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Just as harness racing is less than gymkhana, a Cuba Libre surely is more than a Rum & Coke. No, there’s nothing wrong with a rum and coke, but it is only a half-realized vision: a cake without icing, Tom without Jerry, a V6 Mustang, Christmas without your weird Aunt Trudy. Pleasant enough — yes. Easier — yes! But interesting? Well, no. Everything goes fine, but nothing sticks. What’s to remember? A cat sleeping peacefully on the rug? 0-60 in over 5 seconds? Peacefully opening gifts while no one does a headstand in an attempt to prove sobriety? Keep it.

2 dashes Angostura Bitters
1/4 lime, juice and hull
2 oz Good Rum (or combination of good rums)
Cubed Ice
Cola (3-5 oz, to taste)

A few things to understand while you sip this: The Cuba Libre was invented shortly after the Spanish-American War, during the occupation of Cuba by American troops. While it is certainly tempting to think that T.R. might have guzzled a few of these before leading the boys up San Juan Hill, cold reason suggests that cola probably was brought to the island after the fighting settled down a bit. The drink was popular with American troops stationed there and quickly caught on back home too, what with that old, trusty combination of rum and lime and sugar and — hold the phone (patented 1876)! — cola!? Cola, it turns out, was a lot more exotic back in the day, not only because it was pretty recently invented (1886), but also because it was still flavored with extracts from actual kola nuts (Africa) and all the extractables of the coca leaf (South America), hence the name Coca-Cola. Well, one particular extract of the coca leaf was banned by the U.S. in 1904, and no company I know of uses kola nuts to flavor their soda anymore, so the original drink is definitely lost. We can only try to get close, but it’s still absolutely worth it.

There are some things that will make this drink better, if not wholly authentic to the original. A couple dashes of Angostura darkens the flavor and the sense of exotic, tropical mystery. Using a cola with cane sugar instead of corn syrup definitely helps it out — some places sell Mexican Coke, which is made without corn syrup, though it is also more expensive.

Is Coke really better than any other cane sugar cola? I kind of enjoy making a vintage-looking still-life on my table with the crystal glass, cut lime, rum, and curvaceous old-school Coke bottle on my table. (It is actually modeled after a cocoa pod and not the female form, but you can pretend not to know this, if you prefer.) However — and if you’re an Atlantan, cover your ears for this next part — I don’t really think it matters. Find a cola you like, and go for it.

For rum, I have used light, gold, dark, and combinations thereof. It’s all delicious. Again, find the one you like, and make this drink your own. I haven’t tried it with key limes. Someone please do that and let me know how it goes.

We may never get to taste the original in this case (or feel its effects!) Still, it is fun to remember the excitement and romance of this cocktail’s origins, and fun to reflect on how relevant, worldly, and downright contemporary this now-neutered, college-bar staple really was in its New Century hey-day. Oh, one more thing. The name the Yankees gave their drink, Cuba Libre? “Free Cuba!” Topical, no?

Drink Well.

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