Happy Hour History: The Cuba Libre

Cuba Libre (Jim Sabataso / photo)

Cuba Libre (Jim Sabataso / photo)


Editor’s note: This part of a series exploring the history of various cocktails the author likes to make for happy hour. Enjoy responsibly.

Today let’s continue our voyage through Caribbean history with the Cuba Libre. Commonly known in the US as a Rum and Coke, the cocktail was invented in Havannah, Cuba (obviously), around 1900. Like the Dark ‘n’ Stormy, a true Cuba Libre should only be made with a specific brand of rum — in this case, Bacardi. However, unlike the Gosling family, the people over at Bacardi seem to be far less litigious about the recipe.


While the origins of the Cuba Libre are the matter of some debate, all parties acknowledge its connection with the Spanish-American War. Bacardi, touts the drink’s history with pride on its website:

The origins of the Original Cuba Libre trace back to Cuba’s War for Independence in 1898, when Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his regiment, known as the Rough Riders, along with large droves of Americans, arrived in Cuba. Coca-Cola was introduced to Cuba after the arrival of American troops, and it soon became a popular choice for Cubans and Americans alike. 

In August 1900, while celebrating victory at the American Bar in Havana, Cuba, Captain Russell of the United States Army Signal Corps, ordered his Cuban Bacardi Rum and Coca Cola, served with a wedge of fresh lime. This new combination sparked interest from the soldiers around him and soon the entire bar was drinking one. The Captain proposed a toast, “¡Por Cuba libre!” in celebration of a free Cuba. The words Cuba Libre — meaning Free Cuba — had a special political significance and were frequently used by Cubans and Americans alike. It seemed quite natural the American soldiers selected and applied this popular slogan to this drink, which they considered indigenous to Cuba, consisting of Bacardi Rum and Coca-Cola. The name caught on quickly, and remains popular to this day. 

They even made a little commercial in which, a soldier we can presume to be Captain Russell, encounters a sexy seniorita in the jungle who shows him how just they drink Coke in Cuba.


The rest is history. Also, note that the video features the disclaimer, “based on a truth,” which is a nifty little hedge that’s been employed by myth makers since before Moses was dabbling in hydrodynamics.

But uno momento. According to Wikipedia, Coca Cola was not available in Cuba until 1900. However, it seems entirely plausible that American troops would have brought some along even if it was not technically being distributed for sale. This nitpick doesn’t really change much except cut Roosevelt and his Rough Riders out of the story — they left in 1898 — which loses some of the historical heft, but whatever, did you see that commercial?


Original Cuba Libre

Fill a highball glass with cubed ice. Squeeze and drop a fresh lime wedge into the glass. Pour in the rum and top with chilled cola (bottled is preferable according to Bacardi). Stir gently.