10 Iconic Caribbean Cocktails
Learn all about some of the Caribbean's most iconic cocktails, from their history to where to down to the best ones.
Photo By: Jag_cz
Photo By: BVI Tourist Board
Photo By: The Washington Post
Photo By: Aruba Tourism Authority
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Photo By: @cheztropic
Cuba lays claim to quite a few iconic cocktails: the daiquiri, Cuba Libre, presidente. But the mojito is perhaps the most iconic. Today it’s made with white rum, club soda, sugar, lime and muddled mint, but the drink traces its origins to 16th-century Havana. And, like most drinks, its history is murky. One legend traces its origin to the cocktail El Draque, named after explorer Sir Frances Drake, who possibly carried the key ingredients of mint and lime on his ship. Another legend theorizes that slaves who worked in sugar cane fields would doctor unrefined rum with sugar cane juice, lime and mint. Either way, this combination eventually made its way into bars, gaining popularity during Prohibition among the likes of Ernest Hemingway. In fact, you can still enjoy a classic mojito at Hemingway’s favorite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio.
Painkiller, British Virgin Islands
According to Pusser’s Rum, the brand used and trademarked in a Painkiller, the cocktail began its humble beginnings at the tiny Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke. (The legendary bar has just reopened after Hurricane Irma.) The beach shack purportedly earned its name from hopeful imbibers who had to swim there, hence, soggy dollars. Today there’s a ferry service. Anyway, bar owner Daphne Henderson is credited with inventing the Painkiller in the 1970s. The drink is a blend of Pusser’s Rum, coconut cream, pineapple and orange juices, and sprinkled with nutmeg. Pusser’s founder, Charles Tobias, was among those who came to try Henderson’s famed drink. She refused to give him the secret recipe, so one day Tobias smuggled the Painkiller back home in order to recreate it. He believed his drink was better, so a taste-off ensued, with bar patrons supposedly preferring his version. Tobias then started passing off Henderson’s drink as Pusser’s Painkiller. Painkillers are now incredibly popular throughout the BVI and West Indies.
Rum Swizzle, Bermuda
True, Bermuda is technically in the Atlantic, not the Caribbean, but its proximity has helped drinks like the beloved Rum Swizzle hop to other Caribbean islands, or perhaps vice versa. But early Bermuda variants crop up in the 18th century, and attributes its name to sticks plucked from native trees that were used to stir, or swizzle, the rum-based drinks. Though its origin story is unknown, The Swizzle Inn, as Bermuda’s oldest pub, proclaims itself as the Rum Swizzle’s home, where customers "Swizzle Inn, Swagger Out." No matter where you try it on the island, you can typically expect a combination of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, pineapple and orange juices, Angostura bitters and falernum, a type of syrup or liquor that’s a non-exclusive combination of ginger, clove, almond and lime.
Aruba Ariba, Aruba
The Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort and Casino holds an undisputed claim to creating the Aruba Ariba on July 1, 1963, at precisely 11 a.m. The specific details raise questions about the claim’s authenticity, but there’s no disputing the drink’s popularity. If you’ve never heard of it, this cocktail is a hodgepodge of rum, vodka, fruit juices (pineapple, cranberry, orange) and creme de banana. (There are many variations that might include other additions.) The defining ingredient is coecoei, an Aruba-specific, red-hued liquor that’s derived from the agave plant. Luckily for Hilton Aruba guests, not only can you still order the island’s favorite drink at the hotel, but you can also learn how to make it. Classes are held every Wednesday at 3 p.m. at Castaways Bar.
Pina Colada, Puerto Rico
The national drink of Puerto Rico, the pina colada is made with coconut cream, pineapple juice and white rum. Forerunners to the drink first appeared in the 17th century, and were later connected to 19th-century pirate Roberto Cofresi. That part of the tale is simple, but its official origins are more complex, with three claimants on the modern-day version. The Caribe Hilton in San Juan swears that in 1954, bartender Ramon "Monchito" Marrero created the pina colada after the hotel requested a signature drink that represented the island. But another bartender at the hotel at the time, Ricardo Garcia, claims that he invented the drink after a coconut strike forced him to serve the cocktail in a pineapple shell instead of a coconut shell. Elsewhere in San Juan, Restaurant Barrachina posted a large plaque proclaiming that it invented the pina colada in 1963. Try both locales and decide for yourself.
