El Floridita strikes 200!

19 Feb. 2018
Let's talk about a moving moment for cocktail lovers

Havana recently lived a momentous event: the 200th anniversary of El Floridita. As long time readers surely know, the bar first opened under the name ‘La Piña de Plata’. At the time, it was located just inside the old city. In 1817, Havana was much smaller than it is now. In the early 20th century, the establishment was taken over by the Sala i Parera brothers; they renamed the place El Florida - soon know to diminutive loving Cuban as El Floridita  - and hired a young bartender called Constantino Ribalaigua. The rest, as they say, is history: Ribalaigua later bought the bar and turned it into one of the best cocktail spots on the planet.
65 years after Constante’s death, El Floridita is still going strong. It remains an essential stop on the itinerary of any self-respecting cocktail pilgrim. That’s why cantineros from all over the world came to pay their respect a month ago. Because the exact date of opening of La Piña de Plata is not known, the celebration was held around the Dia del Cantinero, the official day of the Cuban cantineros since 1951. The big event of the week was the Rey de Reyes, the yearly Daiquiri competition. This year, Cuban cantinero Adrián Ravelo was crowned, and given the special signification of this edition, you can well imagine how proud he felt.
For the international guests — many of whom already knew Havana - the anniversary also proved the perfect occasion to go and pay their respect to Constante Ribalaigua at the magnificent Colon Cemetery. There, Julio Cabrera, the international ambassador of Floridita, mixed a Daiquiri with the help of Floridita’s bartenders, and left it on the mausoleum — just in case the maestro felt like having a sip.
But this event was not about the international visitors. They were in Havana because they felt they had a debt of gratitude towards the cantineros. And even though El Floridita’s legacy lives on in all Cuban cantineros — they say to a man that their sacred mission is to uphold the standards of the cantineros that went before them — some of them lived the anniversary on a much more intimate level. We’re talking about the team at Floridita. Many of its members have worked at the institution for over twenty years. Alejandro Bolivar has been a fixture of the Floridita since 1998 and he insists he doesn’t feel any fatigue: « Here, every day is a special day ».
It’s true that Floridita is now a mandatory spot for tourists and clients change every day. But many come back, according to Alejandro: « They visit Cuba every year, and they come here for their Daiquiri. They’re like family. A lot even make a point of coming here for one last Daiquiri before heading for the airport ». (At Bar News, we’re guilty as charged!) We all know that many people walk into the hallowed doors to follow in the footsteps of Hemingway. But this doesn’t explain why they come back and why many people hold Floridita as dearly as they do. According to Alejandro, this is due to a « strong sense of belonging » within the team, the awareness of what the place they work at represent.
« When I first came here, I had the opportunity to work with Antonio Meilán », he tells us, « he was the last cantinero alive to have known Hemingway and worked under Constantino Ribalaigua. When he retired, the mantle was taken on by cantineros who had been working at Floridita for 40 years. From Constante, it went to Meilán. From Meilán, to those cantineros. And from them to us ». This culture of transmission, this upkeep of the tradition explains why people come back to the Floridita: « If as a client you’ve come here 20 years ago, you know that today you’ll find the same Daiquiri. Floridita is a place where time has stopped », Alejandro concludes.
Even where time stops, things are forgotten or fall by the wayside. Before pioneering the use of the blender, Constante and his team regularly threw cocktails. The technique, safe kept at Boadas in Barcelona, disappeared from Cuba. To celebrate the anniversary and the launch of an exclusive Havana Club product (watch this space), Alejandro and his colleagues have decide to resuscitate this long lost tradition through the Greta Garbo, a Daiquiri with absinthe: « First, we shake it a little to dilute it and then we throw it, just like Miquel Boadas and Constantino Ribalaigua used to. It’s beautiful to be able to reunite the two cultures ».
Enough about the past: Floridita’s will see quite a few more anniversaries pass by, we’re sure of that. And since Alejandro categorically states he will retire at Floridita, it’s up to him to teach future generations. « The young cantineros are coming here because this bar is a reference, and we show them the way we work with the same passion and love we were shown by the older cantineros ». An institution can only live on if it remains inspirational. In that respect, we have no worries for El Floridita.

François Monti