There are a couple of difficulties that arise when trying to establish where to drink the best cocktail in Havana. Firstly, some of the leading lights of the western literary canon have written about drinking cocktails in this city. Secondly, the nature of a bar crawl is a barrier to the proper assessment of alcoholic drinks.
My drinking partner and I established criteria with which to attempt the Havana nightlight challenge. A good cocktail must not taste of alcohol. We would consider the quality of the crushed ice and the freshness of the mint. And we would rate the presentation, the service, the general ambience of the bar and the music.
The beginning of our quest was not entirely successful. Taberna Muralta, on Plaza Vieja, had run out of some vital cocktail-making ingredient. We couldn’t quite establish what it was with our limited Spanish.
Fortunately, they have great beer. There is a microbrewery right inside the taberna, which is all shiny copper vats and tubes. The band here is talented and plays the infectious and unique music for which Cuba is famous.
But enough distractions, we wanted cocktails. Right across the square, the cheeky grin of the shortest double-bass player in the world drew us in to El St Angel. The violin/bass/accordion/guitar combo was playing show tunes from 50 years ago on a colonnaded terrace decorated with potted palms and flowers.
The mojito was cloudy with bruised mint and just the slightest bit sour. However, I thought it could have been better combined. Not quite all the ice had been crushed and there was a big cube floating in the middle.
The Hotel Ambos Mundos is probably now most famous for a former resident, Ernest Hemingway. From the rooftop bar of this elegant hotel Havana looks at once more glamorous and more neglected.
Blue plumbago and bougainvillea curl around the pillars and wave in the warm breeze as the sun sets. The mojitos here are top class, with only the barest taste of rum. The musicians are on a break, sitting at the bar in their white flat caps.
O’Reilly’s bar on O’Reilly is a great people watching spot so make sure you go up the iron spiral staircase to the upstairs bar. We leaned over the railings of the narrow balcony and watched the Habaneros cruising the street below. The cocktails were not quite up to the mark: too strong and the mint was all over the place.
Bar Bilbao gets five stars for atmosphere. Inexplicably festooned with Bilbao football club paraphernalia, the drinks were good and we shared some cigars with an old-timer who was better at talking than singing.
Cafe Paris is on bustling Obispo and Ernesto the barman does a good line in mixing rum and sugar. The pizzas are excellent.
A drink in Hemingway’s beloved Floridita bar is a must for any visitor to Havana even though it has become a tourist trap. In any case, by this stage of the evening we were becoming less analytical of our drinks.
For old style Havana glamour you cannot beat the bar at the Inglaterra hotel. This grand old lady has been entertaining tourists and mixing drinks since 1875 and the Belle Epoque architecture is a spectacular combination of stained-glass, colourful mosaics and intricately moulded plasterwork. Sit back and listen to the violinist crooning the story of Havana’s nightlife.
By Natasha von Geldern