Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

Ah, the Cuba Libre. Better known to many as the rum & coke. Has anyone else felt somewhat “above” this drink, or was it just me? My skepticism was most likely due to the fact that it was the preferred beverage of many a douche on the UAlbany campus during my years there — providing those fine young gents with a special combination of caffeine and liquor that let them really get their drink on, as loudly and late into the night as possible. (Seriously, you can only hear “yo bro gimme five captain ’n’ cokes” at a seedy college bar so many times before any thought or mention of rum + coke is met with Pavlovian eye rolling.)

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

But recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about rum, especially after Alanna mentioned her bartender friend who declared rum the un-hip liquor. And that made me sad, in part because on some level, it’s kind of true. If I’m out a place that serves decent cocktails, I rarely gravitate towards anything rum-based. Part of this is because I worry about getting an overly sweet drink, which can be easy to do with rum. But when you have a proper balance of flavors, things can get pretty amazing. I remember seeing this video back when J and I were dating, and showing up at his apartment the next evening with a bottle of rum and some limes. When he asked, “What’s going on with all that?” and I excitedly declared, “Daiquiris!” he chuckled skeptically and said, “Really? That’s kind of a girly drink.” A couple sips later, he declared, “Ooo, that’s actually pretty tasty.” And many sips later, he said one of the funniest sentences I’ve ever heard out of a guy’s mouth: “Whoa, these daiquiris are totally kicking my ass.”

So lately, I’ve been making a conscious effort to not overlook rum. And when I got some black cardamom pods from Mark and Reese at Season with Spice, my mind wandered back to the cardamom cola recipe I’d seen in the May/June issue of Imbibe. (Now, I know, I’ve been talking nonstop about my Season with Spice goodies. I almost considered holding onto this one for a little bit, to avoid sounding like a broken record. But really, this is a fine demonstration of my cascading obsessive nature. When using one little jar of something awesome just makes me want to open the next one and work with it too. Also, these smoky black cardamom pods are REdiculous, and I wouldn’t want to wait any longer to talk about them.)

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

Because the smokiness of the pods is kind of a game changer, I amended the soda syrup recipe quite a bit to incorporate other flavors and balance everything out. Coconut sugar (recommended in the original Imbibe recipe) is absolutely a must. (And I had a perfect amount of Old Salt Merchants coconut sugar leftover from making these cupcakes. Woop!) I channeled what I could remember of the cola recipe in Homemade Soda by Andrew Schloss and added in some citrus zests and a cinnamon stick, along with a little bit of caramel syrup. If you aren’t used to working with sugar + heat, caramel syrup might sound a little intimidating. But I promise you, it’s quick and easy to make, and relatively foolproof as long as you’re vigilant. Also, it’s key in giving the finished syrup that true yummy “cola” flavor.

When all is said and done, this is definitely NOT your average Cuba libre. It is smoky and citrusy, with a hint of coconut that doesn’t overwhelm, but just barely cuts through to bring a welcome balance. A far far cry from the bro-fuel of college days.

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

Special ingredients:

You can purchase the black cardamom pods here, and the coconut sugar here.

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cola Syrup

(heavily adapted from Imbibe No. 43 with inspirations from Homemade Soda)

5 large black cardamom pods

1/2 cup of coconut sugar

zest of 1 orange

zest of half a lime

zest of half a lemon

1 cinnamon stick

pinch of kosher salt

2 cups of water

2 tbsp caramel syrup (recipe below)

Crush cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle (or in a ziploc bag with a rolling pin/hammer). Combine all ingredients except the caramel syrup in a saucepan. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and let simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool, then strain the syrup. Stir in caramel syrup. Store in the fridge for up to a week.

Caramel Syrup

Notes: The most important part of working with sugar + heat is: VIGILANCE. Do not walk away. Stand there, watch, and stir. Have your 1/2 cup of water within reach so you don’t have to walk away at the last minute to get it. If you haven’t caramelized sugar before, I recommend watching a video or two online, just to get an idea of how things progress. The recipe below will make more than the 2 tbsp needed for the above recipe, but working with sugar in small batches can be a bit finicky. You can store the remaining syrup for up to a week in the fridge.

