If you ever watched the movie Rough Riders, you may remember a scene where Teddy Roosevelt, played by Tom Berenger (probably the best TD ever), wandered over to a group of Cubans in the jungle saying “Cuba Libre.” He uttered it almost as a question but, in case you were a bit confused, he was not suggesting they all enjoy a rum and Coke together. He was simply saying “Free Cuba,” the battle cry of the Spanish-American War, in which Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, the First Volunteer United States Cavalry, fought the Spanish and intervened in Cuba’s fight for independence from Spanish rule. Roosevelt was not suggesting a drink, but the way the line was delivered, more like a question than a rallying cry, perhaps was a humorous acknowledgment to the legend that the name of the Cuba Libre cocktail had come from Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
First, what is a Cuba Libre? It is, to most people who know the cocktail, simply a Rum and Coke. Although many people have had many a rum and Coke, however, few have called it a Cuba Libre. In fact, it is a common call drink for which customers specify Barcardi rum as in “Bacardi and Coke.” The name of the cocktail really does go back to the later 1800’s. Although today, most bartenders will serve a rum and Coke with a wedge of lime, an actual Cuba Libre should probably also have a little key lime juice in it, which improves the drink quite a lot, but the wedge plunked on the glass of a rum and Coke is likely a hold-over from the drink’s historical roots. And of course, if you’re savvy enough to order a “Cuba Libre” instead of a rum and Coke, you might expect Cuban rum, although you’re not likely to actually get it!
The legend has it, sometime around 1898 to 1900, one of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders was celebrating with his fellow soldiers in a Havana bar, having just scored a major victory. Someone, and we will ignore the improbable identification of “A Captain in the U.S. Signal Corps called John Doe — for reasons I will get to in a moment — ordered a rum and Coke with lime and shouted out the rallying cry of “Cuba Libre!” Others followed and ordered their own, and so the name Cuba Libre became associated with the cocktail.
Is this how the Cuba Libre cocktail was born? Or, at least, how the name was born? Well, you’d have to be pretty gullible to believe it. First, Coca-Cola was first invented in 1886 it wasn’t, at first offered in bottles or shipped to other parts of the world. And, although it may have been offered, locally, in bottles as early as 1894, the first major bottling did not occur until 1899. It is impossible to believe that bottles of Coca-Cola would have been shipped to bars in Havana, Cuba by 1900, or supplied to U.S. soldiers in Cuba. International shipping did not begin until at least a decade after this, and international bottling did not begin to occur until the 1920’s. In fact, until around the 1920’s, Coca-Cola was still sold as a fountain drink as often as it was sold in a bottle. According to the Coca-Cola company, it is true that Coke had traveled to Cuba as early as 1900, but since most version of the story take place in 1898, this is two years too late. As far as the versions that place the story at a late date, as late as 1900, well, the war was over by December 1898.
To believe the story, we’d have to believe that a Cuban bar had Coca-Cola on hand before the first syrup had ever arrived in Cuba. Or, that a U.S. Soldier had a bottle of Coke before bottles of Coke were widely available. As well, we’d have to believe that this then unlikely combination was ordered at a time before Coke had entered the public consciousness in the ubiquitous way it has now.
To put the final nail in the coffin, if this event had actually taken place, the idea that someone would have taken note of the drink orderer being “a Captain in the U.S. Signal Corps” and that this detail would have been passed into history as a “fact” is ludicrous. This would have been, at the time, a “non-event.” Therefore, not only would no-one have been likely to remember the person who started it, but we would never have known of this origin, since, although the name of the cocktail may have spread outwards naturally, the actual event would have been lost to history. The “captain” is identified as John Doe, which, as we all know, is American slang for an unidentified individual. That this unknown individual would have been remembered specifically as a “Captain in the U.S Signal Corps” is curious for how specific it actually is. Often, such details are not proof of a story’s authenticity, but the opposite! They are too specific to be credible, and such details often signal invention.
Indeed, the drink itself may NOT have its origin in Cuba. It is likely to have begun in the States, where Coca-Cola was more available and where, during the war, there was a shortage of gin and whiskey, making imported rum more widely consumed.
An even more detailed account is given by Bacardi, as supposedly passed alone by an early Bacardi advertising agent named Fausto Rodriquez, who had been a messenger for General Leonard Wood when Wood was a military governor in Cuba. According to Rodriquez, a bar owner in Havana named Barrio, around the turn of the century, had many U.S. military patrons whom he was eager to please. Therefore, he had made sure to have a bunch of Coca-Cola on hand and, one night, using Bacardi Rum, of course, he mixed up a rum and Coke and offered it to his customers, who liked it, so he poured more and made a toast of “Por Cuba Libre.” To Free Cuba!. The soldiers returned the toast with Cuba Libre! and the name of the cocktail was born. More incredible than the story itself, is the idea that such precise details about a drunken celebration in Cuban watering-hole, during such an eventful time, would have been remembered in such detail! Especially since this would have been long before Rodriquez had moved to New York and started working for Bacardi. An explanation is given as to why the bartender happened to have so much Coca-Cola on hand, but the story presupposed that a Cuban bartender would have thought that having Coca-Cola available would have “pleased his U.S. customers” which, for reasons I’ve already given, don’t hold a lot of rum.
In 1945, the singing group The Andrew’s Sisters had a big hit with the song “Rum and Coca-Cola,” a calypso tune. This coincided, roughly, with the Cuba Libre’s peak of popularity. Many seem to associate the song with the cocktail, but, curiously, according to the original lyricist of the song, Lord Invader, it had nothing really to do with a Rum and Coke cocktail, but the habit of American soldiers in Trinidad of chasing rum with Coca-Cola.
So what is the true story of the Cuba Libre cocktail? We may never know. Some aspects of any of the stories about the drink, not all of which I’ve recounted here, could well be true, but accurately tracing the origin of cocktails is often no more successful than trying to trace the origin of a cooking recipe. Not even everyone agrees on the composition of the original cocktail. Some say it was just rum and Coca-Cola. Others say it was rum and Coke with a wedge of lime. Often, it is rum, Coke, and lime juice. There are even more complicated versions, such as rum, gin, Coca-Cola, lime juice, and bitters. If we cannot even agree on what a cocktail is made with, it is unlikely we could truly find its origin.