This complex Cuba Libre with Homemade Cola Syrup is inspired by a drink I tried in the Outer Banks! Difficult, but worth it.
I want to tell you a story. The story of one of the most incredible cocktails I’ve tasted in my life.
I’m usually the kind of person to visit the website of every restaurant on my itinerary and plan all my meals, but I decided to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person for my trip to The Outer Banks of North Carolina in June. (How is it already almost August, though?) At our first dinner at the 1587 Restaurant, I was mingling with the other bloggers. I had one look at the cocktail menu and knew instantly what I wanted. Who needs to plan anyway?!
The cocktail was the Cuba Libre. I would normally skim over a Cuba Libre on a menu — it’s a rum-and-Coke with lime. That’s it. Pretty standard bar fare.
But this one was different. Something caught my eye:
House-made cola syrup, the menu boasted. Rum distilled locally in the Outer Banks. Fresh lime juice.
I have a weakness for cocktails that have house-made ingredients. I also have a weakness for spirits from small, local, craft distilleries. This cocktail had my name all over it.
The waiter brought it to me and I fell in love immediately. (Love at first sight is possible with cocktails.) It was lighter in color than any rum-and-Coke I’ve ever had. Tiny flecks of vanilla floated on the top. It was smooth, complex in flavor and I wanted to drink them all night. I knew immediately I wanted to recreate this cocktail when I got home.
I begged the bartender to share his recipe with me. It had six or seven essential oils, he said, and sugar, vanilla, basil, bay leaves. Then he joked with me that it was a secret, and I was crestfallen. I’d never get to taste this beauty again! He must have noticed my disappointment, and so he offered that his recipe was inspired by the Cuba Libre recipe in The Curious Bartender: The Artistry and Alchemy of Creating the Perfect Cocktail by Tristan Stephenson.
Score. I ordered the book from our beautiful beach house that night. When it came, I was surprised to see how in-depth the recipe was. I’ll be honest: the recipe required ingredients I didn’t even know where to find — like gum arabic, citric acid, caffeine powder and caramel coloring — let alone how they worked in a cocktail! But this book answered it all. The gum arabic helps to emulsify the essential oils into the drink (so you don’t have ribbons or bubbles of oil floating on top), and citric acid is a preservative (useful if you are serving this cocktail in a restaurant). The caffeine and coloring have everything to do with making a cola syrup more like the stuff in the red cans. Totally optional in my opinion!
Side note: We got to tour Outer Banks Distilling (who makes the Kill Devil Rum used in this drink) during our stay. I seriously love how craft distilleries are popping up all over North Carolina, and I am glad the OBX is getting in on the trend. Plus, did you know ‘kill-devil’ is a nickname for rum? Kill Devil Hills is a town in the Outer Banks that likely got its name from a shipwreck that left barrels of rum in its wreckage. (There are other theories, of course, but that one’s my favorite.)
So sure, this Cuba Libre with Homemade Cola Syrup is complicated. I tried making it anyway. (I had to!) Honestly, the effort that goes into this cocktail reminds me a lot of the beautiful Outer Banks. These islands are a little off the radar and they’re a long drive away, but they are so, so worth the effort. Go. Run. Make this cocktail. Visit these islands. // susannah
P.S. Check out all the other stops my friends and I made on our road trip to the Outer Banks!
P.P.S. Don’t miss my Watermelon Blue Cheese Salad with Creamy Lemon Balsamic Vinaigrette inspired by this trip!
Disclosure: Thank you to The Outer Banks of North Carolina for inviting me on this amazing trip. All opinions written are 100% my own. I’m so grateful for opportunities like this. I only work with brands I know and love, and I thank you for supporting them! Also, this post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and buy something we receive a small commission at no additional cost to you. All opinions are those of the author.
- .2 ml (4 drops) wild orange essential oil
- .1 ml (2 drops) cinnamon essential oil
- .3 ml (6 drops) lemon essential oil
- .05 ml (1 drop) coriander essential oil
- 1 ml (1/4 teaspoon) orange blossom water
- 50 ml (2 ounces) vodka
- 2 grams gum arabic
- 3-4 dried bay leaves
- 12 fresh basil leaves
- 1 ounce vodka
- 6 vanilla pods
- 6 cups sugar
- 32 ounces water
- 1/2 cup honey
- 1/2 cup lime juice
- 1 teaspoon (8.5 g) citric acid (or 1/2 cup lemon juice)
- 6 ml Cola Flavoring
- 5 g caramel coloring (optional)
- 2.75 g powdered caffeine (optional)
For the Cuba Libre
- 2 ounces silver rum
- 1 ounce cola formula
- 4 ounces club soda
- lime wedge for garnish
Make the Cola Flavoring
- Combine the oils and vodka. Slowly whisk in the gum arabic. The mixture will turn cloudy yellow in color. If the oils and vodka still separate when the mixture rests, add a small amount of gum arabic until the mixture is emulsified.
Make the Cola Formula
- In a jar with a lid, infuse the bay leaves, basil leaves and vodka. Let sit for 48 hours. Reserving the liquid, strain out the leaves.
- Score vanilla pods lengthwise with the tip of a knife. Using a spoon or knife, carefully scrape the seeds from the pods. Discard the pods or save for a later use.
- In a pan over medium low heat, warm the vanilla seeds, sugar and water. Stir until sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir in the honey. Heat for 25 minutes more. Strain the liquid through a fine mesh strainer or a muslin cheesecloth.
- In a large bowl, combine 3 1/2 ounces of the vanilla syrup, the lime juice, citric acid, Cola Flavoring, citric acid and caffeine powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of the basil and bay leaf infusion. Stir until combined.
- Stir the mixture back into the vanilla syrup. Decant into a glass bottle and store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.
Make the Cuba Libre
- In a highball glass filled with ice, add rum, cola formula and soda water. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Cooking times do not include 48 hours for the basil & bay leaf infusion in the Cola Formula.