For quite a long time, Canchánchara was practically unknown outside of Cuba. And, actually, it wasn't much different on the island itself. Even today, many Cubans don't know what Canchánchara is. But as soon as you arrive in Trinidad, in the South of Cuba, Canchánchara suddenly is everywhere. And this is also the best place to learn more about this indigenous cocktail.
Despite some people claiming otherwise, Canchánchara is not the oldest Cuban cocktail. The original Mojito recipe is factually a lot older. Nevertheless, it is a splendid mix of ingredients. And, what's more, it is more or less the forerunner of the Daiquiri cocktail. It is composed of Aguardiente mixed with honey, and then lime juice is the key ingredient to make a traditional Canchánchara.
Read on and find out more about Canchánchara and how you drink it.
The history of Canchánchara
Canchánchara is said to be the one original, genuine Cuban cocktail as other cocktails like the Mojito and Daiquiri were invented by foreigners. Unlike those, Canchánchara is an invention of Cuban people attributed to the guerilla fighters called Mambises.
The Mambises fought in the Ten Years' war from 1868 to 1878. And later also in the war of independence from 1895 to 1898. According to cocktail historians, the time of the invention of the Canchánchara is most likely during the Ten Years' war. In the latter, it was already widely available and quite well-known.
The roots of the Canchánchara are tied tightly to the city of Trinidad. A town in a region that has a long history with slavery and was struggling to become independent. The drink was consumed as a form of medicinal tonic by slaves working on the fields. Already back then, it got served in traditional cups called jícaras.
As the Canchánchara was mainly popular in the South, it wasn't as famous as the Daiquiri and the Mojito. The reason is that those two cocktails were making rounds in Havana, which was a haven for Americans during the times of prohibition.
Canchánchara, in contrast, was not served in Havana. Indeed, even today, many Cubans that grew up in Cuba's capital city never heard of the cocktail from southern Cuba.
The traditional base of Canchánchara is Aguardiente. It was locally produced and widely available at the time the drink got created. Nowadays, it's getting harder and harder to buy Cuban Aguardiente as production volumes are low, and only a few people know what it is. Due to this limited availability, many bars in Cuba started using silver (plata) Rum instead.
Ingredients of a great Canchánchara
The recipe is simple and reduced: Aguardiente, honey, and juice from limón criollo, also known as Mexican lime or key lime. As Aguardiente is often hard to get, you can also use clear Cuban Rum instead. The taste is quite similar, and the result will be comparable to the traditional recipe.
Recipes to make Canchánchara do vary. Even in Trinidad, the hometown of Canchánchara, you can get very sugary and thick mixes or watery drinks with only light sweetening.
The main reason for this is the honey used in the cocktail. While some use only pure honey that does not blend easily with the other ingredients, others add water to help with this. Hence, the best way to sweeten the cocktail without making it too sticky is honey syrup. It is quick and easy to produce at home and will make for an amazing Canchánchara.
What is Aguardiente?
Generally, Aguardiente is a generic Spanish term for alcoholic beverages between 30% and 60% ABV. Cuban Aguardiente is a spirit made of sugar cane, similar to Rum. The main difference between the two is that Cuban Aguardiente is made of sugar cane juice only. Rum, on the other hand, is based on juice and molasses.
As a result, Aguardiente is a light and refreshing spirit with hints of citrus. That's why, if you can't get Cuban Aguardiente to make your Canchánchara, your best bet is unaged Silver Rum or another Aguardiente from Latin America.
Jícaras - the traditional clay mugs
Typically, Canchánchara is served in small clay vessels called jícaras. But as traditional as these handmade clay mugs look, the original jars were very different. The slaves used to drink their Canchánchara from vessels made of the fruits from the Calabash trees. Only later, these vessels evolved into clay mugs you can see everywhere in Trinidad. However, the name for these vessels always has been jícaras, and that stayed.
If you're visiting Trinidad, there are plenty of options to buy jícaras. But one man is particularly famous for making them, and everyone in Trinidad knows him as Chichi. Chichi is a true master potter and dedicating his life to create beautiful clay products. And, of course, many of these are hand-crafted jícaras.
If you decide to buy some mugs from him, he's usually quite happy to share a Canchánchara with you. He can mix them in a heartbeat as if he never did anything else.
Making a Canchánchara
During holidays in Cuba, about three years ago, my friends and I attended a more or less private Canchánchara Master course. Honestly, it didn't seem like much of a big deal. We were sitting in a circle, and our lecturer mixed a drink for each of us. After that, we should try it ourselves. That was it. We were pretty amused.
Only then did I realize: there were no measuring tools. And I can tell you, making this drink the traditional way is hard to master. Because if you want to do a true Canchánchara, measurement tools are not allowed. You have to use raw honey, and when the first of us misjudged the measurements and used far too much Aguardiente, the shortage of just that supply didn't make it any easier for the rest.
The outcome was a lot of fun and laughter, but nothing tasting remotely like a decent Canchánchara. So I needed quite some practice afterward.
But when done right, the Canchánchara is a beautiful cocktail. And when served in traditional clay mugs, it transports you right into the Caribbean past.
As mentioned before, to make the drink at home or in a bar, I highly recommend using honey syrup (honey mix) to help to blend with other ingredients. Usually, a 1:1 ratio is sufficient, but Cuban recipes tend to go with a little more honey. And a mix of 2 parts honey to 1 parts water will already change the taste of your Canchánchara dramatically. If that's still not sweet enough for you, you can also increase it to 3:1.
- 1.5 oz Aguardiente (Alternatively use silver Rum)
- 0.75 oz Honey syrup (use 2:1 ratio)
- 0.5 oz Freshly squeezed lime juice
- Add all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and fill it up with ice.
- Shake it into clay mugs filled with ice. Alternatively, you can also use a chilled cocktail glass.
- Garnish with a wedge of lime or lime wheel.