1/2 cup of sugar

1/2 cup of water

Add sugar to a small stainless steel saucepan and warm over medium heat, stirring every 30 seconds or so. As soon has the sugar has turned a nice brown color and completely liquified, remove from heat and add the water. BE CAREFUL when you add the water, as the mixture will steam and sputter a little bit. Stir and let cool completely.

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre

makes: 1 drink

2 oz. light rum

1 oz. cola syrup

juice of 1/2–1 lime (depending on tartness — I used 1 full lime)


Fill a glass with ice. (A highball glass is actually preferable here if you have them [which my parents did not when I made these while house-sitting in NY].) Add rum, syrup, and lime juice, then top with seltzer. Stir gently to combine.

Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cuba Libre


  1. says

    i never thought about it but um, my two fave frozen drinks have rum in them: piña coladas and daiquiris. and well. they have always kicked my ass.

    i also wanted to tell you, because of you, i now have JARS full of a variety of flavored syrups in my fridge and because i like a bit of mystery (and, cus i’m super lazy) they’re not labeled. when we make soda water every night i like to open the fridge, close my eyes and grab the nearest jar. i think caramel syrup will be made very soon.

    • says

      YES. Welcome to my life!! :D I never label mine either, and it’s totally part of the fun. (There are so many unlabeled jars of bitters in my liquor cabinet and half of them are the same color. I can usually figure them out by smell, but some I’m not quite so sure about.) I really should start labeling my flours though…that is not a fun guessing game.

  2. says

    Carey, I love all your drinks, but this one may have just stole me heart. Rum is absolutely my favorite spirit. I agree that rum is frequently abused, and hasn’t yet had a real widespread revival in the cocktail world. However, there are a few places that do rums some serious justice (Smuggler Cove in SF comes to mind). I’m with you, I always feel silly ordering rum and coke, yet it is without a doubt what I end up ordering at a bar. I make cocktails for a living, so undoubtedly the people I’m with stare at me, confused. I am 100% making your Cuba Libre. Thanks for sharing the recipe, and beautiful photography as always..

    • says

      Yay! Thanks so much, Todd. :D I’m thinking/hoping that a rum revival will soon hit the fancy cocktail world, and I’m certainly not surprised that there’s places already doing it in SF. (I actually went through the house cocktail menus of my four favorite bars in VT while I was writing this post just to see if I was overlooking options or there were simply none to be had — three of them had one rum cocktail each, and one had two [but both used maple and lime, so it might as well be the same drink].) I think my opinion on rum & cokes turned when I bought a pack of the Fentiman’s Cherrytree Cola a couple years ago and decided to mix it with some rum and lime juice one evening. Whoa, so excellent.

  3. says

    I used to enjoy rum but have stopped after I had a horrible cocktail in a cheap restaurant(That happened LONG back). The taste and the hangover next day made me hate rum forever! I am however absolutely tempted with the Smoky Cardamom-Coconut Cola Syrup.

    And Love the photos as always :)

    • says

      Oh noooo, it’s the worst when a terrible cocktail ruins your taste for a particular liquor! (I’ve often wondered if I’d ever be able to send a drink back. I kind of did that last weekend, when some friends and I were out at a bar and I ordered a gin and tonic that was just terrible. Except I made my friend take it back, since he knew the bartender pretty well. Turns out the problem was just that the tonic syrup was out, and no one was offended. Woo!)

  4. says

    I absolutely ADORE rum–a classic Daiquiri, a Cap Haitian rum and honey…there are just so many delicious things to be done with a bottle of Barbancourt, used judiciously of course. And this recipe sounds absolutely heavenly!

