The rum and coke is a staple in bars and liquor cabinets across the world. Not only is it easy to make, it’s enjoyable for basically everyone. Similarly, the Cuba libre (which is really just a rum and coke with lime, on the rocks) is a fantastic drink that isn’t much harder than its sibling the rum and coke. All in all, the rum and coke is not that interesting, but the history of the drink is.
Trying to get a real handle on the history of the cuba libre is like trying to figure out who the first person to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was. There are all kinds of accounts and legends, but many of them don’t add up. For instance, according to Bacardi:
The world’s second most popular drink was born in a collision between the United States and Spain. It happened during the Spanish-American War at the turn of the century when Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, and Americans in large numbers arrived in Cuba. One afternoon, a group of off-duty soldiers from the U.S. Signal Corps were gathered in a bar in Old Havana. Fausto Rodriguez, a young messenger, later recalled that Captain Russell came in and ordered Bacardi rum and Coca-Cola on ice with a wedge of lime. The captain drank the concoction with such pleasure that it sparked the interest of the soldiers around him. They had the bartender prepare a round of the captain’s drink for them. The Bacardi rum and Coke was an instant hit. As it does to this day, the drink united the crowd in a spirit of fun and good fellowship. When they ordered another round, one soldier suggested that they toast ¡Por Cuba Libre! in celebration of the newly freed Cuba. The captain raised his glass and sang out the battle cry that had inspired Cuba’s victorious soldiers in the War of Independence.
You may have seen those commercials that depict this. However, there are some problems with Bacardi’s account. Specifically, the Spanish-American war was fought in 1898, Cuba’s liberation was in 1898, and the Rough Riders left Cuba in September 1898, but Coca-Cola was not available in Cuba until 1900. Therefore, it doesn’t really add up that people were rocking some rum and cokes before the cola was available.
For some reason, the messenger Fausto Rodriguez filled out an affidavit in 1965, and his sworn testimony was as follows:
In 1899 I was employed as a messenger in the office of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. I was friendly with a Mr. [redacted], who worked in the office of the Chief Signal Officer.
One afternoon, in August 1900, I went with him to the [redacted] Bar and he drank Bacardi rum and Coca-Cola. I just drank Coca-Cola being only 14 years old.
On that occasion, there was a group of soldiers at the bar, and one of them asked Mr. [redacted] what he was drinking. He told them it was Bacardi and Coca-Cola and suggested they try it, which they did.
The soldiers liked it. They ordered another round and toasted Mr. [redacted] as the inventor of a great drink.
The drink remained popular until the present time.
Now, this affidavit has only appeared in an advertisement (can you believe 1960’s advertising involved an affidavit? Kind of a shift in the last 50 years) by Bacardi, so its entirely possible they made up this Fausto Rodriguez person. However, Fausto’s story was actually cited in a book by Charles A. Coulombe, so its not like this story is entirely off-base here.
Fast forward to 1945, and the Andrews Sisters’ #1 hit, “Rum and Coca-Cola” (embedded right) was largely credited with the popularization of the drink in America. At this time, both rum and the soda were easily-obtainable ingredients, as opposed to when the drink was reportedly created. In 1900, the cuba libre was an exotic drink, made with dark syrup from kola nuts and coca. It’s very possible the original cuba libre tastes very different than the drink enjoyed today, so without some crafty connections and a passport it might not be possible to taste what the U.S. soldiers tasted in 1899.
After 1945, the drink was generally considered a popular staple like gin and tonic. We may never know who Fausto Rodriguez went to bar with that day, or if his story is even entirely accurate. However, I kind of like that mystery, so part of me doesn’t want to know the answer. All I know for sure is that every time I have a cuba libre in the future I’ll be sure to think of Fausto and his unknown officer in Cuba.