Top bartenders and mixologists from around the world pitched up in Cuba’s top beach resort last year to compete in the IBA World Cocktail Championship shining a spotlight on global drinks and craft cocktails.
ConBAC cuba cocktail competition

But the real alchemy is happening away from the sand and the sun loungers down in the gritty streets of the Cuban capital where there’s a new-found swagger in the bars of Havana and in the city’s emerging craft cocktail scene.

Havana’s mixologists are creating new drinks made with rum, yes, but also inventive cocktails blending other spirits mixed with Cuban herbs and artisanal mixers served up in the city’s rooftop bars, hole-in-the-wall drinking dens, and preserved-in-aspic 50s bars.

The experiments and tinkering are infectious and have led to a regular competition – ConBAC – for the best drinks. Bar owners and bartenders meet to share and sip their latest avant-garde flavours with locals and visiting barflies. ConBAC (a riff on comeback in English, and a play on the Spanish con, with, and BAC – Blood Alcohol Concentration) launched in 2019. ConBAC pivoted over Cuba’s Covid-19 lockdowns to provide ready-to-drink cocktails in recycled medicine, and beer bottles. But this year and next it’s back in full force celebrating with regular challenges held at the cavernous former mirror factory, Estudio 50, in the neighborhood of Centro Habana.

cuba cocktail event

The pioneers of ConBAC are the dynamic owners of tiny Jíbaro, a bar-restaurant, decorated in recycled finds and murals, tucked into an off-the-tourist-trail street of southern Old Havana. Economist David Roque and Diana Figueroa, a nuclear engineer professor by training, opened their small restaurant-bar in 2017. They launched with a mocktail list only for punters. But, since then, the couple have gained an alcohol licence, launched ConBAC along with workshops, and won a global drinks’ competition. Their Tahona Society (tequila educators) prize money is invested in La Mata, a new sustainable line of Jíbaro’s own handmade cordials, liqueurs, and sodas.

The idea for ConBAC was sparked by Diana’s university experience, and a desire to let the world know that although Cubans have rum for blood, the island makes and drinks more than just classic mojitos and daiquiris.

conbac cuban cocktail competition

 “It was common to have workshops and talk about what you do at university,” Diana explains “and I realised this was what was missing from the bartender community in Havana.”

“People weren’t used to sharing,” Diana says, “so we planned a workshop event with a conference in the morning, and later a visit to Havana Club’s distillery. Then we finished with a bar fight with eight bars in Estudio 50.

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“Each bar had to create a unique cocktail. Havana Club sponsored us then. This was important as it was the first time cuentapropistas [Cuban self-employed] had worked with Havana Club.”

Havana Club cuban cocktail featured at ConBAC

Workshopping was a triumph. So much so that Jíbaro asked Cuban rum masters to give speeches. This in turn encouraged more people to ask for regular events. The guest bartending challenge was born. Once a month or so in different bars, cocktails were cooked up for the night, and foreign bartenders invited to draft in their own magic.

“The most important thing about ConBAC is the cocktail, though, not the bartender and not the blend,” Diana tells Startup Cuba. “It’s about the beauty of the cocktail.”

It’s important, too, that the talent and the party is open to all.

“We charge really low prices so people can afford it,” Diana says. “So, we secure sponsorship from the rum brand so we can offer two cocktails for the price of a normal one.”

Foreigners are, of course, welcome, to imbibe, at the pop-up bars, too.

Cuban cocktail competition attendee

“Everyone who comes to Cuba knows about La Bodeguita and El Floridita,” Diana says, referring to Havana’s historic temples to mojitos and daiquiris “but these bars are tourist traps. We want people to come to Cuba and we don’t want them to think we just sell mojitos.”

As Diana talks at Jíbaro’s well-stocked bar, Pepe, the bartender, prepares me a cocktail he plans for ConBAC. Jibaritx is made from Havana Club 3 años rum, La Mata’s smoked tamarind cordial, La Mata’s new ginger beer, lime juice and pressed pineapple juice.

