Cuba Libre - to muddle or not to muddle & history

Words by Simon Difford

The Cuba Libre is simply rum and Coca-Cola with a squeeze of lime. But there is so much more to this refreshing long drink. Should it contain Angostura bitters? Exactly how much lime juice is just right? And while the drink has a rich heritage there is discourse over exactly when and who christened the combo 'Cuba Libre'.

The recipe

The Cuba Libre is classically made with two wedges of lime squeezed into the glass with the spent wedges dropped into the drink. Predictably in our recipe we prefer to pour a measured amount of lime - (predicated on the use of a 12 ounce glass filled with inch square ice cubes) we use ¼ shot (7.5ml) with 2 dashes of Angostura bitters, or ½ shot (15ml) if no bitters are added. Our preference is to reduce the amount of lime and use bitters.

In his 1939 The Gentleman's Companion, Charles H. Baker Jr. calls for the lime to be muddled to extract the oils in the skin. He writes:

"This native Island concoction started by accident and has caught on everywhere throughout the south, has filtered through the north and west. Last summer, for instance, we ran into Kooba Lee-brays 5,000 feet up in the North Carolina Mountains at High Hampton, the year before in Mexico City and Seattle. Last week in Palm Beach and Cat Cay. The only trouble with the drink is that it started by accident and without imagination, has been carried along by the ease of its supply. Under any condition it is too sweet.

What's to do?... After clinical experimenting for which our insurance carriers heartily dislike us, we tested several variations of the original, with this result: the Improved Cuba Libre consists of 1 big jigger of Carta de Oro Bacardi, the juice of 1 small green lime, and the lime peel after squeezing. Put in a Tom Collins glass, muddle well to get oil worked up over sides of glass, add lots of ice lumps, fill up with a bottle of chilled Coca-Cola. Stir up once, and salud y pesetas!"

I suggest measuring the lime juice and squeezing a couple of lime zest twists into the drink (and then discarding) to give a more measured amount of lime juice while also adding lime oils. Perhaps also express a lime zest twist over the finished drink.


The Cuba Pintada ('stained Cuba') consists of one part rum with two parts club soda and just enough cola to lightly tint the club soda. The Cuba Campechana ('half-and-half Cuba') is made with one part rum with equal parts club soda and cola.

The song

The Cuba Libre peaked in popularity in America during the 1940s, partly aided by the Andrews Sisters who in 1945 had a hit single with Rum and Coca-Cola, named after the drink's ingredients. During the war, all spirits production went over to industrial alcohol - in the absence of whiskey and gin, Americans turned to imported Caribbean rum. Sugar was also rationed so limiting the making of many classic cocktails and affecting the production of sodas such as ginger ale. However, Coca-Cola remained readily available.

The story

Like many stories, there is more than one version of how the Cuba Libre (free Cuba) was born into the world and by whom it was christened. The following account follows Bacardi's narrative. The rum was the dominant brand of rum on the island at the time (whatever that time was) and it is the brand most often identified with the drink - as in Charles H. Baker's account above.

The Cuba Libre was born out of Cuba's War of Independence with the Spanish, a war in which, like most Cubans, the Bacardi family were involved. In the late 1890s, Cuba's anti-colonial fighters were called the Mambí. Emilio Bacardi, the eldest son of Emilio Bacardi, was one of them. He began his military service as aide de camp to Major General Antonio Maceo, Cuba's 'Bronze Titan', fighting the Spanish from Cuba's dense forests, or 'manigua'. During the war, he was promoted to colonel, and became known as 'El Coronel'.

The war was scarcely over when, in late 1898 Warren Candler (brother of Asa Candler, then owner of Coca-Cola) sailed for Cuba, the first of twenty such trips. As a result of Warren's visits to Cuba, there in May 1899 the company hired a sales merchant to sell Coca-Cola syrup for use in soda fountains and appointed Jose Parejo, a Havana wine merchant as the Cuban distributor for Coca-Cola. The appointment of a salesman for Cuba and Puerto Rico headquartered at Havana is recorded in the minutes of a stockholders meeting with Asa Candler on 11th January 1900.

