Hotel Nacional Special.
Back in the Halcyon days before communism, when Cuba was America’s playground run by brutal puppet dictators and the mafia, the rich and famous liked to stay in Havana’s prestigious and historic* Hotel Nacional. And the Hotel Nacional had a house cocktail that became something of a classic. Modern interpretations of the recipe for the Hotel Nacional Special are somewhat varied but all contain pineapple juice. Before we get to my version of the recipe I’d first like to take sometime to talk about this wonderful ingredient and how to get the best out of it.
There is nothing quite as tasty as fresh pineapple juice and yet I’m always surprised how few people seem to have even tried really good pineapple juice. But maybe I shouldn’t be, as very often pineapple juice is made in a way that prioritises yield over flavour. The typical process is to blend the pulp of the pineapple with water and then strain it. It’s fine, it’s quite nice, you get a lot of juice out of a pineapple. Indeed, if you look online almost all guides on how to juice a pineapple use this method. But in my option there’s a better way. If you’d like to try it then proceed as follows. Buy a nice fresh pineapple. Ideally it should be still fairly firm and a yellow colour with still a bit of green here and there. One that’s gone too far is softer and a darker yellow going to brown in places. The condition of the leaves is also a useful guide. To get at the flesh either slice the top of and use a pineapple corer to extract pineapple rings** or trim off the skin (and eyes) with a knife and cube the rest, discarding the firmer core. Once you have your rings or cubes put them in a metal colander/strainer over a large bowl and then, using a potato masher or similar device gently mash until you’ve extracted most of the juice. If you treat your pineapple with this kind of respect you should get about 300ml (10oz) of the tastiest juice that ever passed your lips. It has a thinner consistency than “regular” pineapple juice because you haven’t crushed all that pulp and pectin into it – just the very sweetest, juiciest bits this wonderful fruit has to offer. If you’re after juice for making cocktails 300ml is plenty and works out cheaper than lemon or lime juice but do be aware that this type of pineapple juice deteriorates rapidly and should be used pretty quickly. If I haven’t used it within 24 hours I usually just drink it or turn it into a pineapple syrup for making sodas. OK let’s be honest; I usually make a couple of Singapore Slings or use it as the “weak” in a Planter’s Punch. If you feel you need more proof to be swayed to my slightly unorthodox pineapple juicing methods just read about how commercial pineapple juice is made…
With some fresh pineapple and lime juice in hand continue to make this iconic Cuban drink. As I was saying, recipes do vary but the one below is my favourite. Aged Cuban rum is called for and that can only mean Havana Club 7 year old which is a damn fine and yet affordable rum. I’ve eschewed the simple syrup many versions use and rely solely on the sweetness of the pineapple juice and a healthy measure of apricot liqueur and find this results in a beautifully balanced, complex cocktail. By no means the sweet tropical pineapple bomb you might expect, the Hotel Nacional Special is one of those drinks that fully rewards those who take a little extra care with their ingredients.
Hotel Nacional Special.
1.5oz / 45ml Aged Cuban rum (eg. Havana Club 7 Anos.)
1oz / 30ml fresh pineapple juice (see text.)
0.75oz / 22ml fresh lime juice.
0.5oz / 30ml apricot liqueur.
1 dash of Angostura bitters.
Shake with ice and strain into a chilled champagne coupé.
Toast Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
*It has had its very own battle and is the site of that famous scene in The Godfather II.
**This being my preferred option as it’s less work and you also get to use the remains of the pineapple as a drinking vessel.