sea has always placed it over the centuries as one of the centres for maritime trade in Europe and in the world: characterized by its iconic lighthouse that overlooks it, it is currently the leading Italian cargo port. Tourism and cruise ships have also long been important to Genoa and during the 60s and 70s was were some of the most famous ships of the period were launched.

Michelangelo and Raffaello are names that recall two of the most talented artists of the Italian Renaissance, two "Colossi" of Art, to which two imposing and highly innovative ocean liners were dedicated, termed "Super-transatlantic" liners at the time. The Michelangelo was completed on April 21, 1965, after 5 years of construction at a total cost of 75 billion lire and left for her maiden voyage from Genoa to New York on 12th May 1965, with 1,495 onboard. The Raffaello, with as many as 1,121 passengers, then also departed from Genoa towards New York on 25th July 1965.

Built by "Italia Navigazione", a government-owned company that dealt with maritime transport, the purpose of these "floating cities" was to entertain passengers travelling between New York and Italy, offering all the comforts of a 5-star hotel on board a ship, divided into three classes: First Class, Second Class (also called Cabin Class since no one wanted to be considered a "second class" traveller) and Tourist Class.

Dance halls, restaurants, outdoor swimming pools and even a fully equipped hospital represented luxury and the best service for an international clientele, which also saw among its guests illustrious names such as Virna Lisi and Dustin Hoffman: at their disposal an excellent bar service with seven bars located in strategic points, each with dedicated bartenders and waiting staff.

Our historical adventure turns its attention to one of these "Entertainers and Gentlemen of the art of Good Drinking". Benito Cuppari, born in Genoa in 1936, after attending hotel school was sent for a time to the Isle of Wight, in the south of England, to learn the English language and perfect his knowledge learned during his studies.

At a time when there was still no internet, mobile phones, nor means of transport such as high-speed trains or planes for intercontinental flights (the first Boeing 747 flight was inaugurated on February 9, 1969), the possibilities to improve your own knowledge was through books or by traveling the world, which required a personal sacrifice not affordable by everyone.

So, Benito Cuppari set out to travel, initially working on the Cristoforo Colombo, an ocean cruise launched in 1954 also in service on the Genoa - New York route. The contact with an international clientele and having a considerable assortment of fruit, spices and liqueurs at his disposal led Cuppari to create a simple cocktail that was very much appreciated by the passengers who visited him at his bar. His choice of ingredients was helped by an abundance of pineapple which he mixed with rum and a traditional Italian liqueur: Galliano Vanilla. A small amount of lemon juice and sugar balanced the cocktail, completed with Champagne.

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Benito Cuppari bartending

But why did he decide to use Galliano? Two simple but very intuitive reasons: it was always exhibited among the bottles of bars onboard cruise ships and in the best cocktail bars of the big cities, also its strong taste with a vanilla finish was much appreciated by foreign customers, Americans in particular.

As we all know, what often makes a cocktail famous is certainly the balance between the various ingredients but also the choice of the glass in which to serve it; we can say that the glass represents the external structure of a luxury ship, inside which we find a sort of small world, composed of various elements in perfect balance. And Cuppari had great intuition: he used the pineapple shell from which the fresh pineapple juice was extracted as a "hull" for his cocktail. The cocktail was thus served inside the pineapple, completed with champagne and straws.

However, it was not on the Cristoforo Colombo but onboard the Michelangelo that the cocktail gained its notoriety: when in 1965 Cuppari embarked, he had the opportunity to propose its creation in one of the seven bars that the ocean liner offered, the Bar Lido.

If the choice of ingredients and the glass are important in the creation of a successful cocktail, the name is equally fundamental: the name represents the business card both for the drink and for the barman who creates it, it must be simple to remember and arouse the curiosity of those who want to try it.

Here Cuppari, as the good Genoese he is, had no doubts about the name. Being a great friend of the manager of one of the most famous nightclubs on the Riviera di Levante, in the famous and worldly Santa Margherita Ligure, a few steps from Portofino, Cuppari decided to be inspired by the name of the club, Barracuda: simple, easy to remember, which goes perfectly with the somewhat Caribbean style of the cocktail itself.

