For decades, the United States has had a complicated relationship with an independent Cuba, which is why it's interesting to consider America’s responsibility in the naming – and creation – of the “Cuba libre” (literally “free Cuba”), one of the world’s most famous cocktails.
If it weren’t for two American icons – Coca-Cola and Teddy Roosevelt – you might not be ordering a rum and coke at your local bar, and you almost definitely wouldn’t be calling it a Cuba libre. Yet, the bar staple traces its origins back to American military intervention in Spanish-occupied Cuba.
Coca-Cola, first created in 1886 by an Atlanta pharmacist named John S. Pemberton, was as close to an instant success as it gets, spawning no shortage of competitors over the years. During the same time that the cola sensation was sweeping the U.S., Cuba was fighting Spain for its independence.
Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his troop of Rough Riders landed ashore in June of 1898. The men brought plenty of Coca-Cola with them to Cuba, as it was known at the time for its health and energy benefits. And the port of Havana was already flowing with cheap rum that couldn’t be sold to Spain and its colonies during the war. It’s out of this abundance of Coke and thirst for rum that the Cuba libre was born.
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Variations of the recipe differed from bar to bar, but in its original incarnation it consisted of some combination of rum, lime, and brown sugar, molasses or honey. But with the arrival of the Americans, coke would soon take the place of other sweet additives.
Numerous stories of the drink’s origins exist, one of which claims that two years after Roosevelt’s arrival, a group of American soldiers were celebrating the defeat of the Spanish at the American Bar in Havana. Captain Russell of the United States Army Signal Corps ordered a Bacardi and Coca-Cola with a wedge of lime to lead a toast. He wasn’t the first person to ever mix them together by a long shot, but what happened next would have lasting repercussions. While making his toast, Russell raised his glass and proclaimed, “Por Cuba libre!” (a popular rallying cry during the war).
Rum, coke and lime were rebranded the American Cuba libre in one fell swoop, and Russell’s fellow soldiers began ordering the captain’s drink at the bar. The moment was such a riveting spectacle that a messenger to the American military governor of Cuba recorded it in a sworn affidavit.
Sensing an opportunity back home, Coca-Cola began shipping its famous product directly to Cuba in 1902, instead of just supplying American troops with the stuff. The dark, bubbly cola was welcomed as a simple stand-in for the more laborious molasses or honey-based recipes. As the new version of the drink increased in popularity across the island, the “American” was eventually dropped.
In hardly any time at all, Coke had bumped off the original Cuba libre recipes, and reclaimed the cocktail name so deeply intertwined with both the Cuban independence movement and the very idea of freedom for itself. By 1906, Coca-Cola set up bottling operations on the island. The rest is history.