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Havana Hustle: Cuban Inspired Canapés & Cocktails

Havana Hustle: Cuban Inspired Canapés & Cocktails

The Halifax Central Library is far from quiet tonight, as The Clever Barkeep is hosting a Havana-inspired cocktail party on the fifth floor of the building. The night promises dance lessons taught by Halifax Salseros, specialty cocktails by various bartenders from throughout the city, and food made by Lock & Key – a local outfit specializing in secret pop-up dining events. On top of this, a portion of the ticket sales will be donated to relief efforts for Puerto Rican hurricane victims.

When we arrive, the first lesson has begun, and the host is giving instructions from the front of a room filled with eager, energetic dancers. 

Following their guide’s instruction, some with drinks in hand, people dance while waiters walk around the border of the dance floor with hors d’oeuvre.

As we watch the dancing, we grab our first drink of the night. With our margaritas in hand, we watch everyone laugh, stumble, and work their hips as the bartenders prepare the next drink, all while Lock & Key present more grab-able bites.

If you’re anything like me — two left feet and a huge appetite — you dodge the dancefloor and make your way straight towards the waiters to peek at their serving trays.

Heavily inspired by Cuban cuisine, some of the items Lock & Key have prepared for tonight include Mojo Shrimp (orange and lime marinade, roasted garlic, cucumber, and cilantro), Papas Rellenas (breaded and deep-fried potato balls filled with spiced lentils), Ropa Vieja Sushi (shredded braised flank steak, peppers, and black beans wrapped in spiced turmeric rice), and our personal favourite, Medianoche (ham, braised pork, Swiss cheese, mayo, mustard, and pickles between two slices of sweet bread) which we’ve lost count of how many we’ve scarfed down by this point.

Suddenly the music quiets and we’re guided back to the bar where Highwayman’s Vasili Panagopoulos has prepared his Bacardi Legacy competition cocktail–“Metrio”–for us to try. Modelled after the Greek frappé, Vasili blends coffee, almond syrup, amaretto, lime and Bacardi Ocho to make his cocktail. Telling us about his drink, Vasili explains that “it’s named after how you would order a frappé, as when you order a frappé “metrio,” it means it’s going to be well balanced; not too sweet, not too bitter.”

As he continues to describe the inspiration behind the drink,we find out that the story goes back to a friendship made between his grandfather and former Java Blend owner, Peter Dikaios. Vasili’s grandfather would sip on Peter’s sourced blends at his old restaurant Peter’s Corner, and now, years later, Vasili uses Peter’s son Jimmy Dikaois’ cold brew for his cocktail.“The whole process became a circle.”

We finish up the Metrio and head to the floor for another dance break, and before we know it, the third drink of the night is ready for us to try. Made by Will Irvine of Bar Kismet,“La Connexió” is the Halifax Regional Final winner of the Bacardi Legacy Drink Competition. Taking the time to give us a description of the inspiration behind his drink, Will explains; “the founder of Bacardi, Don Facundo Bacardi Massó, was from Catalonia, and La Connexió is Catalan for The Connection. All of my inspiration was taken from different connections.”

Bacardi Ocho Años was the rum I chose, which was a secret family reserve blend until its first public release in 1995. Angostura bitters will bring out some of the barrel spice and oak characteristics that are in the rum. Rose water will further heighten some of the vanilla and cinnamon flavors in the rum, as well as lend its very delicate, floral aromas. To pay homage to the classic Bacardi and lime flavor duo, I decided to use lime bitters. Espadin Mezcal’s earthy, smoky flavor will help reminisce of the original Bacardi distillery, which eventually burnt down, showing resiliency and acknowledgement, and not ignoring the past. Don Facundo was a wine merchant before he became a distiller, so using a wine of some sort made sense. I chose Cocchi Americano Aperitif Wine for its bright citrus flavor as well as slight bitter kick, to give this drink some more complexity. Bacardi Ocho Años will tie everything together, creating a delicate, boozy, rum forward cocktail that is a perfect after dinner sipping drink.

Aside from being meticulous in paying homage to its inspirations, La Connexió is well-deserving of the recognition, as the drink’s flavours hold tightly onto your palate with every sip.

After Will serves his drink, people return to the dance floor–some with a partner and a few dancing alone–while others show off their talents, spinning and twirling in small groups. 

As I take the last few sips of my drink, I realize that the night is coming to an end when we are told that the final drink is ready to be served.

“Venceremos,” made with Bacardi Carta Blanca, coconut liqueur, pineapple juice, cucumber juice, and sesame oil, is a cocktail created by 2016 Bacardi Legacy Winner Gn Chan. The drink is fresh and easy-drinking – a perfect way to end the night.

Shortly after we’re presented with this final drink, boxes containing a little gift from Lock & Key are passed around–Cuban sugar cookies–soft with the tropical taste of apricot, peach, and passion fruit.

Beyond being a fun party with a rooftop feel, Havana Hustle has been a showcase of talent. With a handful of the city’s best competitive bartenders in attendance, a colourful spread of adventurous but familiar eats, and fiery dance lessons from the city’s best salsa instructors, this will be a night to remember for months to come.