Your Man in Havana: Some Havana Drinking Holes

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Havana’s numerous bars are in many ways all rather similar. All of the places listed here serve Havana Club as the house rum. Few have a decent rum selection besides the basic Havana Club range (i.e. the blanco through to the 7 Años). Those that do offer alternatives tend to do so only at the higher end. Popular top shelf rums include Santiago and Vigia 11 Años, and Havana Club Barrel Proof and 15 Años.

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Bar Monserrate (Old Town – Oprapia St. near Central Park)

Popular bar with both tourists and locals. Fairly run of the mill place offering reasonable mixed drinks at reasonable prices. This place probably gets some overflow of tourists tired with the high prices at El Floridita, just a block or so away. Live music in the evenings. A good stop before or after El Floridita, for either a Mojito or a beer.

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Cafe Paris (Old Town – Obispo St.)

Typical little local bar. Nice drinks and horrible food. Worth checking out provided you are not hungry.

Casa del Escabeche (Old Town – Obispo St.)

Another typical little local joint with live music at lunchtime. Unfortunately my visit was marred by an aggressive tout trying to sell me drugs. The guy was a tetrapack drunk (I was Havana Club 7 Años) and continued pestering me even after I shifted seats to put some distance between myself and his group. He eventually became quite threatening and I elected to make an exit. The staff did nothing to help diffuse the situation. The place seems nice enough, but (despite the delicious rum) I left with a bad taste in my mouth.

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El Bodeguita Del Medio (Old Town – Empedrado St.)

Even more touristy than El Floridita, with trays of very average Mojitos sitting partially mixed and waiting for the crowds to arrive. The sad thing is that the crowds pulled in by the Bodeguita Del Medio publicity machine are flocking to a place that Hemmingway probably never patronized to drink a cocktail he never much cared for. Still, like it or not this bar has wrestled for itself the title of spiritual home of the Mojito. On the positive side, like El Floridita they partially justify their high prices by using Havana Club 3 Años rather than Havana Club Añejo Blanco as the house rum. Worth a visit just to say you did.

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El Floridita (Old Town – Obispo St. near Central Park)

As per my previous notes from an earlier post. Worth a visit, but treat as a tourist attraction more than anything else.

Havana Club Rum Museum (Old Town – San Pedro St.)

I didn’t actually have a drink here. The bar looks nice enough though, albeit more like a tourist pit-stop than a genuine bar. I think I checked and was told they do not serve Havana Club Barrel Proof or 15 Años by the glass. That’s a shame given that it’s the flagship location for the Havana Club brand. Incidentally, this is where this rather cool video was filmed.

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Hotel Ambos Mundos (Old Town – Calle Obispo)

Hemmingway wrote a chapter of For Whom the Bell Tolls while staying in this hotel, and naturally made extensive use of its bar. The lobby has been renovated, but the bar remains a nice low-key spot for a drink. There is also a rooftop bar. The clientele are mostly tourists, but there is none of the try-hard hype of El Floridita and El Bodeguita Del Media. The vibe is relaxed, the bartenders are good, and the result is one of the better spots for Hemingway fans to sit and meditate over a drink or twelve. On my first visit I shared the place with a pair of very drunk Russians who started thumping the bar and singing along to a somber Russian tune the pianist was belting out. Staff from around the lobby dropped their work to come and listen. All this at 10.30 am; Hemmingway would have felt at home that morning.

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Hotel Florida (Old Town – Obispo St.)

One of the smaller of the old Havana hotels, this place has a quiet but nicely appointed bar. The friendly staff mix a good Daiquiri, and it makes for a nice retreat from the crowds on Obispo. Possibly a good choice if you are looking for a bar in the area without live music. Sometimes the Buena Vista Social Club clones can become a bit much.

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Hotel Inglaterra (Old Town – Central Park)

The oldest hotel in Havana, located right on the central park, this place has nice terrace bar on the sidewalk. Touristy, but low key and well priced. The Mojitos are good, and they stock a couple of older rums from brands other than Havana Club. A nice spot settle down for some early evening people watching with a glass of rum and a cigar.

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Hotel Nacional (Vedado – 21st St.)

A beautiful old Art Deco hotel with at least three bars. The outside bar near the lobby has the best selection of traditional Cuban cocktails I saw in Havana, including the famous Hotel Nacional Daiquiri. The west wing of the hotel has a large and well-stocked bar overlooking the swimming pool. This is one of the few places in Havana you are likely to find local exotica like aguardiente. I spotted a pink Piña Colada in this bar though, so maintain some caution. Finally, set apart from the hotel itself is a little cliff-top bar overlooking the Malecón. This last spot has great views, but a poor drinks selection. I ended up trying a Nacional Daiquiri in the outside lobby bar, and a Presidente in the bar near the swimming pool. Both were well made. Interestingly, the Presidente was made with sweet vermouth. I always thought it was supposed to made with dry, though I know lots of people use sweet. Anyway, my only complaint about this place is that the ice could be colder. Overall, a must visit.

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Hotel Presidente (Vedado – Calzada St.)

