Viva Havana: Wine Enthusiast Explores the Cuban Capital

After over 50 years of travel restrictions, Cuba is finally opening up for Americans again. Wine Enthusiast traveled there to taste our way through Havana.
Local behind the wheel of a classic Dodge in Havana, Cuba / Photo by Meg Baggott

Just after arriving in Havana, we made a beeline for La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar where the Mojito was invented.

The bartender deftly built a round of drinks using mint, sugar, lime and Havana Club white rum. He plucked both the ice and the neon-hued straws with small metal tongs.

In Cuba, a good bartender never touches the components of your drink.

Every inch of the wooden bar top was etched with names, memories from generations past. In the corner of the bar, a lively band played traditional music, and sweet smoke from slender cigars sold at the bar wafted into the humid evening air, mingling with the bracing scent of crushed mint.

Cuba is not an airbrushed theme park—and that’s part of the appeal.

It was just a drink, really. But it was also a moment that symbolized what Havana would come to mean to me: a warm, rum-soaked embrace, with heritage and history built into every corner of the city, right down to that well-worn bar.

As 50 years of trade and travel restrictions start to lift, Americans are flocking to Cuba again. It’s not an airbrushed theme park, and that’s part of the appeal. Amid ramshackle, graffiti-covered buildings and classic cars, the rough edges make it all the more beautiful.

Mojitos for miles / Photo by Meg Baggott
Mojitos for miles / Photo by Meg Baggott

Travel tips

Planning a trip to Havana? Here’s what you need to know. Keep in mind that things are still changing, so double-check before you head out.

Make Cuba’s Iconic El Floridita Daiquiri

Getting there

A handful of airlines, including American Airlines and JetBlue, offer direct flights from the U.S. Flights also run to Cuba from Canada, Mexico and some Caribbean islands. You won’t find these flights on travel discount sites yet. Your best bet is to book though a travel agency.

Havana locals and vibrant live music scene / Photo by Meg Baggott
Havana locals and vibrant live music scene / Photo by Meg Baggott

Who can go

Taking in the scene on the streets of Havana / Photo by Meg Baggott
Taking in the scene on the streets of Havana / Photo by Meg Baggott

Right now, U.S. citizens who travel to Cuba must fall under the umbrella of “Purposeful Travel.” The 12 categories include journalistic activity, family visits and educational “people-to-people” trips. Until visitation is opened more broadly, check with your travel agent to be sure that your visit fits into one of the approved categories, which is required to obtain a visa.

Where to stay

Havana has a shortage of hotel rooms, although there’s a spate of hotel construction. The venerable Hotel Nacional de Cuba and the newer Melia chain are among the best options. In June, Starwood opened Four Points Havana, the first American hotel chain to open in 50 years. Many travelers also use Airbnb to stay in private homes.

Expect to be unplugged most of the time. Try to enjoy it.

Currency

Pack cash, and lots of it. American credit cards don’t work in Cuba, nor will you see ATMs. But you can exchange dollars or euros for Cuba’s tourist currency, the CUC (pronounced “kook”), at the airport or lobby of your hotel.

CUBA, UNSPOILED From traditional drinks and music to classic cars and pristine beaches, the island evokes a sense of timelessness.
Cuba Unspoiled: From traditional drinks and music to classic cars and pristine beaches, the island evokes a sense of timelessness / Photo by Meg Baggott

Staying connected

Internet access is limited at best. Outside of your hotel, WiFi will be nonexistent. Neither Gmail nor Skype are supported in Cuba. Expect to be unplugged most of the time. Try to enjoy it.

Getting around

Taxis will get you where you need to go. You can splurge on rides in American classic autos hired out as taxis (called almendron), but regular taxis are available, too. However you’re getting around, be sure to cruise the Malecon, the long wall along the waterfront where everyone comes to enjoy the view (and a beer), especially after dark.

Asbel Morales, master of Cuban rum for Havana Club / Photo by Meg Baggott
Asbel Morales, master of Cuban rum for Havana Club / Photo by Meg Baggott

Master of Rum

Asbel Morales is the maestro del ron Cubano (master of Cuban rum) for Havana Club, the iconic brand he describes as “the big brother of all the rum in Cuba.”

As might be expected from someone born into a home literally overlooking a rum distillery in Santo Domingo, he takes rum quite seriously. After years of apprenticeship and earning a degree in chemical engineering, he was granted the maestro del ron title in 2007.

Havana Club 3 Year Old is the label you’ll see poured most often. This white rum goes into mojitos, Ron Collinses, El Presidentes and daiquiris. These are prepared by cantineros, Cuba’s mixologists.

He spends a significant portion of his life near the barrels, observing how the rum changes from year to year, deciding when the time is right for blending and bottling.
Rum making is a way of life, he says. “You live all your life as if you want to marry the rum, and defend the rum until you die.”

