A Cuban barman in the Hall of Fame. Rafa Malém´s confessions
A Cuban barman in the Hall of Fame. Rafa Malém´s confessions
A Cuban barman in the Hall of Fame. Rafa Malém´s confessions
A Cuban barman in the Hall of Fame. Rafa Malém´s confessions
A Cuban barman in the Hall of Fame. Rafa Malém´s confessions

Without a shadow of a doubt, Rafa Malém is a person of reference in the world of cuban cocktails. For his dedication, his technique and  for the passion he has devoted to this art since childhood. We take  advantage of the hospitality of Rafa to get closer to his house and learn more about his life and work in his own words.

I want to know where you were born, about your childhood and how you entered this world of bars and canteens.

«Well, I was born in Marianao, January 28, 1953 and my mother received a baby layette because my birth corresponded to the Centennial of José Martí; the birth took place at Concha´s – the midwife – home, she worked at the Maternity Hospital but preferred her house to receive me, so I started my life there: 106 street in Marianao, close to the racetracks. »

And how did you get acquainted with the cocktail world, how did your passion for bars and cocktails started?

«Since my childhood, because my grandfather had a bar at the entrance of our house: in the porch and living room of the house where my mother and uncles were born and where I spent part of my life. I could see the bar as a child, I went out to the porch and could see my grandfather´s bar, it was called El Líbano because my grandfather was from Lebanon; it was located in the main street leading to the racetracks. »

So speaking about the person who opened you up to this world, could we assume it was your grandfather?

«Yes, my grandfather, because he was a merchant, he was not a good bartender, it was just a business to him as many others he had.  It was my father who linked me to this world because he was a professional drinker and a merchant, he owned two bars, but he was not a professional bartender. He took me to many emblematic bars, as a boy he took me to Sloppys, to Manhattan and to el Floridita and while my father drank I had sodas and ice creams and watched the bartenders.  I met very good barmen lie Fabio in Sloppys, who was afterwards my teacher.  The only bartender I regret never meeting was Constante Ribalaigua because he died in 1952, a year before I was born, but I was a good friend of his nephew and successor Antonio Melián who stayed in el Floridita until the decade of the eighties, we were personal friends. Antonio waited as a bartender on Ernest Hemingway after his uncle Constante passed away. »

And do you remember the first time you made a drink? When and which was the drink?

«I made my first drink when I was a little child calling it “El trago mío” (n.t. my drink). It was a Cubanito more or less because I always enjoyed tomato juice, then I made something like a Cubanito resembling a Bloody Mary and dipped an olive inside; I always liked that and mixed it with a bit of beer, since then I started making my own blends. I also went to the bar at the Polinesio restaurant meeting there Angel Galindo, Rubiné and el Guajiro, I learned a lot from them.  Then Gerardo Feble at La Fallete and in that way I learned from many people. As an adult I am very thankful to Rolando Hurtado and many other famous bartenders. »

I know you were just a member of the ACC (Cuban Bartenders Association) for a long time and at present you are its president. But going back I time there are important bartenders‘ organizations.  The Bartenders Club of the Republic of Cuba was created in 1924 and in 1998 it reorganizes as ACC. Both institutions have taught and trained Cuban barmen, what was your role?

«I believe those origins were critical. Bartenders and gastronomy workers came together in 1924 and that served as a school, as a space to unite the guild and in time, everybody looked for its own place and only the bartenders were left. Most of them were of Spanish descent and also nationals who came into that story. When Prohibition started in the twenties of the past century, many hard drinkers and bar owners came to the Island. People from different corners of the world came to this small island, 90 miles away from the U.S. because they could not drink there, but here they could and it was so close. Drinkers found very good barmen with wonderful stories and very good cocktails. Visitors brought their ideas and we had ours; English influence was noticeable at the time and a great mix came about, we started an international as well as national cocktail industry that is famous worldwide. Havana became the Paris of the Americas because it was the capital of cocktails.  I can say I am very proud of that, I am a member of the ACC since 2003 and its president since 2014. »

How does this reflect on your professional life? Leading this organization brings you closer to your fellow bartenders?

«Imagine, you know how I am, only one year after I joined ACC the president asked me to assume the Public Relations position. I am a true Cuban but I try to relate to others as best as I can opening up to everybody. I was not a learned person but my wife was always a big help, she has a higher cultural level than I.  We started by meeting everyone in IBA. I traveled to Peru for the first time in 2004 to meet IBA directors, as Mr. Ancona, the deceased Pichín (father of American canteen), Humberto Casseli who was the president at that time and there I met presidents from other countries and this created a very nice connecting link to this day. They show you their culture and you share yours. You make friends, attend conferences, share techniques that is why the association is so big. I recommend young people to affiliate if they like to, because they learn, attend workshops, competitions, they meet each other, share ideas about a cocktail, it is like a university. ACC to me is like el Floridita, to me it is the magna room of the University of Cocktails, it is the chair, to me it is at the top, starting from Constante´s history and through the best of barmen who left their mark there. »

You have worked hard lately recovering old Cuban cocktails. Which of them are worthwhile rescuing?

«In the last ACC meeting in 2016, the board of directors agreed the Canchánchara be known as an emblematic cocktail due to its history as the mambises drink. We also consider natural Daiquirí the national cocktail because of its seniority, the region where it was born and its beautiful story: it was created in the Daiquirí Mines and later on taken to Hotel Venus in Santiago de Cuba, there Emilio Maragato in a trip to Santiago took it with him to the Hotel Plaza and Constante, in a visit to this hotel saw the cocktail, poured it into a mixer – because there were mixers in Cuba in 1928 and Constante had one -, thus Daiquirí Floridita was born; the final touch was the cocktail´s relation to Nobel Prize Ernest Hemingway. »

At a time new trends attract attention of bartenders and consumers as well, why try to rescue such old drinks and conventional ways to conceive them?

