In Cuba recently, sitting in the back of a teal Chevrolet Bel Air that was older than my parents, I asked a cabbie where I could go to see the magic of Havana, something tourists — and especially the American tourists who now arrive in the communist island nation in increasing numbers — don’t typically see. His eyes lit up and he said one name, “O’Reilly,” with such reverence and mysticism that he might as well have said “mogwai” or “El Dorado.”
On a street named after an Irish-born inspector general of infantry for the Spanish Empire, the small bar called 304 O’Reilly — as is communist style, the name is the address — is staging something of a drinking revolution in Vieja, Havana’s Old Town neighborhood. To start, it is a gin bar, extraordinary in a nation devoutly fixated on its rich heritage of rum, and on being the birthplace of the daiquiri and the mojito. But 304 O’Reilly flouts convention in another way: It is an ambitious 21st-century bar that more or less ignores all tenets of mixology, and not just because its specialty cocktail prices hover around $8.
There are no $43 martinis infused with San Francisco fog here. Instead, the bar’s owners have freed themselves from mixology’s trying exactitude. That’s not to say the drinks here are whatever sloshes into the nearest glass. There is care, and dedication. 304 O’Reilly’s approach might more accurately be called whimsology, mixology’s impressionist cousin, less bothered with ounces and jiggers, more taken with moxie and mojo. In fact, to be true to its Latino roots, the approach is best described as duendology, an approach based on duende, an untranslatable concept that roughly means supernatural enchantment. In Havana in particular, it plays on the Cuban aesthetic of making do with what’s available and finding beauty in the disarray.
“You want to know who developed our cocktails?” asks Wilson Hernandez, a 28-year-old civil engineer turned head bartender. “The customers. I’d introduce them to something and they’d like it, but say, ‘If you did this or that it would be better.’ The power is with the customers. We are not gods here.” He laughs, running his hands through his Afro ponytail. “You’re not in a temple. You’re in a bar.”
The quanto basta approach harkens to a freer-wheeling time when America’s best-loved bartender was Isaac Washington on The Love Boat. These are not drinks you pour into precious little cocktail coupes. The Habana Londres is a London-inspired gin-and-tonic that resembles a single-serving scorpion bowl, with Beefeater, tonic, and a wedge of lime, of course, as well as Maraschino and a dollop of blue frozen daiquiri. The Jimmy Hendrick’s contains cucumber and rose petals. The Sweet Jabalí has cherry and cinnamon. Even a plain “gin-and-tonic” often arrives with vanilla beans and rose petals. And all of the drinks are garnished with limes whose half-peeled rinds entwine the cocktail in a manner that suggests they seem to have somehow read the Kama Sutra.
The menu also includes a Jäger-made mojito, a “Kentucky” mojito (with Jim Beam), and something called a Muévelo Muévelo — literally “Move It Move It” — a mint-pineapple sorbet served atop chunky watermelon juice in the manner of a Miami Vice, albeit virgin. A simple frozen-mango daiquiri might come sprinkled with maraschino-infused pineapple chunks.
The bar was started in 2013 — born, really, because the place feels that alive — by two brothers, Julio Cesar and José Carlo Imperatori, 42 and 40 years old, respectively. José Carlo, who resembles Zach Galifianakis if he played the Dude, had been toiling at a government bar and seized the opportunity when Cuba began allowing private management. Julio, taller, leaner, and with sunglasses perennially sitting atop his shaved head, typically travels the country sourcing produce when he’s not glad-handing regulars. Business boomed, and they were able to open a bigger satellite branch, El Del Frente (“The One Out Front”), across the street last December. The anomalous, puckish nature is not limited to the actual bar, either. When asked what is in their Jedi salad — the chalkboard menu has a Darth Vader mask affixed atop it — a waitress replied that it’s mostly lettuce and tomatoes with some carrots and cucumbers; when I tell her that it sounds ordinary, and ask what makes the mix so Jedi, she simply answers, “It’s Jedi if you believe it’s Jedi.”
“The goal is more important than the math. It’s half luck,” says Enrique Suarez, the 28-year-old heap of dimples and muscles who’s usually manning the bar, of the drink-making process. “But mostly witchcraft,” he adds, pulling out a green-and-yellow beaded bracelet from his pocket, symbolizing Olofi, the king god in the local Yoruba pantheon.
Asked if he has a cocktail of his own design or is working on one, he flashes a look of genuine confusion. “Why would I make my own drink?” he asks. “A drink named for me? Or dictated by me? Every cocktail I make has my name on it. You will choose it again at another place and it will not be the same because it will not be mine. Everything I make here is mine. And you will like it because you have never had your cocktail the way I make it.”
“Look,”Julio begins, “mixology is great for chemists. But it’s science. It’s exact. It’s math.” He pauses for a moment. “And, really, it’s cold, mechanical. Why would I want this place to be a factory when what it needs to be is an oasis?”
That approach might be gaining fans beyond the island. As much as buzz can be built in Havana — Yelp and Zagat are not exactly de rigeur yet — I spotted an uneasy sign on my last visit: a sticker in O’Reilly’s doorway flaunting its “top choice” decree by Lianorg, a kind of Chinese Zagat. The revolution is spreading, comrades.