The Wine Press: Sipping Cuban rum in a vibrant, vivid Havana

Screen shot 2016-08-25 at 7.30.55 AMHavana Editor’s Note: Doug Frost usually writes about wine for The Star, but in this column he shares a glimpse into his recent trip to Cuba, where he visited the Havana Club rum distillery.

Everyone back in the United States has fixated on Cuba’s “classic cars.”

Cars from before the 1959 revolution, kept running by imagination and cobbled parts, all candy-colored like a mad cartoonist’s psychedelic version of a film noir.

These old Pontiacs, Dodges and Fords shine inside and outside. The seats and walls are coated in thick plastic, protecting them from the salty ocean air. Cut off from U.S. parts and even paint, the Cubans have had to invent their own, and the colors they choose are more Carmen Miranda than Dale Earnhardt.

Havana moves, but it thrums rather than throbs. I know of no city like it. At times things get busy, and you wonder if the next corner will reveal a New Delhi or a Mexico City. But more often it’s quiet and even-tempered. It feels safe. No one seems harried or even angry (except for the buses; they seem intent on massacring unwary tourists).

Ask for directions, and the people on the streets always try, even if they’re not much help (perhaps because my Spanish is so appalling). Generally people are friendly — even the bus drivers smile just before they clip you at 30 miles an hour. Sometimes those friendly folks are trying to sell you on yet another “Buena Vista Social Club” concert (there must be a dozen in as many clubs all at the same time).

The bars that Hemingway made famous have a certain appeal. La Floridita is quaint and welcoming, and a band playing son and rumba, generating a pretty clatter of congas, violin and guitar. My friend and I have each brought a bottle of Luxardo Maraschino — the key and powerful ingredient to a Hemingway Daiquiri — because it’s nearly impossible to find here.

We give the bartenders our bottles, and then they hand us daiquiris made from the crummy house maraschino. What they did with the bottles we brought I don’t know. Maybe they’re already being sold on the black market.

From the Floridita, the street to the west is bustling and full. Everyone is sauntering; lines at ice cream shops spill out onto the street. Bicycle taxis occasionally sound their garish horns, but in general this street is jammed full of mellow: books, ice cream, children’s toys, cafes, tavernas, restaurants and tiny bars offering shaved ice filled with rum.

There’s a 6-foot well in the middle of the street in front of the Cathedral Santo Domingo. I glance down to see a white cat lying motionless at the bottom, one eye barely open. Though the street is packed, no one else looks into the well.

Santeria shops offer strangely garbed, unfamiliar saints. People break out into song or dance. Occasionally someone strolls by, barking about their wares: flour, crackers, tickets. No one did this a few years ago, I’m told. It was illegal.

Hemingway’s other obsession, La Bodeguita del Medio, is a better experience. We sign the wall and we drink delicious mojitos. There’s a crazy crowd out front providing more entertainment than the crammed interior. On the third floor, it’s quiet and chill.

Sloppy Joe’s (“since 1917”) is newly painted and was reopened about three years ago. The building has been empty since the revolution. That’s why there’s another one in Key West.

Everywhere is Cuban rum, which I love, and for which I carry something of an obsession. Regardless of your view of the politics of this place, the Cubans create the most elegant style of rum I know.

Their way is to age everything. Even the 3-Year-Old rum is aged for five years in a barrel. (Welcome to the world of Cuban rules!) By blending old rums with older rums and aging them in this hot, humid place, elegance is wrested from the rough, raw materials.

The food is excellent, too, although we eat only at private restaurants. Again, legal only recently. My favorite is La Guardia. The front of the massive old edifice looks abandoned and the interior much the same, though a Castro speech covers one wall.

An old woman watches TV in a small room on the second floor. Someone is hanging laundry on the third floor. On the fourth floor, the view is rearranged and an utterly modern terrace bar is as slick and shining as anything in Miami. The cocktails are good, while the food is even better.

Our table is in the owner’s former childhood bedroom — small but with 15-foot ceilings, bric-a-brac and memorabilia clutter on the walls. As I eat grilled octopus, next to me is a wooden frame with ancient ballet shoes jutting out. They belonged to the famed Alicia Alonzo, Cuba’s greatest ballerina.

I love this place: Havana feels organic, like a wild jungle surrounding a human circus. Cocktail writer and author Dale DeGroff tells me that it reminds him of Los Angeles in the 1960s, “when everything was dying, and everything was growing.”

In the buildings and skylines, I see vestiges of Soviet orderliness surrounded by abandoned Spanish colonial decay. The constant refrain in the U.S. is wistful: “I must go to Cuba before it changes.”

Of course, it will change. Everything does. But Cuba is something unto itself, and whoever or whatever comes to this place is far more likely to experience change.

Doug Frost, The Kansas City Star

August 23, 2016

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