A tribute to the Cocktail King of Cuba
2017 is a momentous year if you love great bars – and we guess you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t. Indeed, our beloved Floridita is celebrating its 200th birthday. Known as La Piña de Plata until around 1914, the bar was well and truly put on the map by Constante Ribalaigua. So before we tell you about the history of the establishment, let us focus on its most famous cantinero.
“Constantino Ribalaigua is the cocktail king of Cuba”, said American journalist Jack Cuddy in the early 1930’s. Once, at the bar of the Hotel Nacional, Cuddy and a bunch of American tourists had asked the bartender to name the best cantinero in town – the man didn’t hesitate: it was Floridita’s Constante. Obviously looking for scientific vindication of this verdict, Cuddy had one of his friends call several watering holes across town and ask the same question. Each and every time, the answer was the same. So Cuddy went and checked him out himself: after a few of Constante’s “concoctions”, he said, “I had to admit he was in a class by himself”.
But what made him so special? A few years earlier, British writer Basil Woon had already provided part of the answer in ‘When it’s Cocktail Time in Cuba’. “The bar, he wrote, sprang into vogue due to the remarkable talents of Constantino, whose peculiar gift consist in his accurate, though seemingly casual, measurements of drinks”. Woon then described how Ribalaigua made six Mary Pickfords: he didn’t even had to look at the shaker, he just free poured each ingredient, threw the drink from one shaker to the next (yes, the Cuban throw), and then “with one motion”, filled each glass “to the brim and not a drop is left over”.
But Ribalaigua’s greatness was not only about technical brinkmanship. He was an excellent manager of his staff and his attitude with his clients was at all times very prudent: do not engage in unwanted conversation, be there when they want you to be there and make sure the right people are in and the riffraff is out. His quiet, unassuming manner surely explains why Hemingway loved the Floridita so much: he not only knew that Constante and his boys would make him a great drink, he was also certain they would not allow him to be disturbed by celebrity spotters and drunk tourists. No wonder then that, years later, yet another writer described him thus: “Constantino has the hands of a concert conductor and the dignity of a grandee”.
Constante was not meant to become a bartender. His father was a sailor and he could have followed in his footsteps had he remained in his native Lloret de Mar (a village in Catalonia, Spain), where he was born in 1888. But his family relocated to Cuba around 1899 and many Catalonians at the time where working in hospitality. We don’t know how and when he started in the sector, although it is said that when he first stepped foot behind Floridita’s bar, an establishment run by people from the same village, he was already an experimented cantinero. He soon became the owner and developed, among many other cocktails, his famous twists on the Daiquiri, including the world-renowned (Frozen) Daiquiri #4. By the time of his death in 1952, he was “the king of the cantineros” and Floridita was seen as one of the best bars in the world.
Commenting on his untimely passing, a Cuban journalist calculated that he had shaken over 10 millions of cocktails. This might have been a gross exaggeration but when he wrote that Constante’s name “would always be associated with Cuba and seen as synonymous to hospitality and good taste”, it was certainly heartfelt. Constante Ribalaigua wasn’t the first owner of the Floridita or the creator of the Daiquiri. But he was responsible for rise to fame of both institutions (yes, a Daiquiri is an institution: to quote the same Cuban writer, it is after all “the mirror of Cuba’s joy”). Few bartenders can claim to have had such an influence on the way we drink. Floridita’s anniversary is also an occasion to celebrate the legacy of a man who historian David Wondrich recently called “the greatest drinks mixer of the 20th century”.