Skip the Tourist Traps – Smarter Drinking in Havana

El Floridita

Tourist hell.

I had previously visited El Floridita cocktail bar to see what all the fuss was about. They serve you frozen cocktails for a staggering CUC 6 (in Cuban prices that is a lot for a drink). Like La Bodeguita del Medio (Mojito bar), El Floridita is also known as Hemingway’s favourite cocktail bar, but nowadays both are tourist traps with just average drinks. The bar is considered to be the cradle of Daiquiri as it was one of their barmen that came up with the frozen daiquiri in 1920. Today they offer most Cuban cocktails and the menu consists of mainly frozen drinks, made with speed but without passion.

floridita

la bodeguita del medio

I tried Papa Doble and Frappe Daiquiri. Both were made in a blender with crushed ice, rum and (too much) lemon. Papa Doble had the tiniest bit of Maraschino in it but you could hardly taste it. They  both tasted the same to me. I watched the men making the drinks and they actually used big slices of fresh lemon or lime and the rest of the ingredients were different sugary syrups from the shop, anything from banana to passionfruit. For me, this bar represented everything that I dislike in mass tourism: guidebook recommendations ruining the local hotspots, and people pretending to have the ‘real’ Cuban experiences they then boast about back home.

frozen daiquiri

frappe daiquiri

O’Reilly 304

When I accidentally stumbled upon this trendy gin bar in Havana, I knew I had to write about it. I’d never imagined Cubans as gin drinkers but, as it turns out, this small venue has kept busy since it opened in late 2014.

304 oreilly havana

From the outside you’d think it was another Irish bar, but what you find inside is a small gin and cocktail bar. The space is very compact so a reservation is recommended to guarantee a table or seats at the bar. They also have a small food menu with some international influences (Spanish tapas, Mexican tacos and so on), not bad if you fancy a break from traditional Cuban dishes. Obviously, I hadn’t realised I had to make a reservation, but the Cubans, being naturally friendly, made room for me at the bar. Whilst I was scanning through the drinks menu I was served a bowl of fried plantains with garlic oil – delicious!

plntain crisps

How they drink it

On the menu they had all the Cuban cocktails, from Cuba Libres to Mojitos from CUC 4  (£2.70), as well as a long list of international cocktails from CUC 3. But what I was most interested in was the G&T menu. They had a list of Gintonic dela casa’s named anything from Jimmy Hendricks to Margaret Tacher. The clue is in the names – all gins available were from the UK: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Gordon’s, Bombay Sapphire, Hendrick’s and Master’s. My G&T was served with blue-curaçao-flavoured slushy. If that doesn’t sound exciting enough, they also had gin and tonic served with rum and maraschino liqueur!

Gin tonic

The cocktails we tried were also really nice: Passionfruit and Melon Mojito, extra spicy Bloody Mary and Sangria. All these were served in gigantic jars and huge highballs. And by gigantic, I mean pint and a half minimum, and the highball I would use at home as a vase rather than a serving glass! Each garnish was beautifully cut and the barmen used big silver tweezers, never their fingers, to handle any garnish or the straws.

rum cocktails

More surprises

After travelling around for two weeks, I returned to Havana, and on my final day I wanted to go back to O’Reilly 304 for a last drink. Once again, I had no reservation but wanted to try my luck anyway. On the weekend the venue has a bouncer on the door (you don’t see that too often in Cuban bars) and, as I expected, the venue was packed! The bouncer pointed me to another door just across from the bar. There were no signs outside but he advised me to go all the way up, so I did. What I found was an extension to O’Reilly 304. This one had more of a restaurant feel, with more tables as well as a rooftop terrace where they also served food. I sat at the bar and ordered us a Caipiroska and Piña Colada. Again, both enormous. Unfortunately, the Piña Colada didn’t quite work; I had previously been spoiled with tasty Pina Coladas in Trinidad, which had clearly made me hard to please. Overall, it was an exciting experience. I feel like I got a sneak peek into the future of the Cuban drinks scene. Now we just need to wait for the Americans to arrive.

Pina coladas in Havana

If you are in Old Havana and want a real cocktail experience, I recommend you make your way to 304 O’Reilly instead of El Floridita. There you get drinks made with real fresh ingredients rather than syrups, and you get double for your money. Although don’t forget to drink some water, as the alcohol amounts are also bigger; obviously, no measures are used either.

The future

It’s so rare to see Cuban bars or restaurants with such a modern decor – it was like warehouse meets art gallery at 304 O’Reilly. In recent years, Raul Castro has loosened the rules for independent businesses to allow them to have more seating and more say on the design, although I am sure they still take a nice cut from the takings. I heard there are some lucky families who have relatives living in Little Havana in Florida, the ones that managed to escape from the revolution, and as they are making some proper money in America, they often send money to their families back in Cuba. Perhaps that is what has happened here and allowed this great cocktail bar to modernise their venues.

More about Cuban drinks see Cuban rums and classic rum cocktails.

Cuba

Address: O’Reilly 304, Habana Vieja, Havana, Cuba

(Check any old guidebook for the address for El Floridita.)

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