Stirred and Shaken

I have always wondered about the cocktail called the Cuba Libre. Which free Cuba are we talking about here? The Fidel-free Cuba of the future? The Batista-free Cuba of Fidel? Drink historians have traced the reference to the Spanish Empire-free Cuba of the post-Spanish-American War era. According to one account, it was invented by a U.S. Army signal corpsman in 1900. Its main ingredient is Coca-Cola, which the late Mexican poet laureate Carlos Pellicer once called la agua negra del imperialismo yanqui. Back then, Coca-Cola still contained cocaine, so the cocktail may have been a little more stimulating than the current version. The Andrews Sisters' World War II-era hit Calypso song, Rum and Coca-Cola, probably caused the Cuba Libre recipe to be degraded. The lyrics told of the fun U.S. soldiers had in Trinidad, visiting prostitutes and drinking rum and Coke. The genuine cocktail also contains gin, lime juice and Angostura bitters. But any lyricist can tell you what a nightmare it is to work Angostura bitters into a song.

Today, El Tiempo Cantina (3130 Richmond Avenue, 713-807-1600; 8135 Katy Freeway, 713-681-3645) has resurrected the classic cocktail. I visited the new Katy Freeway location to experience the true Cuba Libre. In a vast and raucous space filled with what appear to be thirtysomething devotees of Sex and the City, I take a seat at the bar and wait for bartender Alberto Oregon to prepare the libation. The tart, fragrant lime juice, the aromatic gin and the complex bitters do make for a genuine cocktail, adding layers of flavor and scent to the cloying agua negra. In a true evocation of the pre-prohibition past, the cocktail is mixed on the light side here.

El Tiempo's Cuba Libre:

3/4 ounces of Bacardi light rum
1/4 ounce Citadelle gin
1/4 ounce lime juice
Two dashes Angostura bitters

Add the first four ingredients to a hand-blown old-fashioned Mexican glass filled with ice cubes. Then top with Coca-Cola. Serve with a lime wedge garnish.

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El Tiempo Cantina

3130 Richmond Ave.
Houston, TX 77098


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