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two women hold cups of aliñao

Cuban home brews

Some of my favorite moments in travel revolve around food.

Some of my favorite foods are actually drinks.

And some of my favorite drinks in Cuba are home brews… beverages people make in their own homes. Here are three I’ve known and loved:

Pru

This is pronounced just like Shannon Doherty’s character on Charmed, except with a Spanish tapped r. I first encountered pru as some travelers and I walked down a street in Havana. We had a couple hours of down time before dinner, and most of the tour group had gone back to the hotel on the bus. The four of us decided to walk back to our hotel instead, just for the sake of having an adventure.

One house’s owners were outside retouching the paint. We started chatting with them, and the head of the family invited us inside. It turned out they had a home pru business… but we didn’t know that. All we knew was, the guy was suddenly thrusting a used plastic bottle half-full of brown liquid in my direction and saying, pruébalo: “Try this.”

A lot of thoughts went through my head in that moment! I wondered what the hell it was. I thought about sanitation and whether it would make me sick. I thought about whether I’d offend him if I declined. But mostly I thought: This is a moment when I either have to play it safe or relax and enjoy life. And if I pass this moment up, I’ll never have a second chance to enjoy it.

So I drank it.

It turns out, this was pru, a Cuban root beer! I’d never heard of it before, and don’t come across it often… but it’s delicious.

Roots used to make pru

The roots in the pot have already been boiled. The roots in his hand haven’t.

Then he showed us their whole operation, and I was delighted to see how hygienic it all looked. The roots get boiled up with sugar and water, then left to ferment for a while. From a hygiene perspective, I was excited about the boiling. So long as I didn’t think too hard about how they cleaned the plastic bottles, I was confident we could all drink safely.

He also explained that pru is traditionally produced in Oriente, the eastern part of Cuba. So when you see it in Havana, the family selling it likely has eastern roots. I believe it’s only produced and sold by families as a home-based business, where you walk up, knock on the door and make your purchase. I’ve never seen it for sale at a store or restaurant.

Our new friend offered us each a bottle of cold pru on the house, and we very happily accepted! For all of us, that was one of the best moments of the trip. Ever since, I have fond memories of that day, and I can’t see pru for sale without buying a small bottle.

Pru in plastic bottles

The family uses recycled water bottles for their home-brewed pru.

Aliñao

This liqueur, pronounced ah-lee-NYOW (rhymes with “cow”), is another of my favorites. Aliñao is basically booze with fruit, aged in a dark glass jug until the flavors meld together. Smooth, sweet and potent!

Like pru, aliñao is from Oriente. And like pru, it’s only produced in the home, not sold in stores or restaurants. But unlike pru, I don’t see anyone making a business out of it. So far as I can tell, it’s only made one jug at a time for personal consumption.

Aliñao can be made with all kinds of fruit, but pineapple, papaya, mango and plum are common. The fruit is chopped, maybe cooked with water and sugar, and put into a jug with rum or stronger spirits. Sugarcane and spices can be included, too. It’s then stored at room temperature for some months… or weeks, if you’re impatient to get drinking already.

You can also keep a jug of aliñao going by adding more booze and fruit. That way, you never run out and don’t have to wait for it to age from scratch.

But there’s one time you can’t rush it: In some regions, there’s a tradition of starting a jug of aliñao when a woman gets pregnant. The drink is left to age until she gives birth, when everyone raises a glass.

I was introduced to aliñao by a friend’s mother. And without fail, whenever I stop by to visit, she busts out her humongous jug and pours me a glass. She told me, “We almost always have aliñao in the house. But every year my daughters come to visit for a few weeks, and they drink it all. That’s the only time we don’t have any.”

If I visited her for any length of time, I’d drink it all too! It’s that good.

Cuban woman with a jug of liquor

Here Barbara totes her jug of aliñao. In the photo at the top of the page, Robyn and Paulette are sitting in Barbara’s living room having their first taste!

“Ron mejorado”

This last homemade beverage isn’t exactly a home brew. It’s just a mix of different rums. That is, when I bring my friend Dayron a bottle of dark Havana Club, he mixes it with the cheap, black market stuff he buys for 80 cents a liter. If I wanted to be fancy, I guess we could call it a blended rum…

The first time I saw Dayron mix rums, he said he was “mejorandolo” – improving the cheap rum. That’s why I call it ron mejorado, “upgraded” or “improved rum.” The next time he did it, I had him explain it for the camera:

The Hueso de Tigre (Tiger Bone) he mentions is a name for black market rum. As described by Guillermo Fariñas Hernández in Los No Alineados (The Misaligned): “They buy it from ethyl distilleries, outside the law, that have their improvised coils in areas beyond the curious eye of government informers. If with the names of these alcohols, we put together a collection of essays on their origins, the whole thing would be a best seller, with such compelling names as Wait for Me on the Floor, Shrapnel, Ratkiller, Tiger Bone, Train Sparks, Stomach Breaker, Fierce Candle, Hot Bullet, and Living Lime.” That’s lime, the chemical; not the fruit.

Dayron’s closing joke – “the atomic bomb” – reminds me of a joke in Bluebeard, the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. It considers the ways people in different eras “compressed into a small space and in bizarre combinations the most powerful forces of the Universe as the Universe was understood [at the time].” For one era of humanity, this was an art collection. For another, it was the atomic bomb.

For Dayron, it’s apparently his bottle of ron mejorado.

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