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.)
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 non–stop 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.)
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 Cola Syrup
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.
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.