Cuba has one of the richest cocktail histories in the world, and at the center of it is the cantinero—a rigorously trained breed of Cuban bartender. Within Cuba, cantineros are known for their throwing of cocktails (a flashy technique originally from Spain, where cantineros toss a drink from one tin to another); their memorization of over 200 traditional recipes; and for a commitment to the work as more of a lifestyle than a career. Naturally, it’s a role held with great pride.
There are just over 1,200 cantineros remaining, and about 100 of them work here in the U.S. To find them? Head to Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, where the cantinero’s legacy continues in the form of the award-winning Café La Trova—named after Trova, a style of guitar-led Cuban music that originated in Santiago de Cuba. Here, Cuban-born cantinero Julio Cabrera pays homage to his home country by way of a full-service café with a ventanita window, live Cuban music, quintessential Cuban bar snacks like empanadas and croquetas, and a traditional cantinero bartending school led by Cabrera himself. It’s a rare microcosm of Cuban cocktail culture in America (and offers some of the best mojitos in the country).
“My goal was to have a place that respects Cuban traditions,” owner Julio Cabrera says. “I felt that it was my responsibility to bring [cantinero culture] to the U.S. I didn’t want to be another American mixologist; I wanted to separate myself and keep the cantinero culture alive.” By opening Café La Trova, Cabrera and his curated team of talented cantineros have brought authentic Cuban bartending and mixed drinks back into vogue.
Cantineros have a long history, though. Their role in Cuban cocktail culture took shape in the 1920s during Prohibition; a time when Cuba became a hot spot for American tourists looking to imbibe. (From 1916 to 1926, American tourism to Cuba doubled from around 45,000 to 90,000 visitors a year.) But while this influx was positive for the local economy as a whole, some Cuban bartenders didn’t benefit from the rise in tourism, as a new crop of American-owned hotels and businesses hired other mainlanders to work at their establishments.
In an effort to reclaim their bars and cocktail culture, Cuban bartenders established the Club de Cantineros de la República de Cuba (The Cuban Bartenders Club) in May 1924. By 1936, the Cuban government established that only bartenders trained and accredited by the club could work in the country.
The cantinero became an icon of Cuban bar culture—legitimizing bartending as a career in Cuba and setting standards that are still followed today. “To this day, we respect and follow all of the rules that were created in 1924,” Cabrera says. The codes for cantineros also include attire requirements like no sneakers while working, wearing long sleeves that can’t be rolled up, and being cleanly shaven for service—all representative of the time when the club was established.
Behind the bar, Cabrera’s son, Andy Cabrera, who trained under the tutelage of his father, knows first-hand how difficult the apprenticeship is. “There were specific methods for everything; from stirring and shaking, to pouring and garnishing cocktails,” A. Cabrera explains. “I was trained to be elegant, fluid, and precise.”
While serving flawless Cuban cocktail recipes—the classic Manhattan-style El Presidente and daiquiris, for example—is a vital aspect of service at any cantinero-led bar, J. Cabrera explains that there’s a level of unique hospitality required as well. “It’s not just about making the cocktails, it’s also about being a part of the show,” he says. “Playing the music, understanding the steps and dancing with the band, [being able to speak] Spanish…it’s a way of life and isn’t just about knowledge and technique.”
At La Trova, Cabrera believes it’s important for his concept to have predominantly Cuban cantineros to retain the bar’s authenticity—a true homage to his home country. “My goal is to have a place that respects Cuban traditions,” Cabrera says. “You have to find the right people to be behind the bar.”
His son echoes the sentiment. “You are now someone who represents, and even introduces, people to this Cuban tradition,” A. Cabrera says of working at La Trova. “Being a cantinero in America is especially important because you are given the task of keeping the art of the cantinero alive.”
In 2020, Café La Trova was awarded the “Best American Bar Team” at the bar industry’s illustrious Spirited Awards—a testament to the team and concept Cabrera has built. “Since day one we’ve been united as a team,” says Cabrera, who has had the same team of cantineros since the bar opened. Even as the pandemic temporarily thwarted the bar’s momentum, Cabrera says that his dedicated team gathered monthly to keep up on their training and work on new cocktails for service. J. Cabrera also decided to release an online series called “Happy Hour” on his Instagram where he would make classic cocktails every day as a way to stay connected with the local community.
As the Club de Cantinero’s 97th anniversary approaches in May, the world is finally beginning to show glimpses of pre-COVID normalcy—and J. Cabrera and his team have picked up exactly where they left off. The live music has returned every Saturday night at 7:30p.m., with La Trova’s handsomely-groomed cantineros shimmying and stepping to the mambo from behind the bar. Their signature, impeccably-made mojitos and Cubano Viejo cocktails are flowing. James Beard award-winning Michelle Bernstein’s contemporary take on Cuban-styled dishes, including Cuban sandwich empanadas, are being served once again as well. And, despite a year that has clawed at the hospitality industry, Café La Trova continues to exude its inimitable sense of timelessness and authenticity, making it a much-needed source of escapism for travelers and locals alike.
As for where Café La Trova goes from here, A. Cabrera says it’s about keeping this slice of Cuba alive stateside. “We want to keep introducing the world to Cuban culture, and even giving Cubans that genuine sense of familiarity.”
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