And so, the Barracuda Cocktail was born, a mix of particular and unusual ingredients for that period, a great example of cocktail-concept (right mix, right glass, right name), which led Cuppari to mix dozens and dozens a day. Such was the fame earned that Distillerie Solaro of Milan, owner of the Galliano brand, decided to produce a ceramic reproduction of the pineapple, with the photo and the recipe of the Barracuda imprinted, using two other products from the same brand portfolio.

-2/10 Galliano Liqueur
-3/10 Rum Palo Viejo
-3/10 Pineapple juice
-1/10 Lime or Lemon juice
-1/10 sugar syrup or a teaspoon of sugar.
Complete with Champagne Brut Mercier, a lemon wedge and a Maraschino cherry.

Produced in their hundreds, this ceramic memento was given to all Michelangelo customers who ordered a Barracuda at Cuppari's bar. This ingenious marketing strategy greatly increased the consumption of the products used in the preparation of the cocktail, so much so that Dole, an American company leading the world in the distribution of fruit and vegetables, sent Cuppari a letter of thanks for having considerably increased, thanks to his recipe, the supplies of pineapple on board the ships of the main international cruise companies.

Sure of his potential and of what he had created, he also decided to submit the Barracuda recipe at the AIBES National Competition of 1966, held in Saint Vincent (AO), which saw his triumph in the Long Drink category: awarded with the "Golden Shaker" by the then AIBES President and one of the most influential bartenders on the international scene, Angelo Zola. Cuppari's triumphal series did not end here: in 1967 he was awarded the Bruno Deserti Award as the best Barman of the two-year period 1966-1967.

What barman would not want to receive compliments from the one who is still recognized as the father of Tiki culture in the world? This also happened to Cuppari, who, in 1970 in London and then in 1973 in New York, went to the two already known Trader Vic's bars, on whose menus the Barracuda Cocktail had been included. He also had the opportunity to meet Victor Bergeron (aka Trader Vic) in person, who confessed that he loved the cocktail created by Cuppari, first of all, because it contained rum as an alcoholic base and because it totally reflected the Tiki concept of Trader Vic's bars.

In 1975, after ten years spent serving and delighting passengers with his imaginative cocktails, the advent of intercontinental airliners, which offered a faster and less expensive service, end the Michelangelo's service on the Genoa-New York route leading Cuppari to continue his career on dry land.

With his heart and mind always turned towards his homeland, Cuppari decided without any doubt to settle in his beloved Genoa: here he opened his first restaurant with the name of Shaker Club (now Scassa Diavoli) located in via Cesarea, where the Barracuda and his signature cocktails created over the previous years, including the Papillion, were served. Although less famous than its brother Barracuda, the Papillion is also an excellent example of how to build a story around a cocktail in order to make it more appealing to the customer. Based on a very simple recipe of gold rum, gin, pineapple juice and coconut cream, all served in a coconut and completed with champagne, its name is inspired by the book Papillon by the French writer Henri Charrière. Published in 1969, it recounts the 12 years of captivity that the author served in the prisons of Guyana French. Compelling, full of stories with a strong emotional impact, Papillon quickly captured the minds of thousands of readers, even leading it to be produced in a film version in 1973, among whose actors we find two stars of the caliber Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.

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The other side of Benito's specials list at the top of this page

Many other creations were added to Cuppari's cocktail list, who after a few years sold the Shaker Club to move to one of the most famous areas of Genoa, with breath-taking views from east to west and overlooking the entire port area of Genoa and its imposing lighthouse: Castelletto. Here stands La Barcaccia, a small restaurant led by Davide, son of Cuppari, in which there is an impressive bar counter with a wide selection of spirits, liqueurs and bitters, all surmounted by a scale model of the Michelangelo cruise liner.

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Proud of his past, he does not hesitate to pass behind the bancor bar to show me a small object of his creation, complete with a patent filed: a lemon peel for left-handers, designed to quickly create a perfect spiral or a peel for a Martini cocktail, without however excessively removing the white part of the peel.

In 2011 the I.B.A. officially included Cuppari's Barracuda Cocktail in the New Era Drink category of the world cocktail list. What greater satisfaction for a man who, with his humility, simplicity and intuition, has shown what are the rules to follow to create an idea of success, whether it is a cocktail or not, starting from elements within everyone's reach but that would have affected everyone's desire. Witness of a period of our profession that no longer exists, we can only be proud of having had another more than worthy ambassador of the Italian tradition of bartending in the world.

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Benito Cuppari in 2015

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