I finally went to Cuba last year, after talking about it for what felt like most of my adult life. What a place. The combination of people, music and architecture managed to exceed my very high expectations. Even the food was surprisingly good. Another surprise was that Cuba unearthed my taste for rum.
Of course, I had drunk rum before, but mostly as a teenager, and thus watered down with heavy lashings of cola. Sickly sweet and sick inducing. Drinking rum in Cuba was an entirely different affair from those misspent days of my youth, and I lost count of how many, and how frequently, the Northerner and I knocked back the country’s most famous rum drink – the Mojito.
When Floridita announced it was opening the Cuban-inspired Rum Shack, I was curious and a little skeptical. It's one thing drinking rum-based cocktails in 30 degrees of hazy Havana heat; quite another to try and replicate that experience on a wet and cold March evening on Wardour Street.
The Rum Shack certainly looks the part. Descending down the large spiral staircase into the basement club, the dimmed lighting fleshed out by vintage neon lights, palm trees, rum barrel tables, retro signage, flags and fishing nets looks good. (Trust me it’s not as tacky as it sounds.) The fact that the bar sits to the side of the cabaret and dining area means you can take in a drink while you enjoy the live music. So as a package, the Rum Shack works. And it does what it says on the tin, by offering a large range of rum-based cocktails. From variations of the daiquiri, to over-the-top, sharing cocktails for four, something I have to admit to having always found strange – do you really want to share the same drinking vessel with three others? We tried a selection of cocktails, with the clear favourite being the Nacional, a traditional Cuban white rum drink with a good lime based bite. The overall quality was good but not outstanding.
The Rum Shack is more of a lifestyle choice than a true cocktail bar. The ambiance is very West End, and the people are more flashy then stylish, but the mix of music and chatter, and pseudo-sleaziness, gives the Rum Shack a very Cuban flavour, albeit pre-, as opposed to post-revolution.
However, be warned: while the table service is very charming and attentive, the cocktail making was woefully slow. I think I waited nearly 20 minutes for my first drink, and thereafter was always out of sync with the Northerner’s drinks – hers were on a 15 minute wait schedule, and so she was always finishing hers as mine was arriving.
The Rum Shack works as a pre-dinner/show drinking bar, but I’m not sure it stands out as a bar in its own right. The cocktails aren’t quite good enough, and the service isn’t quite sharp enough to match the scores of bars within walking distance that it competes against. Nevertheless, the Northerner was quick to remind me that on more than one occasion, the service in Cuba was very slow. So perhaps the Rum Shack is more authentically Cuban than I give it credit for.