It’s an intense, sharp shot with the smoky tamarind and it bucks me up. I love and leave Jíbaro and head out into the sun-drenched streets in search of ConBAC ally Creperie Oasis Nelva, a café-cum-plant-shop-cum-bar in Old Havana’s Calle Muralla.

Carmen Monteagudo, Oasis’ owner, who has supported ConBAC from its early days, tells Startup Cuba “ConBAC has its Cuban followers but it’s also a platform that invites international bartenders to take part. It’s ConBAC’s people and Estudio 50’s people that make it. And where Estudio 50 is in Centro Habana makes it very accessible to lots of Cubans which is very important.”

habana viejo

Oasis bartender Alberto is in his 20s, but already he’s worked in computing, at the Center of Molecular Immunology, and sold donuts on the street before studying to become a bartender. Alberto first took part in ConBAC last year and has been busy shaking up recipes for future coctéles de autor, as craft cocktails are called in Cuba.

At the bar, I try Locura, a cocktail Alberto makes with Havana Club 3 años rum mashed with basil and mixed with ginger and passionfruit juice. It’s topped by a sprig of rosemary. It tastes of a breezy summer day, the passionfruit giving a lovely, tart kick. I’m sold!

Carmen reminds me: “There’s no one winner at ConBAC. Of course, we always think ours is the best, but we’re all winners.”

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Alberto makes me his Serendipia cocktail created from strawberry syrup made from Cuban strawberries, Cuban-made ginger beer, and gin. It’s decorated with a scarlet red rose petal and a sprig of rosemary which is blowtorched. I inhale the savoury scent. The ginger beer boosts the drink with a lovely buzz, but I’ll always take rum over gin, deciding his Locura (Madness) is my poison.

So, that’s twice in a day I’ve heard about Cuban-made ginger beer. In Cuba this is a revolution. A few short years ago, the only soft drinks found on a restaurant table were sourced from state-run institutions – cola, lemonade and water, plus imported brands. But, just before the pandemic, and through lockdowns, new drink lines have been rolling off assembly lines.

“We use local ginger beer and not imported stuff,” Carmen tells me, “as we try to be sustainable and stimulate the local market.”

ron de cuba

Natyva, an artisanal ginger beer brand, joined ConBAC in 2021. It’s the brainchild of Jimmy Fonseca, a bartender who’d worked in Old Havana’s Bar Yarini, and at a bar behind the Capitolio, and at Marea in Playa.

Confined to his home during Cuba’s Covid-19 quarantines, he read books and watched tutorials on YouTube before launching his probiotic drinks’ line in 2021.

Coming off the production line is Natyva’s Regular, an original ginger beer, Hibisco, a ginger beer infused with hibiscus flower, and Miel, infused with honey. His drinks are sold in recycled state-owned Ciego Montero bottles or beer bottles in several bars, restaurants, stores, and gyms.

“They’re all made in my house using all natural products,” Jimmy says. “And the honey we use is from the melipona bee which comes from about 10 kilometers away.”

Jimmy produces eleven natural liqueurs under a new brand, Sorcerías, too. He competed for the first time in ConBAC in 2021 making cocktails with Havana Club 7 años, a Sorcerías natural Vermouth, and a Natyva’s Regular ginger beer fat-washed with beeswax, and a second cocktail with the same ingredients and fat-washed with coconut oil. Last summer he hit ConBAC with a concoction named Area 50 + 1 made from white rum, sweet and sour lemongrass, and a Natyva Regular ginger beer.

As Havana’s craft cocktail scene goes from strength to strength, don’t  

miss out on this cool, Cuban spirit revolution. Lock eyes on the ConBac social media pages, too, for its upcoming regular events.

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Claire Boobbyer is a freelance travel writer who writes travel features for the UK national press as well as international media, mostly about Cuba, Vietnam and Laos. She's also written articles about Central America, South America, and Morocco. As a travel guide she's led tours for Smithsonian Journeys, National Geographic Expeditions, and New York Times Journeys among others. Claire is the author of the newly published Havana Pocket Precincts Guide (Hardie Grant) as well as the last three editions of Frommer's Cuba. She's been visiting Cuba for 20 years and the island is her second home.

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