Cuban culture is uniquely enchanting; a singular time capsule harking back to the late 15th century when the Spanish invaded, and Latin arts blended with African culture. Since the Spanish colonised Cuba, the nation has lived many lives, at times being hugely influenced by US culture, and at others being almost completely cut off from the rest of the world. This unique history has resulted in cultural exports that have become synonymous with Cuba: among them, rum, rumba, and cigars.
Rum, rumba, and cigars
Have you ever wondered why Cuban cigars and rum are considered to be the best in the world? Or how the exuberant music and dance form rumba came into being? Use your time in Cuba to find out how the country’s unique history and Caribbean terrain formed the mainstays of its culture, from drinking and dance to smoking. Here’s how to enjoy all three during your holiday.
Rum is inescapable in Cuba. Havana Club is the standard order at every bar, and ubiquitous on every cocktail menu. Indeed, when you think of Cuba, it’s very possible the vision that springs to mind is one of Ernest Hemingway sipping a rum-heavy Mojito in La Bodeguita. And it’s certainly not just for the tourists. Meander the streets of Old Havana and you’ll find locals sat around tables, smoking cigars, a potent glass of rum in hand.
Why is it that enjoying a rum in Havana seems like a much more glamorous concept than if you were to imbibe the spirit anywhere else in the world? I’ve no doubt that Hemingway’s hard-drinking Havana legacy has a part to play. But there’s also the fact that during prohibition in the US, wealthy Americans - perhaps unsatisfied with the quality of the liquor obtained by bootleggers - would charter private flights to Cuba at weekends to wet their whistles with rum. Not to mention the fact that it’s still pretty difficult for US citizens to get their hands on Cuban rum without actually visiting the country. While former US president Barack Obama relaxed sanctions on bringing Cuban rum back into the USA for personal use, it still cannot be served at bars or sold in shops - even if acquired via legal means. Although it’s sold freely in most of the rest of the world, this still gives it something of a ‘forbidden fruit’ allure.
So, how did rum come to be a glamorous cornerstone of Cuban culture?
Similar to Burgundy’s ability to grow incredible red wine grapes and New Zealand’s competence at producing the perfect Sauvignon Blanc, Cuba simply has fantastic terrain for producing the components of its very own national treasure. Christopher Columbus introduced sugarcane to the Americas in the 1400s, and while this crop is grown in more than 80 countries, the finest is thought to come from the Caribbean. This part of the world has a sticky climate perfect for cultivating sugarcane, as well as fertile soil.
Sip a traditional Cuban rum and you’ll find it to be lighter and more delicate than versions of the spirit produced elsewhere. This crisp taste has its roots in Cuban history: during their time as rulers of the country, the Spanish royal family requested the spirit be made lighter as that’s how they preferred their liquor.
How is it made?
After the sugarcane is harvested, it is squashed to extract the guarapo (juice), which is then boiled to create molasses and sugar. The molasses is poured into tanks alongside yeast and water, where it ferments into vino de cana, which is then distilled in copper-lined columns to produce the condensed liquid aguardiente. This is placed in barrels for ageing.
Cuban rum uniquely requires the liquid to be aged for two years, before being filtered through charcoal. It is the job of the Maestros roneros - Cuban rum masters - to blend the filtered rums. Some of the white rum (soft, smooth tasting) produced at this stage is bottled and sold, usually for consumption in cocktails. The rest of the rum is aged longer - this spirit will be better for sipping with cigars.
Havana Club - Cuba’s national rum - is a joint venture between the Cuban government and a private company. In 1878 the Arechabala family founded a distillery in Cuba, which was later renamed Jose Arechabala S.A. In 1934, the company created the Havana Club brand, with bottles under this name being sold both around Cuba and in the US - although this would change after the country’s Communist Revolution in 1959.
There are a number of different rums sold under the Havana Club brand, so which should you sample during your trip to Cuba? If you’re a fan of cocktails, you’ll no doubt come across the Havana Club 3 Anos - a fresh spirit that is used in Mojitos and Daiquiris in the bars of Cuba. Havana Club Especial is a golden rum that is double aged, and used to make Cuba Libres. Anejo 7 Anos is the original Cuban sipping rum - perfect if you’re new to the spirit. Harder to get your hands on is the Iconica Selection - a series of fine, aged rums in limited edition. Visit Havana’s specialist rum and cigar shops to see if they have them in stock.
