“Do you want to try the shrimp and mushroom rum?” My answer is, I’d argue, obviously, no, but Michael Paz, owner of the paZillo cocktail bar in Havana, insists. It’s dusk on a warm night in the capital and we’re propping up the counter in a discreet, whitewashed, formerly residential villa just one block from the vast crumbling Malecón sea wall where the spume from the Straits of Florida crashes onto the faded Cuban asphalt.
“We experiment with rum here,” he tells me. “And I’ll keep on doing it, regardless of those goddamn mojitos and daiquiris.”
After decades of being known for just those two cocktails, a minor revolution is beginning in Cuba. I take my pick from the thick glass bottles of white rum stacked behind the bar. The spirit, so the handwritten label states, is mixed with celery, rosemary, mushroom, peppers and, yes, shrimp, then preserved until Michael feels like offering it to the array of young, almost exclusively, local customers.
The shrimp rum mix is remarkably good — slightly vinegary but with a silky finish on the tongue. It’s a soothing relief after my experience earlier in the day of the “traditional” Cuban cocktail.
Beloved by Ernest Hemingway (there’s even a statue of him inside), the Floridita bar is near the top of almost every “must-do” for visitors to the Cuban capital. And it shows. Jammed to the rafters with coach parties of tourists, this may be where the international love affair with Cuban cocktails began, but the daiquiri I taste is an insipid creation, badly mixed and served to me by an uninterested barman.
I retreat back onto the streets of Havana, a city which, partly due to US-imposed trade restrictions, is lacking in wifi alongside shortages of everything from milk to antiseptic cream.
Despite the frustrations this causes locals, the Cuban capital exudes a profoundly elegiac beauty. Dilapidated Spanish baroque mansions in pastel hues, croaking Fifties Chevrolets and Fords, locals playing cards on street corners with cigars clamped, vice-like, between their teeth. So much of what Hemingway wrote about the city remains, incredibly, the same in 2020.
With no Google Maps to help me, I get hopelessly lost and then, down a side street in the former red-light district of San Isidro, I find a nuclear engineer and an economist who are bringing an appropriately modern, scientific approach to cocktails.
David and Diana Figueroa, like many Cubans, opened Jíbaro with no liquor licence and a menu of 10 non-alcoholic cocktails. With the average Cuban salary about £25 a month, the relaxation of rules on private business has meant that the Figueroas, like many other Cubans, are able to supplement their income with ventures like this.
“There is no such thing as a wholesaler in Cuba so buying drinks at a good price is extremely difficult,” says Diana. “But rather than relying on the usual cocktail ingredients, we try to look at what we can find on our doorstep.”
This approach led the couple to mora, similar to the blackberry but seldom eaten and often cursed by Cubans for its ability to permanently stain clothes, hands and table tops.
Blended with homemade ginger ale, lemon and tonic water, however, the resulting Pink Ale infusion is a knockout; tangy, potent and glowing in its glass like a miniature lava lamp.
“The restrictions on mixers and ingredients can be a pain,” says Wilson Hernández, owner of the typically bijou El Del Frente bar, later that evening. “The cachucha pepper is the rock star on my menu,” he adds. “Because it’s local and I can get it every day!”
Squat and notably sweet, the pepper makes a jam jar-filled Bloody Mary here a distinctly Cuban experience. Jalapeños and coriander, instead of tobacco and salt, combine for a husky, pungent mix that I devour leaning on a rooftop bar counter lined with jars.
My final stop is La Guarida, one of the longest-running private bars in the city and with a huge rooftop area that’s been frequented by Madonna and Jack Nicholson.
I spot owner Enrique Núñez and ask him the secret behind a great Cuban cocktail. “Consistency isn’t something that’s easily achieved here,” he tells me. “Each week the pineapple or the orange in your drink will taste and look different. If in doubt, drink a piña del plata, (made with rum, pineapple and white wine).”
For now, though, I think I’ll keep on sipping my way around this city looking for increasingly diverse flavours.
Rob was a guest of Havana Club. KLM (klm.com) fly to Havana from Heathrow via Amsterdam. Returns from £593.