Cuba Libres At Bing's, Hold the Cocaine

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Mike Fleming, 2008.

This Week's Suspect: After a liver-wrenching couple of particularly toxic Legal Speedballs, I decided it was probably in the best interest of my arguments (not to mention my wellbeing) to tone it back a little. While Jägerbombs might encourage antisocial drinking and Trash Cans basically require it, The Cuba Libre is a caffeinated alcoholic beverage nearly up there with Irish Coffee when it comes to mainstream acceptance.

The modern Cuba Libre is, fundamentally, what your average drunk knows only as a Rum and Coke. While the addition of lime and usage of a white rum (like Bacardi Superior) are crucial for differentiating a cocktail tyrant's Libre, the potentially menacing intoxication this column will study is exactly the same. However, I'm not deadset on specifically referring to this week's suspect as The Cuba Libre due to its modern constituency. I'm doing it for what made a Cuba Libre in 1901.

That's right, those of you who remember the gist of Coca Cola's original recipe at the turn of the century must realize that the Cuba Libre was perhaps the most literal and most dangerous form of a Legal Speedball I've yet to touch upon -- a delicious mixture of cocaine and alcohol.

If that heartstopping realization weren't enough, H.L. Mencken's "The American Language" describes a horrifically awesome and oft-quoted variation that sounds like it might've very well provided the spiritual blueprint for Four Loko:

"The troglodytes of western South Carolina coined 'jump stiddy' for a mixture of Coca-Cola and denatured alcohol (usually drawn from automobile radiators); connoisseurs reputedly preferred the taste of what had been aged in Model-T Fords."

History lessons aside, you'd be hard-pressed to find a bar that would serve you a Cuba Libre with an eight-ball or radiator fluid, but it just goes to show that this family restaurant staple has had an aggressively unhealthy history that makes our maligned alcoholic energy drinks look like watered down Coors Light. Certainly the drink has been "fixed" over the years, but can it still pack an evening-ruining wallop?

With their relentlessly smooth flavor, modern Cuba Libres don't quite pack the boozy potency of its caffeinated bretheren, but its perceived innocence has lead many a distracted bar patron into an unwitting shitshow of stomach issues and public humiliation.

The Bar: A far cry from the properly-roused hooligans at Nine Million in Unmarked Bills and the relentless '90s Alternative at Hard Rock Cafe, Bing's at Madison Park is about as subdued as it gets. Norah Jones whimpers on the soundsystem, barely overcoming the din of family dinners and elderly romance.

There's a bar -- but I'm the only one at it, partitioned off from the dining area by a couple of floating handrails. The countertop itself has the fine, glittery sheen of a surface that couldn't possibly have seen too many spilt drinks. I ordered a Cuba Libre and had a moment of pause when the bartender asked me if I had a rum preference. What spicy subtleties best suited high fructose corn syrup?

The Effect: Although surprisingly stiff for a venue this wholesome, The Cuba Libre obviously wasn't going to send me into an epileptic fit of rage without three or more command performances. Maybe it was the calming atmosphere of the bar. Maybe it was the sobering pressure of feeling like I was on display for Bing's more upstanding patrons. But my guess is that the only damage that rum and Coke can do comes from serious overconsumption.

Threat to Society: Zero out of Four Lokos.

Probably even less affecting than the Irish Coffee, neither the Cuba Libre nor the Rum and Coke are going to cause widespread panic anytime soon. Not only does the drink offer a less manic caffeine rush than any of the other Legal Speedballs, the one-sided syrupy sweetness of Coke makes it easy for stingier bartenders to go light on the hard stuff, at least relative to subtler cocktails. All in all, besides its shady history with hard drugs and automobiles, The Rum and Coke is a drink that's been cemented into the American consciousness with its remarkably simple construction and the national omnipresence of Coca Cola. If you ban Rum and Coke, you might as well ban apple pie.

 
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