«That is true but something has to be enhanced in Cuban cocktails as well as cuisine, we have to rescue our history; I am speaking of these ten classical Cuban cocktails everybody knows about and have changed the universe. It is part of our Cubaness, of our history, of our patriotism and we have to defend them. There are new trends and other variations of these cocktails, using other glasses, cups…creating a new mix with other liquors, but in the end they will still be the same that initiated this saga. Martí and Maceo were unique and they will be so forever, even though many others have traversed our history, but they opened the doors to independence.  »

You are an advocate of good drinking culture. Do you link Cuban rum to our culture; do you believe it to be a premise for the majority of Cuban bartenders or is it an individual issue for you?

«It is not an interest of mine only, I believe the great majority of Cuban bartenders, and not only members of the ACC strive for responsible drinking.  Since 1998 together with Havana Club we have worked in that direction. Pernord Ricard and specially Havana Club strives to foster responsible drinking. In my case my father died because of his drinking habit and I promised myself it could not happen to me, I have this collection of beverages you see here and I have collected them along the years; I can share a drink with anyone but I don´t drink. I believe our cold low alcohol cocktails are a more healthy way to enjoy a drink. Of course Cuba has a prime quality light rum that cannot be mixed, you have to drink it straight, and they are a perfume for your skin. »

In FITUR 2018 in Spain, Havana was proclaimed as Iberoamerican Cocktail Capital, what did that mean for the guild?

«Imagine the acknowledgement of a story we all experienced since we were children, or maybe not experienced but just studied it, it is really thrilling. You feel so proud to be Cuban and that Cuba received that award. »

When you had the opportunity to share with Rafael Ansón, President of the Royal Gastronomy Academy, what was his contribution?

« I was surprised to see that at his age, with all that knowledge, he is a high spirited person, an easygoing human being transmitting very good things. I thought I should retire at 65 but seeing Ansón I know there is much work to do still. We are personal friends; he is an honorary member of ACC and at 4 am he acknowledged the issue from the plane upon leaving, referring we were friends who would keep striving together. »

You have attained recognition in Pan-American competitions in Mexico and Colombia. Now the Pan-American Competition is in August in Cuba, are you going to be a bit of a judge and part?

«It is true, I received that recognition but nobody takes the cup away from me this year. This year the Pan-American competition is much more.  In 2008 14 countries came to the competition in Cuba, now we are talking about 28 countries from all over the world, it is  practically a world competition.  It will be a success due to the quality of the preparations and in 2021 if accepted, we want to have a world competition in Cuba. For now we will act as hosts showing the participants our authentic and autochthonous features that make us great. For example, we want to dedicate a day to interact with our master rum makers where all the presidents invited as well as other participants can share their very closed secrets only shared among them about our light rum, the best in the world, never betrayed by them who are all in Cuba. We also want participants to visit our tourism schools, learn our techniques and give all the help needed to our brothers of Latin America so they can position themselves in the world as we did. »

According to your desire to obtain the prize I infer we can participate even though we are the seat.

«Yes of course.  I am naming my cocktail Patria mía (my land). I am competing in the President Cup for the fifth time. Cubaron is supplying the rum.  In the Pan-American Cup we shall compete using our father Havana Club and MG will be present for the first time. Besides the quality of the cocktail the speed and technique of the barman will be measured in all competitions. The Bartender Challenger Competition entails the preparation of five cocktails at the same time, giving each one its continuity and preference according to its feature, a beer service and the lighting of an Habano.  Bottom line, there will be a few competitions. »

Where do you position Cuba in today´s cocktail world?

«We are greatly admired and respected in the American region, placing us in a prominent place; when we arrive they pay homage to us as gods. We have a long story and a lot has been learned in Cuban canteens.  I´ll tell you a short story: we have a Mexican brother who lives in San Francisco, he is the owner of  Tommy´s Bar, opened by his parents fifty years ago, he created his own Tommy´s Margarita, a classic cocktail in his bar. He is presently the Tequila world ambassador, a very good friend of Cuba and thankful because according to him, he learned a lot from us.  That to me is a generous and nice thing I cannot express in words. In Japan for example when I made the cocktails the Japanese kissed my hands, they see Cubans as idols. And it is true, we are good in the trade but still have much to learn. The blockade hits us hard and we lack many things but the professional part, the one we teach in our schools: shaking, mixing, the elegance, the quality of service and the interaction with clients, is key. We are the first association in America, the first professors and Cuba is still regarded as the emblematic canteen school and the first bartenders´ club of the world. »

On closing, what about your projects?

«My great project: I have a yearning to rescue and revive the social house of the Cuban Bartenders´ Association.  We want to prepare the house we just received in el Vedado, in Paseo and 5ta streets, former Los Violines Club.  It would be a space for dialogue, exchange and training of Cuban and foreign bartenders, receiving masters from different countries and vice versa.  I wish Cuba to be part of the present history of world cocktails, because if we were the first, now we cannot be left behind.   I am very pleased because we have won prizes, titles and personally I was elected to be part of IBA barmen in the Hall of Fame due to my Los Nardos cocktail. It is not a personal honor, it is an honor for Cuba to have someone representing the Island in this group. I am happy. »

By: Dianik Flores