    • says

      Thank you, Lena! I’m so happy to hear that there are a whole bunch of rum lovers out there just based on the comments I’ve gotten already. This is even more motivation to broaden my horizons. :)

  5. says

    This sounds SO delicious! I have always been a fan of rum cocktails, but I agree that they’re often abused with sugar and made far too sweet. But when it’s done well, it is awwwwesome.

    I’ve never heard of black cardamom pods! I have green ones that I love using for chicken biryani, but I think I am going to have to order a pack of those smokey ones to use in desserts because holy crap. The idea of a smokey cardamom is kind of blowing my mind. They would probably make for an awesome bitters concoction, too.

    And HA! That J. line totally made me burst out laughing. The power of the daiquiri is *not* to be underestimated. I made that mistake on my 23rd birthday and….never again.

    • says

      Yes! Those cardamom pods blew my mind when I opened them. I knew the description noted that they had a smoky aroma, but they’re just straight up full of awesome smokiness. I was totally dreaming about ways to use them in desserts because it would be crazy good. And omg…bitters…YES. (There were these charred cedar bitters in BTP’s Bitters that I really wanted to make, but I never got around to hunting down the cedar things, or buying a crème brûlée torch [seriously, how do I not have one of those by now?]. I bet they’d work really well as a substitute.)

      Haha! Poor Johnny, now the world will know his daiquiri shame. :D That Difford’s recipe is especially dangerous, because it’s SO stupid good and uses a bit more rum than the average daiquiri!

  6. says

    Yes to all of the rum. I swear it’ll be as hip as any and all brown liquors by next summer. And I am very much with you on a proper daiquiri. Seriously one of my favourite classic imbibes. Last time we were in NY I had one at Momofuku’s cocktail bar that featured thai basil and lemongrass. Not traditional, fine, but one of the better drinks I’ve had for sure. Love, LOVE this this angle on rum and coke too. Black cardamom!!!

    • says

      Oh man, thai basil + lemongrass daiquiri?! I die. (I haven’t been down to NYC in quite a while, and I feel like I need to remedy that. I think I’d enjoy it even more now that I actually have a list of places [pretty much all food/drink-related] that I want to visit.)

      That black cardamom is insaaayne. I want to put it in EVERYTHING.

  7. says

    The usual rum n coke is totally the bogan’s (australian red neck) drink of choice. But everything about this makes me want to forget all that and replace it with this awesome smoky-cardamom version. It sounds soo delicious.

    • says

      Haha! I guess that seems better than the copious amounts of horrible cheap beer that our US rednecks drink, but then again, maybe it’s not. ;) The smoky cardamom definitely takes the class level up a notch!

  8. says

    I adore rum (and the fact that it’s considered un-hip just makes me want to drink it even more!). I am quite partial to a rum and coke but I do prefer a little sharpness and spice in there. This drink sounds just about perfect..

    • says

      Hehe, right?? I’ll let the hipsters argue about their favorite types of whiskey, or whatever it is they do. (Actually, I’m pretty sure they all drink Narragansett now that they’re done driving up the price of PBR.) :D

  9. says

    I am a cardamom freak, and I have never, ever heard of smoked cardamom before. I will definitely have to get my hands on some. Rum kicks my ass too, but this one looks definitely worth it! Beautiful.

    • says

      I know, right?! I was so excited/curious about those when I saw them online, and they were even better than I’d imagined. Also, they’re enormous. The biggest cardamom pods I’ve ever seen!

  10. says

    My stepdad is a big Captain & Coke guy…it’s real silly. We’re on a Dark & Stormy kick these days, but I…don’t know why I would ever bring home a bottle of light rum. ‘Til now! Daiquiris, duh. But these. THESE! The coconut sugar margaritas we made were delicious, and I’d love to try it in other cocktails!!

    • says

      Hehe! I know what you mean about the darker rums too — I’m usually drawn to them because hey, who doesn’t want more flavor, right? But the light/white rums have started to win me over, especially for lighter summer drinks.