A history-drenched Havana institution offering a small lobby bar and a larger but neglected-looking poolside bar. Unfortunately my experience was not great. The barman on duty seemed to have an attitude and I left without having a drink. I forget exactly what the issue was, but I think it involved me wanting an El Presidente cocktail (it was the Presidente hotel) and him being less than accommodating.

Jazz Café (Vedado – Paseo Ave. near Riviera Hotel)

Swanky late night club geared to well-heeled locals as much as to tourists. There are nightly performances of live jazz, but nothing much happens before 11pm or so. Good Mojitos and average food. I noticed locals (or at least Spanish speakers) drinking Havana Club Añejo Reserva with coke – nice choice. Incidentally, the Cuba Libre seems to be one of those drinks where a higher grade of rum is occasionally called for. I never noticed Cubans specify what rum they wanted in their Daiquiris or Mojitos, but they seemed fussier when it came to their Cuba Libres.

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Lluvia de Oro (Old Town – Obispo St.)

Pleasant and recently renovated bar with a mixed tourist and local clientele. The Mojitos are tasty (that magic touch of Angostura), and the food is well above average for Cuba. They often have live music happening and the prices are reasonable. Havana Club 3 Años is the mixing rum here, suggesting they make an effort to offer quality. This was one of my favorite places in Havana.

Los Nardos (Old Town – El Prado, opposite the Capitolio)

Not a bar, just a restaurant with good Cuban food. The grilled chicken is excellent, and of course you can have a glass of rum with your meal. I made my a Havana Club 7 Años.

Prado y Neptuno (El Prado, on corner with Neptuno St.)

Italian restaurant with good food and a surprisingly large range of rums and other spirits – including lots of imports. One of the few places you can taste Havana Club Barrel Proof or 15 Años by the glass. They were out of the 15 Años when I visited, but it is listed on the menu and I heard from others that they usually stock it.

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The Havana Club (Miramar)

This complex in the far western suburbs of Havana (not far from the Hemmingway Marina) is the famous Havana Club from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. I made a point of dropping past here to try the Daiquiri, described so famously by Graham Green: “They had another free daiquiri each, frozen so stiffly that it had to be drunk in tiny drops to avoid a sinus-pain.”

These days the Havana Club is a members club, and supposedly one of the most exclusive places in town. I got in by showing up on a mid-week afternoon, mentioning Graham Greene, and asking nicely for a Daiquiri. The guard at the gate ran a liberal entry policy, but made me promise to leave before it got late and the real members showed up. I entered and found the place deserted. Casual visitors might not get in easily on evenings or weekends when the place presumably gets busy.

The complex offers club facilities, a private beach, and a couple of bars. The main bar is downstairs, with the upstairs bar apparently open only during functions. The drinks were good quality. Naturally I started with a Daiquiri. In one of those rare occasions where life proceeds almost exactly like fiction, the drink really did arrive “frozen so stiffly that it had to be drunk in tiny drops to avoid a sinus-pain”. It was the stiffest Daiquiri I found in Havana, and perhaps also the tastiest. Unfortunately, unlike in the novel, my Daiquiri was not free. However, it was surprisingly cheap, perhaps cheaper than anywhere else I visited. Membership clearly has its privileges.

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Taberna de la Muralle (Old Town – Ignace St. in the Plaza Vieja)

Mircrobrewery with draft beer and passable hamburgers. This place gets good reviews but I found the food merely edible. Worth a visit for the tasty beer – makes for a break from rum. Predictably, they also have live music.

5 Responses to “Your Man in Havana: Some Havana Drinking Holes”

  1. Darren Says:

    What’s the best rum in Cuba? I have a trip all planned to go next month. Routing through Costa Rica as obviously can’t come through Florida. :)

    Want to sample a variety of the Cuban rums, those pictures got me really excited!

  2. seamus Says:

    Hi Darren, sorry for the very late reply to this. You are probably in Cuba already, but anyway. . .

    The best rum in Cuba? Most of them are good, though there are a few crappier ones, and they tend to be pretty similar in style. Once you’ve tried a few there aren’t really any big surprises.

    I like Caney, Santiago and Havana Club – maybe in that order. Santiago make a nice white rum, probably smoother than Havana Club, and their various anejos are all good. I never tried any Caney except the anejo centuria (equivalent to the Havana Club 7 year old), but it’s very nice.

    You might find it hard to sample a wide range without purchasing whole bottles. Most bars in Havana seemed to only sell Havana Club. However, the Hotel Nacional had a bar that stocked a wide range. Maybe sample there?

  3. JCC Says:

    I came across your question about Bacardi at the Ministry of Rum, but was unable to reply there. In 1940, Bacardi was 89 proof, or 44.5% ABV.

  4. seamus Says:

    Thanks for that JCC. I found some pics of old bottles, but couldn’t find one on which the ABV was legible.

    I was wondering how it the original Bacardi would have compared to the present stuff in the El Presidente – particularly the original version (a 50/50 mix of rum/vermouth). Higher ABV would have helped it stand up to more vermouth for a start, and everyone says the old stuff tasted nothing like the current stuff.

  5. JCC Says:

    In 1936, an age statement for 89 proof Bacardi was given as “aged in wood over 4 years”.Not sure how the distillation and barreling practices differed compared to today, though.

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