Onaisys Fonticoba Gener
As an indissoluble part of Cuban culture, the rum which is elaborated in this country has contributed to promote the values which distinguish it. But it has not been only its aroma, flavor or specific process of elaboration the elements which has positioned it as the best rum of the world. Its presentation and the way it is enjoyed have also built a whole image, which suggests you will get a unique experience with a simple sip.
In that regard, Cuban cocktails and canteens have an enormous relevancy. Among the first bartenders who defined the fate of this specialty in the Island, it is necessary to mention Maragato, Spanish descendent who was specialist in the elaboration of the Daiquiri and who was called the "King of the Cuban Cocktail". His daiquiri recipe was changed by Constantino Ribalaigua, in the early twentieth century, who used a mixer for preparing the frappe, instead of shaking the ice by hand. With this transformation, Daiquiri reached international fame and, nowadays, it is still on the favorite cocktails of many people in the world.
Among the legends associated with our cocktails, the appearance of Mojito cannot be forgotten. It is one of the ten classic drinks. It is presumed that the corsair Francis Drake conceived the mixture –prepared with brandy in its early days-, and it is supposed to have healing properties, perhaps because of the spearmint and the lemon it is composed of.
José Rafa Malém, president of the Cuban Bartenders Association (CBA), states that, currently, Cubans are the only ones who are called ‘cantineros’. "At the end of the nineteenth century –he explains- many storehouses with bar were built in the country. Those places dispatched food and drinks, beers and wine, despite they did not have a specialized cocktail bar. The food was delivered in metal canteens (cantinas), and the same person who sold them was in charge of preparing the drinks. Hence the name ‘cantinero’. We feel very proud about that name, although we are bartenders like the others".
According to the CBA president, the Cuban Bartenders’ Club was founded in June, 1924, and many people were professionally trained there, in order to face the growing number of foreign visitors who came to the Island. With the establishment of the ‘National Prohibition Act’ -which prohibited the elaboration, trade and consumption of alcohols in the United States (USA) from 1919 to 1933-, the Club’s development was faster. "What became a fatality for the US –José said- made Havana the capital of American bartending. Casinos and cabarets came later, making the fifties the golden age of our canteen”.
During a lecture at the V International Scientific and Technical Colloquium of Light Rum, the journalist Ciro Bianchi, explained that in the late 1960’s –just in Havana- the revolutionary government expropriated about 955 bars; and in the former province “Oriente”, above 1200.
"The Cuban bartenders are distinguished by their elegance", the president of the CBA says. “They are discreet, kind and professional in his behavior to the clients. When working, they are well known for the cleanliness in the drinks elaboration. They are much more than a "preparer" of drinks like some people could think. They are artists".
Malém, who grew up surrounded by a family tradition entrenched in cocktails, recalls that, with the development of the canteen and society, many taboos have been forgotten, such as bartenders are supposed to be men. It’s also remarkable the evolution of the techniques, aimed at molecular cocktails.
"The more quality the Cuban rum has," he concludes, "the more enhancement our canteen will have. And right now we live a moment of glory".
At 64, José Rafa Malém is the only Cuban in the Hall of Fame of the International Bartender Association, founded in 1951. He has created 11 cocktails and a book on the history of the Cuban cantina next to be published: “A Toast to Havana”.
Although he does not work as a bartender anymore, he confesses he is always "behind the bar", either teaching the younger ones or entertaining his friends. And it could not be otherwise for someone who started his career empirically and today, 42 years later, he feels it like the air he breathes.