By 1900, Coca-Cola was both popular and widely available in Cuba so it is not surprising that American soldiers still garrisoned there started ordering Bacardi Cuban Rum and Coke with a squeeze of the ubiquitous lime. One soldier, in particular, Captain Russell of the U.S. Signal Corp, is credited with starting this trend when one day in August 1900 he ordered the combination in a Havana bar. Naturally, his drink sparked interest from the soldiers around him and before long the entire bar was drinking it. The Captain proposed a toast, 'Por Cuba libre!' in celebration of a 'free Cuba'. Fortunately for posterity, the event is supported by a sworn affidavit from a witness, Fausto Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was a personal messenger to General Wood, appointed the military governor of Cuba after entering Santiago de Cuba on 17th July 1898, following Roosevelt's victory at the battle of San Juan Hill. After the Republic of Cuba was born on 20th May 1902, General Wood left Cuba and Fausto Rodriguez returned to Santiago de Cuba. Sixty-five years later, on 21st December 1964, Rodriguez told Emilio Bacardi the following story, affirmed under oath:

During the period of military intervention, two Americans opened and operated a bar called The American Bar on Neptuno Street, between Consulado and Prado in Havana. It was patronized almost exclusively by American soldiers and by American civilians who worked in the various government offices in Havana.

"In 1899 I was employed as a messenger in the office of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, I became quite friendly with an American whose last name was Russell (I do not remember his given name). He worked in the office of the Chief Signal Officer. Mr Russell frequently took me to The American Bar where we used to drink Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola.

One afternoon in August 1900, I went to The American Bar with Mr Russell, and he drank his usual Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola. I just drank Coca-Cola, being only 14 years old. On that occasion, there was a group of American soldiers at the bar, and one of them asked Mr Russell what he was drinking. He told them it was Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola and suggested they try it, which they did.

The soldiers who drank the Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola said they liked it, and wanted to know what the drink was called. When Mr Russell told them that the drink did not have a name, one of the soldiers said, "Let's give it a name". Another said, "How about calling it 'Cuba Libre'?" They all agreed and ordered another round of Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola, calling it a Cuba Libre. To my best knowledge, this is the first time this phrase 'Cuba Libre' has been applied to a drink. Thus, the first Cuba Libre consisted of Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola.

During the American intervention, the words Cuba Libre - meaning Free Cuba - had a special political significance, and were used a great deal by the Cubans and Americans in Cuba. It seemed quite natural that the American soldiers selected and applied this popular slogan to this drink, which they considered indigenous to Cuba, consisting of Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola. The name caught on quickly, and has remained popular to the present time."[sic]

This above affidavit was used by Bacardi in a 1960s advertisement and Rodriguez's story was cited in a book by Charles A. Coulombe.

The controversy

We're happy to believe the above. However, some dispute the above turn of events arguing that Coca-Cola wasn't available in Cuba during the Spanish-American war. In his For God, Country and Coca-Cola, The Definitive History of the World's Most Popular Soft Drink (Orion Business Books 2000), Mark Pendergrast writes (in chapter 5) that Coca-Cola was not commercially bottled until 1899 (an earlier 1888 bottling tasted vile so the experiment abandoned and other attempts during the 1890s did not achieve significant distribution). According to page 93, Coca-Cola appointed a sales merchant for Cuba, of fountain syrup not bottles, in May 1899, i.e., a year after the war ended in August 1898 and the U.S. troops, the Rough Riders were pulled out (September 1898). The Coca-Cola Company itself in says that Coca-Cola travelled to Cuba in 1900.

The book has the following to say about Coca-Cola in Cuba in the 1890s:

p.69: "When the U.S. went to war with Spain in 1898, Thomas became a clerk in a Cuban commissary, where he was impressed by the popularity of a carbonated pineapple drink called Pina Frio. Upon his return to Chattanooga the following year, he decided that perhaps his fortune lay in bottling the popular soda fountain drink, Coca-Cola... " - he then went onto get a bottling contract for parts of the United States, not Cuba."

p.93: "The war was scarcely over when, in late 1898, Warren Candler sailed for Cuba, the first of twenty such visits. Upon his return, he enthusiastically reported that Cuba was "our nearest, neediest, ripest missionary field"... After hearing about this "ripe field" from Warren, Asa promptly enlisted Jose Parejo, a wine merchant, as a Havana wholesaler for Coca-Cola in May of 1899."

According to Wikipedia, "Coca-Cola was sold in bottles for the first time on March 12, 1894. Cans of Coke first appeared in 1955. The first bottling of Coca-Cola occurred in Vicksburg, Mississippi, at the Biedenharn Candy Company in 1891. Its proprietor was Joseph A. Biedenharn. The original bottles were Biedenharn bottles, very different from the much later hobble-skirt design that is now so familiar."

According to The Biedenham Coca-Cola Museum, "Replying to your inquiry in your recent letter, beg to advise that I think it was in the summer of 1894 that we first bottled Coca-Cola at what was then 218-220 Washington Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi."

Reading the above there is little doubt that Coca-Cola was available in Cuba in 1900 and that's when Mr Russell is said to have christened the drink Cuba Libre. I guess not all the U.S. troops left Cuba in September 1898. And we all know how hard it is to withdrawal troops after the U.S. and its allies have intervened in another country's conflict!

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