Rumba - which literally translates as ‘party’ - is a form of Cuban music and dance that has its roots firmly planted in the island’s colonial history. The upbeat style first appeared in the mid-19th century, when African drum beats - originally created by kitchen utensils - merged with the melodies of the Spanish colonisers. Since then, rumba has evolved and diversified into the many different styles we see today, from the seductive yambu and the male colombia to the guaguanco, the most popular style. Whatever the style, the dance can generally be characterised by the sensual movement of the shoulders and hips.
Yambu - the oldest style, dating back to the 19th century - has largely gone out of fashion, although elements of it can be seen in modern rumba. In this dance, the woman would flirt with the man using a series of soft, slow movements. The colombia style is more recent, originating from rural areas and designed for male solo dancers. The guaguanco style, meanwhile, was borne out of the city, and represents the pursuit of the woman by the man as she tries to evade his advances.
Rumba was once illegal in Cuba
Despite now being synonymous with Cuba, rumba was declared illegal in 1925 by President Gerardo Machado, who banned drums of an “African nature” and “bodily contortions” in public. However, once Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government seized power, Castro lifted the ban. The administration saw rumba as a Cuban working class creation, which was in line with its principles. By then, rumba had made its way into the jazz clubs of New York.
Watching rumba in Cuba
Generally speaking, the origins of rumba can be traced back to poor neighbourhoods, but in the 1920s the dance form began to spread. You can see the results of this at Cuban cabaret shows, where women dance in dresses trimmed with endless ribbons and lace. These shows are easy to find around Havana if you’re seeking an upmarket rumba experience.
However, if you want to see the dance in more authentic surroundings, head to Callejon de Hamel in Havana. This district is something of a shrine to Afro-Cuban culture, with plenty of sculptures and psychedelic shops to visit. However, the main event takes place at noon every Sunday, when the noisy rumba music kicks off, along with plenty of dancing and chanting. This is the rawest rumba performance you’re likely to catch during your time in the Cuban capital.
Cigars are perhaps the most iconically Cuban of any of the island’s exports. Much like with the sugarcane needed for rum, Cuba’s climate and terrain are perfect for growing cigar tobacco. Christopher Columbus and his men are generally credited with bringing tobacco to the USA and Europe after smoking it themselves while in Cuba.
In 1542, the Spanish chose Cuba as the location for the first ever cigar factory. As late as the 19th century, cigars were smoked across Europe in much higher quantities than cigarettes, and to this day Cuban cigars are renowned globally as the world’s best.
Which cigar to buy?
Whether you want to bring a cigar back to the UK as a gift, or you’re buying a couple for personal consumption, it pays to know which cigars you’re in the market for before you enter one of Cuba’s quiet, wood-panelled cigar shops. You’ll find different brands vary significantly when it comes to price, but you can aquire a cigar from around £6.
If you’re in the market for a strong, ultra-Cuban smoking experience, try the earthy Partagas. Alternatively, opt for a refined, smooth Cohiba - rumoured to be the cigar rolled for Castro himself. The Romeo y Julieta was famously beloved by British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill, with the brand having latterly named a cigar after him.
Steer away from the earthy Bolivar cigar unless you’re an aficionado - the strong tobacco can trigger nausea in beginners. The Montecristo is the best-selling cigar in the world, perhaps due to the pleasant, fruity taste that means it can be enjoyed by rookies and connoisseurs alike. Alternatively, try the H. Upmann brand - said to be John F Kennedy’s favourite. It’s rumoured that on the night Kennedy signed the embargo on goods from Cuba, the then-president sent his press secretary to collect all the H. Upmanns in the Washington DC area for his own personal consumption.
The Churchill connection
As aforementioned, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was passionate about his Cuban cigars; in his most iconic images you’ll see one planted firmly in his mouth. His brand of choice was Romeo y Julieta, which he discovered during a trip to Cuba in his early twenties. As a famous Romeo y Julieta enthusiast, when he visited Cuba in 1946, the cigar brand commemorated his trip by naming one of their most famous sizes after him. Much like the man himself, these cigars are rich and complex. Within the classic medium bodied Churchill cigar, you'll find a pleasing, aromatic blend of well-appointed tobaccos.
Visit Cuba while its unique culture is firmly intact
Is there ever going to be a time when rum, rumba and cigars are not at the heart of Cuban culture? I seriously doubt it. However, as the nation increasingly opens its doors to the West, it may not always be the colourful time capsule it now is; with its blend of African and Latin culture still largely unspoilt by modern day international influence. Consider visiting in the next few years to experience Cuba at its most Cuban. And whatever else you do during your stay in this singular country, make sure you take time to soak in a rumba performance with a rum in your hand - and a cigar in your mouth if that’s your thing.