Project Revives Cuban Cocktails Using Native Plants

Dagoberto Jesus Morejon and Manuel Alejandro Valdes, both 26 years old, founded TB Cocktail to promote the use of native flora in Cuban cocktail making. Photo: Courtesy of interviewees

TB Cocktail is a project, and soon-to-be business, from two young bartenders who are opting to use native flora as part of a sustainable business strategy.

Por IPS-Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – In 2019, Dagoberto Jesus Morejon and Manuel Alejandro Valdes founded the TB Cocktail project, a little bit out of necessity and a lot out of conscience, to create cocktails and products using native Cuban plants.

The 26-year-olds are seeking to navigate problems in finding certain supplies in shortage on the national market, by replacing them with local ingredients. In the meantime, they are promoting a sustainable business model for Cuban bars.

With counsel from a group of biologists from the Cuban Botanical Society, they identified over 50 native, harmless plants that can offer new aromas and flavors, depending on their characteristics.

According to Jesus Morejon, the project can also help to protect Cuba’s biological diversity, one of the richest in the region, given the fact that over 50% of species on the island are autochthonous or regional.

A contribution to biological diversity

“Many plants aren’t cultivated because they don’t have a commercial purpose. For example, mint is grown all over the world partly to make Mojitos, an international cocktail. So, it’s profitable for producers. This is what we want, to incentivize growing these species that we have identified,” Morejon explains.

On Cuba’s Red List of Endangered Plants, published in 2016, 67% of known native flora were featured, out of which 46% fell into some category of in danger of extinction.

The participation of the two young men in different specialist competitions has paved the way for the project’s recognition, which validates the success of its proposals. For example, the Exotic Island – an aperitif cocktail based on Blue Mahoe (Hibiscus elatus), native to Cuba – was the most popular cocktail at Beefeater’s Global Bartender Competition.

Drinks using honeyherb (Phyla scaberrima) and yellow elderflower (Tecoma stans) also won awards.

Exotic Island – an aperitif cocktail based on Blue Mahoe (Hibiscus elatus), native to Cuba – was the most popular cocktail at Beefeater’s Global Bartender Competition. Photo: Courtesy of interviewees

Sustainability to also be competitive

While eco-friendly bars and restaurants are becoming a trend across the globe, the young business owners are adopting sustainable practices, such as using local ingredients, as a means to get ahead in an industry that is always seeking innovation.

This has evolved a great deal on an international level, and international bartenders are using more and more products and techniques, Morejon says.

“Often we don’t have the ingredients needed to make a certain mixture or to replicate some classic international drinks. This makes us look around here, and ask ourselves what we have that could be innovative,” he says.

In Cuba, there are many references of bars/restaurants that adopt sustainable practices and welcome these kinds of initiatives.

According to Jesus Morejon, the Oasis Nelva Crepe Bar, where he used to work, was a school in this sense. These young men are working on a cocktail menu for this establishment.

However, it hasn’t always been this way. “This depends on business owners, and sometimes you aren’t completely free to create,” he explains.

They created a blog to incentivize a business culture of sustainable management and publish their findings about Cuban flora. They also offer recipes for their drinks and some of the practices they use.

This is how they promote recycling organic waste and reducing plastic use. They train employees and advise customers on the importance of the rational use of water and energy.

They believe it’s crucial that this sustainable business model is shared by suppliers, owners, employees and consumers. This is a type of business that often demands many resources and generates a great deal of waste.

Eco-friendly bars and restaurants are becoming trendy all over the world. Photo: Courtesy of interviewees

A business venture to supply bars with local ingredients

The next step for these young men is to launch a micro business or cooperative. They want to satisfy national demands of bars, both private and state-led, with different products.

“We want to start by selling syrups to sweeten and flavor cocktails, but also ice creams, crepes, sweets. Then we hope to create bitters, perfumes, tea and even liquors,” Morejon advances.

Eco-bares y restaurantes se vuelven tendencia en el mundo. Foto: Cortesía de los entrevistados

In order to do this, they are thinking about joining up with farmers focusing on agroecology and permaculture. They can grow native aromatic plants, flowers and fruits, which aren’t used today and are even unknown.

