I’m not terribly interested in who invented the rum and Coke. Many years ago, a man with the glorious name of Fausto Rodriguez used to go around claiming he was present at its birth—he even shelled out for a full-page ad saying so in Life magazine—but alas, poor Fausto, no one ever believed him. Maybe it’s because the invention was so…obvious. Any one of us, needing to slake a tropical thirst, might have bumbled those two bottles together.
No, the person I’m keen to identify and salute is the brilliant, sensitive soul who thought to add a big squeeze of lime juice to the drink, thereby transforming the rum and Coke—a bland, two-chord frat-house anthem—into the Cuba libre, a swiveling, spinning, complex, exuberant mambo, the zenith of liquor plus fizz, the highest of highballs. Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating this distinction. (Well, I’m not.) Some of you may even consider limes just a garnish, mere boutonnieres for your tacos or your gin and tonics, as meaningless as the sprigs of curly parsley with which, in a former life, I used to decorate Grand Slam breakfasts as a line cook at Denny’s. Not in this case, buster. Sweet needs sour as yin needs yang. That burst of citrus is like the sunshine after a storm. The Cuba libre is proof of lime’s transcendent powers.
Naturally I don’t remember my first rum and Coke. New Orleans girls in the late eighties were very fond of rum and Cokes and because I was very fond of New Orleans girls in the late eighties, I must surely have tried one. But I do remember, vividly, my first Cuba libre. I was in a crowded barroom in Havana, with my hand raised, a wide-eyed young man trying to order another mojito. Mojitos take a long time to make. In Havana, where they revere mojitos and where the government keeps its hand in saloons, they take close to forever. Beside me at the bar, where I was standing, was an outlaw American tourist—back then it was illegal to vacation in Cuba—who looked to have been commandeering his barstool for a long while, possibly since dawn. The tourist didn’t speak Spanish, but he did know the word for rum: ron. And he was making clear to the poor old bartender, wizened from decades of muddling mojito mint, that he wanted more of it. He kept pointing to himself and braying, “More ron! More ron!” If you’ll take a moment to say that aloud, you’ll understand why this so amused me. I felt terrible for the bartender, however. My heart wasn’t cold enough to order another laborious mojito, so when it was time for my order, I asked him for whatever easy-looking highball the More Ron was drinking. “Cuba libre,” said the bartender, with a nod of what I took to be relief.
I’m not going to get carried away here, don’t worry. A Cuba libre isn’t vintage Champagne. I wasn’t sipping stars. But Lord almighty, people, was it good. That sluice of acid doesn’t just cut the stereo syrupiness of the rum and cola; it extracts hidden flavors, brings out those cola spice notes, brightens your tongue, makes a dumb drink smart. And it made me smile—which is about all you can ask of simple pleasures.
It didn’t take me long to adopt the Cuba libre as my travel drink, my fallback order on the road. One solid reason: Have you ever tried to order an old-fashioned at the bar of one of those interstate-view chain hotels? Or at a suburban sports bar? The Cuba libre is the antidote to such disappointments. It’s unscrewupable. Every bar has the makings, even the open bar at your cousin Tyler’s wedding in Chattanooga. It’s usually best not to order it as a Cuba libre, of course (unless you’re in Miami or your bartender is sporting a handlebar mustache). Instead you say, “Rum and Coke and lots of lime.” Quality rum is always preferred, but the mixture is forgiving. If the bartender shorts you on the limes, you can steal some from the garnish tray when he’s not looking.
I’ve had variations over the years, mostly happy deviations. A swank penthouse cocktailery in Sydney froze the Coke and lime juice into a big orb; aged rum got poured over it, like chocolate sauce on a sundae, and the drink’s character kept changing as the orb melted. Then there’s the version here, which my friend Brad Thomas Parsons devised for his book Bitters and he allows me to share here. He adds Angostura bitters, but cagily, by lacing ice cubes with them. The bitters add a few more IQ points. But, really, it’s that glorious ounce of lime juice that puts the shine on this drink, with that drink being what puts the shine on warm summer evenings, and with those evenings putting that extra shine on, well, life.
HOW TO MIX IT UP
First make the Angostura ice cubes: Fill an ice tray with water, add 1 or 2 dashes of Angostura bitters to each section, and freeze. Then cut 1 lime in half and squeeze the juice into a double old-fashioned or highball glass. Drop one of the spent lime halves into the bottom of the glass, then fill it with the Angostura ice and pour in 2 ounces of light rum. Top off with a real-deal Mexican Coca-Cola, stir, and serve.