      I went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant last weekend with my friend Adam, and he ordered this margarita with a smoked sugar + salt rim……omg, I was so jealous that it was not my drink. Smoked sugar!! Plain sugar just isn’t going to seem good enough anymore after smoked and coconut versions.

  11. C says

    I’ve actually always been a rum girl so naturally I had to try this (found you via Pinterest btw, and so glad I did). Didn’t actually have smoked caradamom on hand but made it with the regular cardamom instead and it turned out soooooo good. Thank you for the recipe. And if I may recommend few rums? My current favs are Rhum Barbancourt, Applewood Estate (cheap but still good) and Flor de Cana. A little Flor de Cana in coconut water with ice and you have a very smooth, tasty and EASY drink, perfect for summer. Cheers.


    • says

      Yay! So glad you enjoyed it. :) And thank you so much for the rum recommendations! It is one of those liquors that is still a bit mysterious to me when it comes to choosing a bottle from the shelves, and it is so nice to have some direction.

  12. says

    I think you must have made this drink just for me, because my guilty teenage “chick-fuel” was even trashier than rum and coke — MALIBU and coke! The coconut sugar here sounds completely insane! And smokey cardamom pods? OMG, yes yes YES. No number of exclams can adequately express my excitement over this drink! And the photos are simply stunning. Thank you for getting rum’s back, Carey!! I cannot WAIT to try these!

    • says

      Haha! :D

      I have to admit, I have been going a bit (and by a bit, I mean mega) crazy over using that smoky cardamom flavor in drinks. I made this other drink with it where I turned a strawberry-jalapeno jelly into a syrup infused with the smoky cardamom, and then mixed it with tequila and lime juice. So good! I need to figure out a recipe for making it using actual strawberries and jalapenos, since just any strawberry-jalapeno jam won’t do. (This particular one was all sorts of crazy spicy!)

  13. says

    Hahaha! Your complaint at the beginning of this post makes me chuckle. Chris loved his rum-and-cokes back in college. (Actually, he still loves rum, but I think mostly because of its associations with pirates. His favorite brand is The Kraken, mostly because of the giant sea monster on the label. And, on a similar note, he loves Yeti and Bigfoot, two beers he’s randomly across. Sensing a pattern?) I, on the other hand, preferred colorful drinks. Anything blue or pink or red intrigued me, I think I’ve probably had a lifetime’s share of Midori sours. Shudder. I’m so glad those days are past.

    This drink sounds pretty amazing Carey. I love these grown-up updates to classics. I mean, anything with coconut sugar in it already gets my attention, but the idea of blending it with smoky cardamom… I’d probably end up drinking all the cola on its own! But I have no biases against rum, so I would happily mix the two. :)

    • says

      Aaahaha! I have definitely attached an unfair stigma to rum & cokes after dealing with those Long Island bros (which I am sure Chris is NOTHING like!) throughout all of college. :D I drank a lot of beer in college, both fancy and unfancy, and I don’t know how I did it. I’ll take a cocktail or a glass of wine over most any beer these days. I do have a weakness for sour ales, though. So tangy!

    • says

      Hmmm, I would maybe advise against that. I imagine that whatever contributes the coconut flavor would affect the way that the sugar reacts when heated. You could certainly give it a try, but I’m not sure what would happen! :)

  14. Mert says

    Just saw this delicious-sounding drink while perusing Pinterest and drinking a Boston Sidecar (rum, brandy, triple sec, lime juice. It is kicking my butt!). It also makes me sad that rum is kind of uncool, because I love mojitos, and mojitos with Havanna Club rum are even better. It makes me even more sad that Cuban rum is not available in the US. Let’s all hope that embargo will end soon …. Anyway once I get my hands on some cardamom seeds/pods, I’m gonna make this!

  15. Grace K. says

    Hi! I was thinking of making this for my best friend’s birthday. Would this work well with Kraken or does it have to be light rum?
    Thanks for sharing! So excited to make it :)


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