“One of the most important things is they understand the importance of growing our plants and the benefits of this. We can do this with small training sessions, conversations or just by reaching an economic agreement,” Manuel Alejandro points out.

Valdes claims that the business venture has a plan for the waste generated at the places they work. The idea is that it goes back to the land as fertilizer, thereby creating a closed cycle.

The project involves constant research, “which is why we all need a commitment,” said Valdes. “We will slowly propose new species to be grown and feedback is important on both sides. We are also interested in learning about the land and how to cultivate it,” Valdes said.

Read more feature articles in Havana Times.


2 thoughts on “Project Revives Cuban Cocktails Using Native Plants

  • In our community, there is a family that produce a “Wine”. Being Cuba, the contents (herbs?) are not disclosed, but what matters is that it is cheap even in Cuban terms and alcoholic.

    On the occasion of my last but one birthday, we attended a promotion for rum, at our local Casa de la Musica. Each table got a free bottle and glasses. Five bartenders took part in a cocktail competition all based on the said rum and there was a panel of judges. I was fortunate and tasted two. But the real fun following we spectators having imbibed more than our fair share of rum – not unusual in Cuba, was the competitors holding a juggling competition with bottles, glasses and cocktail paraphernalia. A veritable Cuba has got Talent show!

    On a serious note, one of the potential agricultural developments in Cuba, is that of wine. Some is produced in Pinar del Rio, but is of indifferent quality – best described as plonk. But import a couple of Frenchmen and a few vines, and much would be possible. It is of course possible that the Castro regime would reject such development, wine being a drink for the bourgeoise.

    Imagine Pinar del Rio becoming the Nuits St George of Cuba!

  • This sounds like a very enthusiastic business exploit that could be very successful. I wish the two entrepreneurs the best.

    I wonder what it must be like trying to operate a successful business in Cuba today. The two entrepreneurs will be facing hurdles that most nascent business start ups do not face in other geographical jurisdictions.

    The Cuban regime will not allow potentially successful business to earn “substantial” profits. Isn’t that written in the Cuban Constitution? It is the regime that decides how much is too much. I wonder what kind of incentive that has on two eager business bartenders in setting up their operation. Apply too much business initiative and skill to such an extent that their business will be penalized for over exuberance. Certainly an inhospitable entrepreneurial environment.

    On paper, their business proposal and their projected goals seem to indicate that financial profits could be exceptional. They do want to expand their operation nationally which is to be commended. That is when the proverbial s*** hits the fan when the government authorities step in and “regulate” the operation to suit the communist ideology of so called equality for all, except of course for those in power postulating equality.

    “One of the most important things is they understand the importance of growing our plants and the benefits of this. We can do this with small training sessions, conversations or just by reaching an economic agreement,” Manuel Alejandro points out.”

    Growing “our plants”. All things grown in Cuba belong to the government. There is no such thing as ownership of agricultural products. So, the two entrepreneurs need to enter into an “ economic agreement” as stated with the state. How does one enter into an agreement with a totalitarian economic system when the elites control everything and if they see any possibility of economic success, the government will want a hefty return on lending its agricultural monopoly to potential business bar tenders.

    One only has to witness other agricultural cooperatives or so called sole proprietor operations in Cuba. Have they not all failed miserably in the past? The country cannot produce enough food in its agricultural cooperatives to feed its people. Because of lack of agricultural infrastructure (fuel + transportation problems), plants and crops in the fields feed a miniscule of the population. The rest unfortunately goes to waste.

    The two business bar tenders will also face these obstacles and its not like in other geographical jurisdictions where the government can step in and supply the potential business with ample financial incentives as start up funds and supply the owners with perhaps loans and credit for the beginning few years. The bar tenders hopefully have deep pockets to finance their own business venture.

    Manuel Alejandro and Dagoberto Jesus Morejon are undertaking a potentially very successful business idea and hopefully transforming that idea to a profitable reality with many significant obstacles in their path. They are to be encouraged and commended.

    If in the long run they are successful, I am sure the Harvard Business School would like to use their business as an in class case study of how a start up business idea in a totalitarian economic system facing horrendous economic hurdles can actually profit. Business rules the world no matter what political ideology one operates in.

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