Punch recently published this typically frustrating article – it’s title promises one thing and the text delivers another.
The Canchánchara is a great drink and Julio Cabrera’s version is excellent. It has also been pushed under a modernised format by Havana Club recently. But is it the original Cuban cocktail? You’ll fail to find any proof in the article.
I actually looked into the drink two years ago and wrote a long essay on it for a magazine that unfortunately folded before publication. And my text / quest started where Punch’s piece starts – the area near Trinidad.
The narrative pushed by tourism authorities in Trinidad is that the drink - a mix of aguardiente, citrus and ‘miel’ (honey or molasses) - was born on plantations. Slaves would mix the stuff at the end of the day. It was then taken up by the freedom fighter during the struggle for independence and, obviously, it’s the ‘primitive’ version of the Daiquiri.
This is a suspiciously perfect story - Cuba’s Ur-cocktail hitting all the patriotic sweet spots. Almost too good to be true. The problem is that the drink doesn’t come up in the (copious) cantinero literature.
Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller tried to trace it to a late 1890’s article. The (American) journalist mentioned the Canchánchara as a mix of lime, honey and hot water. Brown and Miller hypothesised that ‘hot water’ was a mistranslation for ‘aguardiente’ (burning water). Why not? Thing is I have since found dozens of mentions of the Canchánchara in diaries written by Cubans involved in the independence wars. None of them ever mention booze. It would appear that the word ‘Canchánchara’ was used as a byword for coffee ersatz - something fighters would drink in the field the morning in the absence of coffee. Even Cuban booze chronicler Fernando Campoamor, in his 1981 book on the history of Cuban rum, defines the Canchánchara as a boozeless hot drink.
So when did the Canchánchara become the OG of the Cuban cocktail? The earliest version of that story I could trace was in Norberto Fuentes’ Hemingway in Cuba, published in… 1984.
Obviously, I’m not saying no one in Cuba ever thought of making a rum toddy (It is, after all, the natural thing to do). That’s not my point. It’s just that the drink has been loaded with a signification I now find hard to justify.