A bar honouring Cuba’s past status in the American imagination and bringing it up to speed with 21st century drinking culture had to exist. We found it in New York’s East Village.
Over the last couple of months, we have met Julio Cabrera, a Cuban bartender who revolutionized the Miami cocktail scene, and told you about Cane & Table, the NOLA bar that explores the city links with Cuba. But from 1920 to at least the 50’s, Cuba also provided Americans with an opportunity to escape from their daily routine. If tiki has since taken the mantle of escapism, a bar honouring Cuba’s past status in the American imagination and bringing it up to speed with 21st century drinking culture had to exist. We found it in New York’s East Village: Cienfuegos, a Cuban-themed bar / restaurant opened over 5 years ago.
“Although Cuba is so close to the US, it’s such a foreign place and I thought it would be fun”, says Ravi DeRossi, the owner of Cienfuegos. But the history between DeRossi and Cuba, a country he has never visited, is maybe a bit deeper than the quote lets on: “My dad travelled a lot, and every time he’d come back with Havana Club bottles, so I sort of grew up drinking Cuban rum. I also bring back bottles when I’m travelling, but unfortunately I can’t serve it to our clients…”
This special relation meant that when he decided to open a rum bar, Cuba became the obvious inspiration. But… why a rum bar in the first place? “I’ve always been a big fan of taking one spirit and focusing on it, doing it very well”, says Ravi – think Mayahuel and tequila/mezcal, another place he owns. “Death & Co. [Ravi’s world famous cocktail bar] was also probably the first bar in the country to put punches on its menu, so I thought why no take rum and punches and build a place around this? Also, there’s a huge lack of good Cuban restaurants in New York City, and we decided to create something that would not be traditional Cuban – in a way, it’s heightened Cuban – that would attract people because it’s so different”.
Of course, making Cuban-inspired cocktails in a country where you can’t get Cuban rum is an issue. As Jane Danger, Beverage Director at Cienfuegos and Mother of Pearl, the tiki bar housed on the ground floor of the same building, told us, Cuba is to be thought as a source of inspiration: “The Cuban cocktail manuals of the past show the local style was classically oriented, and I found during my travels through Cuba that it’s still very much the case. You need a strong knowledge of the basics and expand on that. At Cienfuegos, we don’t have many limits, we use new products and techniques but still focus on traditional punches and classic drinks made with rums”.
Although we don’t know if Cienfuegos is doing more business since the relationship between Cuba and the US changed, it had at least one major impact, as Ravi told us: “Cuba’s in the press every day, and it’s probably what led a publisher to contact us to see if we could make a book”. ‘Cuban Cocktails’ was released in early October and Jane Dangers describes it as “modern Cuban cocktails and punches from the New York City perspective. New York and Cuba have a strong relationship and influence each other. When we were traveling around Cienfuegos and Havana, we would meet locals and bartenders. They would find out we were from New York, and they would tell us "city of dreams" or " you can make it there, you can make it anywhere”. I'm not sure what the future holds for Cuba and its people. It's a beautiful country with beautiful people. I hope the changes are only for the best. It definitely feels different from the other islands I've been too”.
Hopefully, many Americans will be able to come and feel the difference in the coming years. Meanwhile, they really should get a drink and a meal at Cienfuegos…
Cienfuegos, 95 Avenue A, New York
“Cuban Cocktails: 100 Classic and Modern Drinks”, by Ravi DeRossi, Jane Danger & Alla Lapushchik, Sterling Epicure.