I’ve just been fortunate enough to be on an amazing trip to Cuba that spanned from Havana, east to Baracoa, and back to Havana roughly via the south coast. Sharing my trip was a charming Irish woman who without fail, regardless of how remote of a location we ended up in for the night, asked for a gin and tonic. I’d gauge her success rate at about 15%.
Why then turn to Cuba for lessons on gin? I’ll let you be the judge. Here are a few lessons that I thought I’d pass on:
1) Use what you’ve got and make it awesome
Cuba does this by necessity, and they do it really, really well. Have sugar cane? Make rum. It’s pretty much the only spirit universally available there. Before I went to Cuba I heard so many horror stories about the food from people staying in all-inclusive resorts looking for the comforts of home. My experiences with the food on the eastern edge of the country, far away from the resorts, were incredible. A regional sauce made with garlic, onion and coconut cooked with local shrimp, lobster or swordfish made for some of the best food I’ve ever had. There is a growing trend in gins, especially in western Canada and the US, to honor local and regional ingredients. I say carry on doing this! Use the ingredients you know, and make a gin that showcases the best of what your region has to offer. Or if you can’t achieve that and be true to a traditional gin, at the very least support local ingredients and your community where you can.
2) How do you make a spirit better? Age it in a barrel.
Faced commonly with about 5 alcohol choices in Cuba you generally have the option of 2 beers (Crystal or Buccaneer) and 3 rums – Havana Club, the slightly more expensive Havana Club 3 yr and the splurgy Havana Club 7 year. In the non-touristy areas the bottles sold for approximately the equivalent of $3, $5 and $9 US respectively. The 3 and 7 year versions are barrel-aged and introduce caramel-like sweetness and an oaky complexity into the rum. Adding these complimentary notes to gin, depending on the flavor profile, can really bump it up a notch. If you’ve never tried a barrel-aged gin before you are missing out.
3) Spirits should be good enough to drink straight
This shouldn’t need elaborating on but I will do so. In Cuba, due to the aforementioned affordability of the rum, it was most common to see groups of locals around tables at the neighborhood casa de la trova (loosely translates as “music house” – think local public house) with a bottle of havana club in the center of the table, some plastic cups and a can or 2 of the local version of cola. Many happily drank it straight. In fact, after the party spilled into the streets, bottles of rum came with, out of which I happily drank straight. Cubans have good rum that is a pleasure to drink on its own. I say that this principle should translate directly to gin – my favorite gins are ones I immensely enjoy drinking neat.
4) Stick to the basics once in a while
While I’m the first to admit that I love an ingenious cocktail, a feat of imagination and inspiration, sometimes a simple G&T is absolutely perfect. In Cuba, unless you’re at a “fancy” hotel, you have the option of approximately 4 types of rum drinks (at about $2-3 US each) – mojito, cuba libre, daiquiri, or for the more adventurous canchanchara. Cubans are good at making these drinks. The rum does not get lost in these drinks, nor do they require complex ingredients. These drinks will always invoke amazing memories of Cuba for me. Sure, gin, like rum, is an incredibly versatile spirit. But don’t lose sight of the simplicity of a gorgeous G&T or Negroni, and certainly learn to make these simple drinks right.
5) Invest in your community
Ok, maybe this is not necessarily a gin lesson. In Cuba there is not a lot of internet access, nor do people spend hours of time on their computers or in front of TVs. They sit on front porch steps and talk to their neighbors. They spend lots of time with family and friends. Evenings are spent in groups dancing with people they do or do not know. Sure, rum is a factor. Gin can be a factor. Spend time getting to know the people you live and work with. Say hi to the person beside you on the bus or behind you in line to buy groceries (or gin). Be compassionate and invest your time and energy into making your local community better. Cuba is not a perfect place, but they do an excellent job of honoring humanity, and we can certainly learn from that.