Cocktails to Crave: The Old Cuban

This delicious Old Cuban was mixed at Rye, by co-owner Jon Gasparini.
This delicious Old Cuban was mixed at Rye, by co-owner Jon Gasparini.

After doing a little event for a group of women attorneys at The Bubble Lounge last week, I went out for drinks with Heather and Marie, a pair of new foodie friends.

As we scanned the menu at a hip vintage style watering hole in the Financial District, Heather was disappointed that the Old Cuban – her favorite new drink – wasn’t on the menu. I told her to ask for one anyway. It’s my new favorite too and a modern classic that any bartender worth his salt knows how to make.

Apparently not. The waiter brought over two pale cocktails that looked like mojitos. Close – since the Old Cuban is a variant of the mojito. Both are made with lime, mint, simple syrup and benefit from a good golden or dark rum with some age, like Zaya, Smith & Cross or El Dorado 12.

But what makes an Old Cuban really fine and so appealing is the Angostura bitters. A proper Old Cuban – as created by the brilliant Audrey Saunders at Pegu Club in New York – has a few dashes of Angostura bitters in the mix.

I’ve read that some bartenders are making their version of an Old Cuban sans Angostura bitters. An Old Cuban without bitters isn’t an Old Cuban, it’s a Hemingway Mojito, which gets finished with a slug of champagne instead of club soda. Plus, it’s a huge mistake in terms of flavor.

Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad from a secret blend of roots and herbs.
Angostura bitters are made in Trinidad from a secret blend of roots and herbs.

Bitters aren’t a garnish here, like they are atop the foam on a Pisco Sour. In an Old Cuban, Angostura bitters make the cocktail. Bitters turn the drink the desired shade of reddish brown – think of an Old Cuban cigar. And they also bring the drink’s flavors into sharp focus while imparting a mysterious, complex quality that makes an Old Cuban so beguiling. And since Angostura bitters were originally created as a digestive aid, I can’t think of any better way to begin a meal.

One can find a good Old Cuban in the Bay Area at Rye in the Tenderloin, Miss Pearl’s Jam House (ask for Al) in Oakland’s Jack London Square and Beretta in the Mission.

But since not much tastes better – especially in winter – than a fine cocktail from your home bar, here’s the recipe:

Old Cuban
5 fresh mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice
1/2 to 3/4 ounces simple syrup
1-1/2 ounces tasty rum
2 to 3 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces brut cava or champagne

Muddle the mint leaves, lime juice and simple syrup in the bottom of a mixing glass or cocktail shaker. Add the rum, bitters and ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a smallish footed cocktail glass or vintage champagne coupe and top with the sparkling wine or champagne. Garnish with the mint sprig. Repeat.