Havana Club's Maximo and Cohiba bottlings
Havana Club’s Maximo, and Cohiba bottlings

Cuba’s rum culture

Although rum isn’t the only spirit you’ll spy on shelves here, it’s intertwined with Cuba’s heritage, and you’ll find plenty of excellent varieties (and rum-based cocktails) to try.

Inside the iconic El Floridita, known for it's famed daiquiris, which were a favorite of Ernest Hemingway / Photo by Meg Baggott
Inside the iconic El Floridita, known for it’s famed daiquiris, which were a favorite of Ernest Hemingway / Photo by Meg Baggott

Distilled from sugarcane-based molasses and aged for a minimum of two years (even the white rums, which have the color filtered out), Cuba’s rum style is rich, caramel-forward and ideal for sipping.

Havana Club 3 Year Old is the label you’ll see poured most often. This white rum goes into Mojitos, Ron Collinses (like a Tom Collins, but using rum), El Presidentes and daiquiris. These and other refreshing cocktails are prepared by cantineros, Cuba’s equivalent to mixologists.

“You live all your life as if you want to marry the rum, and defend the rum until you die.” —Asbel Morales, maestro del ron Cubano

If you’re looking for a bottle to sip or bring home, look for Havana Club’s Selección de Maestros (about $40), a special bottling made with barrels selected by maestro roneros (master distillers), with aromas of chocolate, caramel and sweet tobacco.

You’ll find plenty of other labels, too. One of my favorite finds was Santiago de Cuba’s 12-year-old bottling. It’s viscous and warm with toffee, honey and a long espresso- and clove-accented finish.

Roadside tavern in Cuba / Photo by Meg Baggott
Roadside tavern in Cuba / Photo by Meg Baggott

Iconic dishes

Beautiful Disaster: Restored to its cinematic splendor as an artist’s “hideout” in the 1979 film Strawberry and Chocolate, lunch at Paladar La Guarida starts with lobster-enfolded papaya lasagne (above) and culminates with suckling pig (top)
Beautiful Disaster: Restored to its cinematic splendor as an artist’s “hideout” in the 1979 film Strawberry and Chocolate, lunch at Paladar La Guarida starts with lobster-enfolded papaya lasagne (above) and culminates with suckling pig (top)

While Cuba’s food is complex and nuanced, unlike many Caribbean cuisines, it’s generally not spicy. Look for privately owned restaurants called paladares, which range from comfortable and cheerful to eclectic grandeur, and where the food often delights with surprising touches. Visitors to Cuba will be well fed.

Among our favorite dishes: charcoal-grilled chicken at El Aljibe, served family-style with a heaping dish of plantains on the side. Try the meltingly tender ropa vieja (a traditional pulled beef and tomato dish), onion-rich vaca frita (“fried beef”) and chicken soup adorned with picture-perfect fresh vegetables at El Rum Rum de La Habana, in the Viejo Habana (Old Havana) neighborhood. Savor the colorful ceviche and tuna tiradito (slices of raw fish, in this case brightened with apple vinaigrette and cubes of mango) at La Guarida, hidden in a charmingly dilapidated townhouse built circa 1903.

Look for private restaurants called paladares, which range from comfortable and cheerful to ecletic grandeur, and where the food delights.

A word about wine: You’ll find plenty here, but order with care, as climate controlled wine storage is rare. In particular, Chilean and Spanish reds abound. An extensive, well-cared-for wine selection at El Cocinero, a paladar in the upscale Vedado neighborhood, was a pleasant surprise. Bonus: It’s down the block from late-night hotspot Fábrica del Arte Cubano, which is also well worth a visit. We can see wine culture making strides in Havana in the next few years. But for now, beer or rum is your best bet for a reliably good drink.

A sampling of dishes at El Rum Rum de la Habana / Photo by Meg Baggott
A sampling of dishes at El Rum Rum de la Habana / Photo by Meg Baggott

See Food Diet

At El Rum Rum de La Habana, a generous sampling of three ceviches preceded luscious grilled lobster tail, or a warming chicken soup ahead of the vaca frita.  Just snacking? Plenty of chicharrones to be found on the street. Meanwhile, just beyond the fortress walls of Morro Castle are arguably the best piña coladas in all of Havana.

Shopping stalls along the waterfront / Photo by Meg Baggott
Shopping stalls along the waterfront / Photo by Meg Baggott
Published on October 14, 2016
Topics: Travel Guides
About the Author
Kara Newman 
Spirits Editor

Kara Newman reviews spirits and writes about spirits and cocktail trends for Wine Enthusiast. She's the author of several cocktail books, including Shake.Stir.Sip. and NIGHTCAP: More than 40 Cocktails to Close Out Any Evening, which debuts in September 2018. Email: spirits@wineenthusiast.net




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