The American art of the bar had some pretty dodgy decades in the twentieth century. Prohibition put a lot of the older master bartenders out of business in the US, while around the world, bartenders were still getting comfortable with all the various cocktails, fizzes, sours, coolers and whatnot that made up the classic repertoire.
Many of the bartenders who were driving that process of familiarization had experience in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and New Orleans joints. But the greatest mixologist of the mid-twentieth century had not only never worked in the US, but also, as far as we can tell, visited just once.
Constante Ribalaigua Vert was born outside of Barcelona in 1888. By 1900, his family emigrated to Havana, where his father tended bar at the venerable cafe Piña de Plata. When Ribalaigua was 16, as he told the American author Thomas Sugrue in 1935, his father “asked him if he wished to learn barkeeping.” He said yes. By then, Cuba was swarming with Americans, and the establishment had been turned into an American-style bar called “La Florida.” In 1918, he had earned enough to assume ownership of the “Floridita”—the “Little Florida”—as it was universally known.
Apparently, when Ribalaigua told Sugrue that his “only hobby is his work,” he wasn’t kidding. He didn’t even drink. What he did do—besides inventing a new cocktail practically every day—was to make sure that his customers got the best drinks and the best service, whether they were Ernest Hemingway, Spencer Tracy or the couple visiting from Des Moines. He was still pulling shifts when he died, in 1952.
What made his tipples so special? Ribalaigua always used quality ingredients, of course. He kept up with technology and created imaginative combinations of flavors (though not too imaginative). But most of all, he was a master of proportion. I’ve tried just about every recipe included in the little pamphlet he gave out, and they have been perfect, requiring no adjustments.
Contributed by David Wondrich
- 1 oz Strong, cold tea*
- 1 tsp Sugar
- 1 oz Spanish brandy
- 1 oz Anis del Mono or other imported anisette (the dryer the better)
- 1 Spiral-cut lemon peel
- Glass: Cocktail
Add the tea and sugar to a shaker and stir. Add the remaining ingredients and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
*Pour half a cup of boiling water over a black-tea teabag and let stand for 5 minutes. Remove the teabag and chill the tea until cold.
David Wondrich is the author of Punch: The Delights (and Dangers) of the Flowing Bowl and Esquire magazine’s drinks correspondent. He is also a Liquor.com advisor.
(Photograph by Peter Moruzzi from Havana Before Castro by Peter Moruzzi. Reprinted with permission by Gibbs Smith.)