The daiquiri is one of the few old-school cocktails with a written trail. In 1896, American engineer and Cuban resident Jennings Cox chanced upon the concoction after running out of gin at one of his parties. He substituted rum, added sugar and lemons, and dubbed it a daiquiri (the port town the U.S. invaded during the Spanish-American War). He jotted down his new creation and signed the recipe card. Of course, Jennings can’t take all the credit, since similar cocktails — like the mojito — already existed on the island for hundreds of years. Today there are endless takes on the classic daiquiri (made with rum, sugar and lime), but the frozen version is credited to a bartender at the Floridita in the 1920s. Renowned writer and drinker Ernest Hemingway visited the Habana bar, and, after tasting the sweet, frozen daiquiri popular at the time, asked for a sugar-free version. A modified version of Hemingway’s beloved cocktail is still served today. Ask for the Papa Hemingway, consisting of rum, grapefruit juice, maraschino liqueur and lime, and raise a glass to Hemingway’s barstool statue
Cuba Libre, Cuba
At its core, a Cuba Libre is simply a rum and coke, but its history belies much more than that. Its name stems from the Spanish-American War, when, according to one tale put forth by Bacardi, a U.S. Captain, celebrating Cuba’s independence from Spain, ordered a rum and coke with lime and toasted "por Cuba Libre" — to a free Cuba. Though the expression already existed in the local lexicon, Coca-Cola was a more recent introduction at the turn of the 20th century. The cocktail soon established itself on the bar scene, and, unlike other classics that evolved throughout the ages, maintains its three basic ingredients. Raise a glass at the bohemian Madrigal Bar Café.
Blue Curaçao, Curaçao
Drinking blue curacaos while on Curacao is an island rite of passage. Now, Curacao liqueur is not traditionally blue, and it’s actually flavored with oranges. Long story short, back when Curacao was a Spanish colony in the 15th century, Spaniards decided to grow Valencia oranges, which they called Laraha. This experiment failed due to the climate, but somehow, someone discovered that the peels could be used to make an essence. (Today, authentic Curacao liqueur must be made with Laraha peels.) As for the blue hue, that possibly happened around the turn of the 20th century, when blue-colored drinks, all the rage in Europe, crossed the pond. At some point local liquor companies, such as Senior Liqueur, added the color to its liquor, and a new tradition took hold.
Dark and Stormy, Bermuda
Another Bermuda must, the prevalent Dark and Stormy is made with ginger beer and Gosling’s Black Seal Rum. And the cocktail must actually contain Gosling’s, since the company trademarked the drink in 1991, making a Dark and Stormy by any other name, or rum in this case, illegal to serve. As for the cocktail’s history, one popular theory floats the idea that in the 19th century, Royal Naval Officers were brewing ginger beer around the time that Gosling’s created its dark Black Seal Rum. It was inevitable for the two to meet, and the drink, finished with a lime, sprang into creation. As for the name, that’s attributed to a sailor who compared it to the "color of a cloud only a fool or a dead man would sail under." Gloomy description aside, try one (or many) at the Fairmont Hamilton Princess or Wahoo’s Bistro and Patio.
Ti’ Punch, French West Indies
Ti’ Punch, short for Petit Punch, or small punch, is a go-to favorite throughout the French West Indies, including St. Lucia, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Haiti. Its backstory is a bit of a blank though. What is known is related to rhum agricole (white rum), a type produced from sugarcane starting in the 19th century. At some point rhum agricole became the key ingredient of Ti’ Punch, which, at its most basic, is simply rhum, cane syrup and lime.