On the corner of Obispo and Monserrate Streets, in Old Havana, is the most famous bar on the island, where the art of Cuban cocktail making was born. Created in 1817 as La Piña de Plata, later named La Florida, and finally, Floridita, the bar-restaurant owes its trademark to the father of Cuban bartending, Spanish immigrant Constantino Ribailagua (Constante).
Viewed by world experts as a cocktail temple, and awarded countless times both in and outside of the country, the Floridita has become known as the birthplace of the Daiquirí. While it is said that the cocktail was devised on a beach in Santiago de Cuba, Constante is credited with having “taken it to the laboratory” to perfect the recipe, and master bartenders have cultivated his legacy.
Among Constante’s contributions to the so-called Classic Daiquirí, was demonstrating that, as well as lemon, sugar and white rum, the recipe called for a few drops of Maraschino and blended ice to form a frappé. The cocktail can also be enjoyed alcohol-free by children, and the Floridita has now developed a total of 17 different types of Daiquirí: strawberry, mint, banana, mango, guava; to mention just a few of the flavors used.
It is estimated that the Floridita, the first bar in Cuba to use a blender, in the 1920s, welcomes more than a quarter million customers each year, and 80% of U.S. visitors to Havana make a stop there. Today, 50% of all customers are from the U.S.
Many of those who have enjoyed the finest cocktails offered in the Floridita, such as the Presidente, Papa’s or the iconic Daiquirí, have become part of its tradition. Famous figures from the worlds of art, culture, politics, sports, and business have all passed through.
Gary Cooper, Tennessee Williams, Marlene Dietrich, Ingrid Bergman, Graham Greene, Jean-Paul Sartre, Derek Jeter, Joe Torre, Rocky Marciano, Ava Gadner, Samuel Elliot Morrison, Buck Lanham, Hebert Matthews, Errol Flynn, and Jane Fonda, stand out among the international personalities to have visited; while among the Cuban celebrities are Compay Segundo, Pablo Milanés, Javier Sotomayor, and Silvio Rodríguez.
THE GLORY OF HEMINGWAY
However, the most privileged place in memories of the Floridita, described by Esquire magazine in 1953 as among the best 7 bars in the world, is reserved for U.S. novelist Ernest Hemingway, a regular and friend of Constante.
According to Ariel Blanco, manager of the bar-restaurant for the last three years, the Floridita was “the hideout, the office, the tropical paradise of Hemingway.”
The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 found life and inspiration in the bar, “and in return he bequeathed his eternal presence.”
With its English Regency style and decoration, which continues to recall the 1950s, the Floridita was Hemingway’s favorite place in the Cuban capital. Next to his usual spot at the bar, a bronze statue is dedicated to the author of The Old Man and the Sea.
In the words of its director, over two centuries the Floridita has continued to have “its own aura, a historic and professional glamour that reserve the same intensity and love that invite one to experience a unique moment in an enigmatic space.”
The multi-award winning maître d' of the Floridita, Orlando Blanco, notes that while writing the draft for For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway compared the frappé ice of the Daiquirí to the foam of the sea.
It is said that on his first visit to the Floridita, in April 1928, the writer asked Constante for something stronger because he was diabetic. This was the basis for the cocktail Papa’s, exclusively made for Hemingway, which is distinguished by the double amount of rum and the use of grapefruit. On sipping it, Hemingway would say: “I'm drinking glory.”
Although sales have increased considerably following increased arrivals of U.S. tourists, Ariel Blanco stresses that the biggest challenge facing the Floridita, which is affiliated with the Palmares Extra-Hotel Business Group, is to innovate without losing its tradition, or its classic cocktail line.
In 1992, the Floridita was awarded the Best of the Best Five Star Diamond Award, from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, for its superb Daiquirís and restaurant specializing in seafood.
THE KING OF KINGS
As part of the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the emblematic Cuban tourist facility, October 5-6 will see the Rey de Reyes (King of Kings) International Cocktail-making Competition. For the first time, the winners of the eight editions of the Rey del Daiquirí (King of the Daiquirí) competition will gather behind the bar, while the Floridita’s master bartenders select the best Daiquirí maker in the world.
According to Blanco, the King of Kings event, with a dozen competitors, will defend Cuban gastronomy and cocktails as important elements of world culture. The majority of contestants are Cuban and work as bartenders in the state and private sectors.
Special guests include Christian Delpech, 19 times World Champion Flair Bartender, from Argentina, and John Christian Lemeyer, from the United States. Lemeyer was the first U.S. bartender to compete in the King of the Daiquirí competition, when the event took on an international character two years ago.
Between 200 and 400 further bartenders will attend the event, with competitions in the area surrounding the bar to be broadcast live. Meanwhile, a Premium Havana Club rum will be officially presented, dedicated to the 200th anniversary of the iconic bar, and the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, located just in front of the Floridita, will inaugurate its main bar under the name Constante.