Water is not always reliable, and many water pipes are contaminated through decay. Stick to bottled mineral water, readily available carbonated (con gas) or non-carbonated (sin gas). Coca-Cola and Pepsi (or their Cuban-made equivalent, Tropicola), Fanta (or Cuban-made Najita), and other soft drinks are widely available. Malta is a popular nonalcoholic drink that resembles a dark English stout but tastes like root beer.
Far more thirst-quenching and energy-giving, however, are guarapo, fresh-squeezed sugarcane juice sold at roadside guaraperías; prú, a refreshing soft drink concocted from fruit, herbs, roots, and sugar; batidos, fruit shakes blended with milk and ice; and refrescos naturales, chilled fruit juices (avoid the sickly sweet water-based refrescos and limonadas).
No home visit is complete without being offered a cafecito. Cubans love their coffee espresso-style, thick and strong, served black in tiny cups and heavily sweetened. Much of Cuban domestic coffee has been adulterated—café mezclado—with other roasted products. Stick with export brands sold vacuum packed.
Café con leche (coffee with milk) is served in tourist restaurants, usually at a ratio of 50:50, with hot milk. Don’t confuse this with café americano, diluted Cuban coffee.
Cuba makes several excellent German-style beers, usually served chilled. One of the best is Bucanero, a heavy-bodied lager that comes light or dark. Cristal (the most commonly available) is lighter. Harder-to-find brews include Hatuey, my favorite. Imported Heineken and Canadian and Mexican brands are sold in CUC stores and hotel bars. Clara is a rough-brewed beer for domestic consumption (typically one peso).
Most villages have cervecerías (beer dispensaries) for the hoi polloi; often there are roadside dispensers on wheels where you can buy beer in paper cups or bottles sawed in half for a few centavos.
About one dozen Cuban rum distilleries produce some 60 brands of rum. They vary widely—the worst can taste like paint thinner. Cuban rums resemble Bacardi rums, not surprisingly, as several factories were originally owned by the Bacardí family. Each brand generally has three types of rum: clear “white rum,” labeled carta blanca, which is aged three years (about CUC5 a 0.75 liter bottle); the more asserting “golden rum,” labeled dorado or carta oro, aged five years (about CUC6); and añejo, aged seven years (CUC10 or more).
The best in all categories are Havana Club’s rums, topped only by Matusalem Añejo Superior (described by a panel of tasting experts as showing “a distinctive Scotch whisky-like character, with peaty and smoky aromas and flavors accented by orange-peel notes dry on the palate and long in the finish”). A few limited-production rums, such as Ron Santiago 45 Aniversario and the 15-year-old Havana Club Gran Reserva, approach the harmony and finesse of fine Cognacs.
Golden and aged rums are best enjoyed straight. White rum is ideal for cocktails such as a piña colada (rum, pineapple juice, coconut cream, and crushed ice) and, most notably, the daiquiri and the mojito—both favorites of Ernest Hemingway, who helped launch both drinks to world fame.
Impecunious Cubans drink tragos (shots) of aguardiente—cheap, overproof white rum. Beware bottles of rum sold on the street—it may be bootleg crap.
Cuba’s rum manufacturers also make liqueurs, including from coffee, crème de menthe, cocoa, guava, lemon, pineapple, and other fruits. Certain regions are known for unique liqueurs, such as guayabita, a drink made from rum and guava exclusive to Pinar del Río.
Imported South American, French, and Californian wines (vinos) are widely available, although costly and usually “disturbed” by poor storage. Avoid the local and truly terrible Soroa brand, made of unsophisticated Italian wine blended with local grapes from Soroa, Pinar del Río.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition