AKA Rum and Coke, this highball will slake your summer thirst
“Cuba Libre!” (Free Cuba!) was the battle cry of the Cuban Liberation Army during the country’s War of Independence (which became known as the Spanish-American War when the US intervened in 1898). This rallying cry bequeathed its name to one of the world’s most famous drinks — one that many of us just call Rum and Coke.
The Cuba Libre is often the first mixed drink that people sample in their youth. Problem is, those college dorm bartenders tend to just pour glasses of rum and top them up with Coke — none of that fancy measuring! And they generally leave out a key ingredient: lime juice. Which is a shame, because citrus takes the Cuba Libre to a whole ‘nother — and better — level.
Lime adds a tingle of tropical delight that makes the Cuba Libre an excellent choice for long, slow sipping. The drink is a tasty way to battle the hot afternoons we’re experiencing now in the US. You can even skip the booze (but keep the lime) for a wonderfully tasty mocktail — perfect for youngsters, not to mention designated drivers.
So mix up a Cuba Libre — and free yourself from the summer heat.
Recipe: The Cuba Libre Cocktail
When making a Cuba Libre, the biggest decision involves how much lime juice to use. Many recipes call for just the amount of juice that can be squeezed from a lime wedge. Way too little in my opinion! I prefer at least the juice from half a lime (but limes vary in size, so let’s say ½ ounce). I often make this drink with a full ounce of lime juice, because I like citrus so well. But that’s me — you should adjust to your own taste.
The next decision involves what kind of cola to use. Coke or competitor? Sweetened or sugarfree? Well, I think Coca-Cola has the perfect flavor profile for this drink, so I suggest going with that. And artificially sweetened soft drinks taste “off” in cocktails, so stick with the sugared version. You’ll get a much better drink if you do.
This recipe takes a few minutes to prepare, and serves 1.
- ½ - 1 ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice (see discussion in recipe headnote)
- 2 - 3 dashes Angostura bitters (optional, and not traditional; see Notes)
- 1½ - 2 ounces light (white) rum (I use the smaller quantity if drinking these in the sun; may substitute an amber or dark rum, see Notes)
- 3 - 4 ounces Coca-Cola
- lime wheel or slice for garnish (optional; some prefer to add a squeezed lime half to the drink as a garnish)
- Fill a tall (Collins) glass with ice cubes. A large rocks (Old-Fashioned) glass works, too. Add freshly squeezed lime juice and Angostura bitters (if using).
- Add rum, then top with Coca-Cola. Stir briefly to combine ingredients, and garnish with a lime wheel or slice. Serve with or without straws.
- This drink traditionally is made with light (white) rum. Any decent brand will work. In the US, Bacardi rum is available just about everywhere, and it works fine in this cocktail.
- We can’t buy Cuban-made rum in the US because of a trade embargo. But if you can buy it where you live, I’d recommend trying it in this drink.
- Although not traditional, an amber or dark rum makes a nice change of pace in this cocktail.
- I’m not a fan of spiced rums, but some people swear by them in this drink.
- Coca-Cola is an extraordinarily good mixer (as is lime juice). So you can use a variety of different rums in this drink, depending on your mood.
- Speaking of Coke, the full-sugar version has much more flavor than the diet iterations. Yes, Coke carries calories (about 50 if you use 4 ounces in this drink). So don’t use too much. We find it easier to avoid overindulging if we buy small quantities. Here at Kitchen Riffs central, we buy Coke in 8-ounce containers. Yes, it’s much more expensive per ounce than those giant bottles. But we’re not tempted to drink as much. If we drink Coke “neat,” an 8-ounce bottle is more than enough. After that, our palates just tire of the flavor. BTW, I used a bottle in one of the pictures in this post because they photograph better, but it’s a bit cheaper if you buy the small cans.
- We all know that Coca-Cola originally included cocaine. But the company started to phase out that, um, ingredient in 1903. So probably no one alive today has ever tasted Coke in its original, high-octane glory.
- The original Cuba Libre recipe did not contain Angostura bitters. But cocktail maestro David Wondrich swears that bitters combine beautifully with Coke — and I agree. So do try this drink with bitters sometime (it’s a revelation).
- Paul Harrington offers an interesting variation on this drink. He specifies 1½ ounces light rum, ½ ounce gin, ¾ ounce lime juice, and 2 ounces Angostura bitters. He shakes these together, then pours the mixture into an ice-filled tall glass and tops with 3 ounces of Coca-Cola. There’s a quick stir to blend, then a garnish of lime.
- There’s also a version of this drink that is served “up” (i.e., chilled but without ice) in a cocktail glass. To make it, combine 1 ounce light rum, ½ ounce 151-proof rum (Lemon Hart, if you can get it), 1 ounce Coca-Cola, ½ ounce fresh lime juice, and ½ teaspoon simple syrup or sugar. Shake in an ice-filled shaker, strain into a cocktail glass, and garnish with a lime wheel or slice.
- In some parts of the world, the Cuba Libre is made without lime juice (and in those cases it's usually called Rum and Coke). But you really owe it to yourself to add that hit of citrus. It makes a much better drink, IMO, and it's the original recipe. OK, I may have said that already.
Elixir of Liberation
Cocktail romantics like to claim exotic origins for their favorite drinks. And with a resounding name like “Cuba Libre,” this one is just begging for some myth making. So of course, some people insist that the drink was invented by Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War — while they were enjoying some off-duty moments at a bar in Old Havana, you see.
Problem is, the Rough Riders left Cuba in 1898, but Coca-Cola probably didn’t become available there until 1900. Oops. Of course, some diehards maintain that the Rough Riders actually carried bottles of Coke with them during the war, and used it to make the first Cuba Libres. Strikes me as farfetched, but whatever.
In any case, it’s pretty clear that the Cuba Libre — like the Classic Daiquiri and the Mojito Cocktail — did originate in Cuba, probably sometime around 1900. The drink’s popularity then spread quickly throughout North America and the rest of the world.
By the Second World War, the Cuba Libre was among the most popular drinks in the US. In 1945, the Andrews Sisters even had a hit song called “Rum and Coca Cola” — and it was no doubt popular in part because lots of folks were enjoying the drink of the same name. (The song’s lyrics were also a tad risqué, but the Andrews girls claimed not to notice.)
Then as now, many young adults probably launched their drinking careers with a Cuba Libre. With its mix of sugary soft drink and demon rum, it’s sort of halfway between youth and adulthood. But being kids, most novice drinkers just combine rum and Coke, ignoring the lime. Callow youth: They’re stunting their growth.
Well, time to put away childish things. Man up! Add some lime juice.
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