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Deep in the birthplace of Cuban rum and the daiquiri

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Eduardo Corona, El Traguito's cantinero or head bartender, mixes a cocktail.

Santiago, Cuba

THE best rum bar in Cuba may be the one in the basement of a sparse museum in the centre of this colonial port city, an 11-hour drive from Havana on the island's south-eastern coast.

The bar, El Traguito, occupies just a few hundred square feet that open onto a quiet side street below the Museo del Ron, the rum museum upstairs. It bears little resemblance to the expansive rum palaces of Havana like El Floridita, with its assembly-line drinks, its throngs of tourists and its statue of Ernest Hemingway, who made it world-famous, leaning over the bar.

What El Traguito does have is Eduardo Corona, its cantinero, or head bartender. Bald, compact, animated and wearing sunglasses even in the bar's dark, cool interior, Mr Corona is a master craftsman, whose rapid-fire patter counterpoints the slow precision with which he makes his drinks. He is also a fierce advocate for Santiago de Cuba's underappreciated legacy as the birthplace of not just Cuban rum, but its most popular vehicle, the daiquiri.

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Santiago's rum culture, Mr Corona said, is as much about the relaxed pace of life, and bartending, on Cuba's Caribbean coast as it is about the history and character of the drink itself.

"El Floridita prepares its drinks too quickly," Mr Corona said. To drive his point home, he spent the next 10 minutes making a mojito, a process that begins with a barrel stave doused in Santiago de Cuba rum, which he lights on fire; he catches the smoke in a tumbler glass, where he then builds the drink. It is refreshing, not too sweet - and delicious.

People have been making rum in the Caribbean for centuries, ever since Spanish settlers imported sugar cane plants in the early 16th century. But it was not until the mid-19th century that Facundo Bacardi, a distiller in Santiago, perfected what is now regarded as the Cuban style: refined, even delicate, with none of the heavy, funky flavours of its predecessors.

"He turned rum around, making it dry and acceptable to modern palates," said Wayne Curtis, the author of the newly revised book And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.

These days, rum is made in large state-owned distilleries scattered around Cuba - including the country's flagship brand, Havana Club, which is produced in Santa Cruz del Norte, about an hour east of Havana, and exported by Pernod Ricard.

But bartenders in Santiago still prefer the brands produced at Bacardi's original distillery, on the northern edge of the city's downtown. These include El Caney and Santiago de Cuba, which are prized for their rich, complex flavours - and are hard to find outside the island.

"It's the heat of the area and how it affects the ageing process, along with its proximity to the ocean and the salty air," said Julio Cabrera, a bartender who was born in Cuba and now works at the Regent Cocktail Club in Miami Beach, Florida. "It brings out notes of tobacco and vanilla."

The Bacardi distillery is off-limits to visitors - though it has a well-appointed tasting room and retail shop - and it keeps silent about its production methods or ageing process. (The distillery is unrelated to the modern Bacardi company, which has its headquarters in Bermuda and makes its own version of Havana Club in Puerto Rico for sale in the United States.)

According to Mr Corona and others, one secret to the Santiago distillery's high-quality rums is its enormous library of ageing barrels. "Some of that rum is 40, 50, even 60 years old," he said. Blenders draw from those superannuated barrels to add depth and character to much younger rums.

"Even the best Havana Club rums, they use some of Santiago's old stocks to round them out," Mr Cabrera said. "Rum from Santiago is really good."

Despite rumblings from Washington, it is relatively easy for Americans to try those rums for themselves. The State Department allows independent travel under a broad category called "support for the Cuban people" which requires visitors to spend money on privately owned hotels and restaurants and avoid businesses affiliated with the Cuban military.

Just east of Santiago is a beach called Daiquiri, which had been used by mining companies as a port to load ore onto ships; it served as the first landing site for the US invasion. According to local lore, around the time of the war, an American miner had the idea of taking a local drink made with citrus, rum and sugar and adding ice. Another version of the story attributes the drink to a US soldier; today the bar at the Army-Navy Club in Washington is called the Daiquiri Lounge.

It was a simple innovation, but the cooling cocktail was an immediate hit on the island, and quickly made its way north, bearing the beach's name.

These days, most people think of daiquiris as sickly sweet, blended concoctions, often loaded with fruit and consumed by the gallon during spring break. Not in Santiago. Bartenders here make daiquiris shaken on ice, not blended, and with a precise balance between sweet and citrus that gets closer to the true essence of the cocktail.

"In a proper daiquiri, you should taste the rum, then the lime; there should be enough sugar to balance it, but it should be on the sour side," Mr Cabrera said. And it is not always a lime: Early recipes for daiquiris sometimes called for lemon juice instead. NYTIMES