El Floridita

19 Feb. 2018
From small bodega to world-renowned bar: El Floridita strikes 200.

It took BarNews a few years to tackle the Daiquiri or the legacy of Constante Ribalaigua. In our little world, some things are like the tallest mountains: they’re so imposing they appear too tough to climb. El Floridita falls obviously in this category: We’ve never dedicated it a whole story. Since this year marks its 200th anniversary, we have no choice but to have a go. It’s the quick version, of course, and we hope you’ll pardon us if we seem short of breath at some point. For how can we make sense of 200 years?
When what we know today as El Floridita opened in 1817, it was called La Piña de Plata and it was just another Bodega, Spanish-style, located just within the city walls (still being erected at the time), by the Montserrate doors. The traffic in and out of the city ensured a steady flow of patrons, most of them business-owners, soldiers, artists “eager to savour a delightful mixed gin, a large glass of water and anise liqueur or vermouth”.
And while the clientele doesn’t seem to have changed much over the 19th century, the city and the country did. The walls fell, Havana grew and the centre moved west. Following the Spanish-American War, Cuba gained independence and looked more and more towards its big, northern neighbour. The fascination for all things American extended to drinks – well-to-do Cuban wanted to samples New York’s famous cocktails. Many bodegas and hotels looked to expand their selection, and La Piña de Plata was maybe among them. But it took a new ownership to really transform the place.
Around 1910, two Catalan brothers, the Sala Pareras, turned the old bodega into a more modern establishment, with a suitably American name: La Florida (quickly called ‘El Floridita’ by diminutives-loving Cubans). The brothers hired two young cantineros whose families came from their village in the ‘old country’: Miguel Boadas and Constante Ribalaigua. While Boadas would head back to Barcelona in the 20’s where he would safekeep the Cuban cocktail tradition, Ribalaigua ended up buying the bar.
The rest, as they say, is history: under Constante’s stewardship, Floridita became “the cradle of the Daiquiri” – because it’s the bar where the Cuban classic was nurtured, where its name grew – and many observers called it “the greatest bar on earth”. Much of its prestige was due to Constante’s talents: rival cantineros recognized him as the best bartender in Cuba and historians remain in awe of his balanced drink more than half a century after his death. Of course, as is well known, he had a big fan in the (impressive) shape of Ernest Hemingway. In particular after World War II, countless tourists flocked to Floridita to see for themselves the bar where ‘Papa’ had his Daiquiris. But it had always catered to a mixed clientele, with many Cubans sharing drinks with foreigners. And Constante’s dignified business demeanour allowed a journalist to define his bar as “an institution of unique integrity (…) and international and sophisticated crossroads”.
When Constante passed away in 1952, his wife took over with the help of nephew Antonio Meilán and the rest of the staff. They were still using up to two thousand limes a day (!) for their Daiquiri #3 or #4 and their Mulatas, and if he was not there physically anymore, Constante’s portraits was still watching over the old wooden bar where he wowed so many drinkers.
Then, the revolution happened, followed by the nationalization of private establishments in the early 60’s. That could have spelled the end for Floridita. But there’s something stronger inside those walls, something that allowed the bar to resist history and politics. 200 years on, Floridita’s team (some have been working there for over twenty years) still casually blends a couple thousand Daiquiris day in, day out.
Some complain that it’s become touristy. Constante’s Havana is gone, yes, but don’t listen to the naysayers: Floridita is still Floridita. Once the sun starts setting, in the early evening, few bars in the world can rival its atmosphere. Sitting on a stool with your right elbow on the bar, watching the band while your second Mulata or Daiquiri of the evening is being flawlessly mixed — it’s one of life’s great cocktail experiences. You just have to go with the flow to appreciate what 200 years can do to a place.

François Monti