In 1817, a bar called “La Piña de Plata” (The Silver Pineapple) opened on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate streets in downtown Havana. Roughly a century later, the business changed its name to El Floridita. The rest is (cocktail) history. From October 5-6, cocktail luminaries gathered to celebrate Floridita’s 200 years of leading the bar industry by example. Neat Pour was there.
Although Floridita was founded in the 19th century, everything changed in 1914 when Constantino Ribalaigua Vert entered the scene. Vert began working behind the bar and quickly earned two nicknames, Constante and “El Rey de los Coteleros” (The Cocktail King). In 1918, Constante bought the bar and proceeded to introduce innovation after innovation. To this day, he is credited with popularizing the daiquiri and pioneering blender drinks. Equally important, Constante was a key figure in the development of Cuba’s unique cantinero culture. Under his leadership, cantineros became an exclusive club within the bartending community commanding respect as well as progressive labor measures. Floridita’s unofficial Global Ambassador, Julio Cabrera explained, “Cantinero means everything for us. It’s a way of life, in and outside the bar. We are proud to be Cantineros, but we have to earn it.”
During the week, the anniversary group gathers at Constante’s tomb and shakes up a Floridita Daiquiri to toast their predecessor. The drink is then left on the left column of the tomb’s entrance. In 2017, the group included retired Floridita Bartenders and guests including Audrey Hands (the global ambassador of Havana Club,) Alejandro Rodriguez (Floridita bartender), Rolando Fernando Gonzalez (Floridita bartender), Francois Monti (writer/historian), Nicoai Mesa (Floridita bartender), and Cabrera.
A highlight of the annual birthday bash is the Rey del Daiquiri (King of the Daiquiri) competition. In honor of the 200th anniversary, Floridita reunited the last eight winners to compete for the title of Rey de Reyes (King of Kings). These kings competed in three heats and a written test. In the first heat, competitors were asked to make an original cocktail with Havana Club. In the second heat, they had to execute a cocktail order comprised of Cuban classics. In the final heat, the bartenders were plunged into an Iron Chef style showdown. Finally, they were given a series of questions about the Associacion de Cantineros, Floridita history, history of the bartenders/owners (particularly Ribilaigua and Boadas).
T.J. Palmieri of Madrina’s in Gainesville returned to the iconic bar for a second consecutive year. For Palmieiri, a Cuban-American, the trip held special significance; he is the only member of his family to return to Cuba since his grandmother’s 1962 departure. He told Neat Pour that the Cuban people and the burgeoning modern cocktail scene was amazing, but the contest was a highlight. “The competition itself was overwhelming, I’ve never had so many cameras and lights in my face,” said the competitor. “I was pretty nervous up there, but the Floridita team, like the Cuban people, was incredibly kind. They helped me translate the written test and one of the managers even held my hand to calm my nerves.”
Ultimately, Adrian Ravelo edged out a tough field also including Argentine flair master Christian Delpech of the Fountainbleau in Miami and Mario Acosta of Waoo bar in Havana.
The crowning of the new king was celebrated in style. Julio Bermejo, owner of San Francisco’s legendary Tommy’s, was on the scene leading a group of international bartenders. And, he came bearing gifts. To honor the occasion, Bermejo popped a magnum of Tapatio Añejo tequila bottled specially for the occasion.
History is not just a test at Floriditia; it is an obsession. “I think it’s great that they really honor and preserve the memory of the bartenders that have worked there,” said Palmieri. “That bar has contributed more to cocktail culture that any other institution.” After long time cantinera Manuel Carbajo died in a tragic car accident in 2016, his jacket, shaker, and photo were enshrined on the wall earlier in the year. Midweek, the revelry of the birthday celebration was paused to hold memorial service honoring Carbajo.
The competition and bar also had a permanent resident. La Floridita has long been a home for expats, particularly American writers. John Dos Passos, Ezra Pound, and Graham Greene were all regulars. However, the most famous barfly was Ernest Hemingway. In fact, in 2003, the bar added a life size statue of the artist crafted by Cuban artist José Villa Soberón.
Legend has it that Hemingway discovered La Floridita while searching for a bathroom and instantly fell in love with the joint. The story goes that the famed writer had a low tolerance for sugar and the bar created the Hemingway Daiquiri, a simple syrup-free Daiquiri variation, especially for him. (Maraschino is used to achieve a similar effect to the sugar.) The tale continues that the author preferred the drink served in doubles known as Papa Dobles which he would consume en masse. El Floridita’s historians claim that Hemingway set a record drinking 16 of these Papa Dobles in one sitting.
Correction: The article has been updated to reflect that Tommy’s is located in San Francisco, not LA and the bottle pictured is a double magnum.