war on the rocks

The State of the Daiquiri

May 19, 2015

I feel a bit like those reporters at the beginning of the first Gulf War. “This is Alex Hecht, reporting from somewhere in the Atlantic….” I’m on a cruise ship right now, and despite the sun, the ample drinks, the bikini-clad women, and all the other evidence to the contrary, all is not well. One of the world’s greatest cocktails is having its name dragged through the mud. In short, it is shocking what passes for a daiquiri here. The drink has a proud and storied history, dating back to the Spanish-American war, so when I see a drink that’s iridescent pink, surrounded by paper umbrellas and served in a glass with a sugar rim that’s closer in volume to a bathtub than a pint glass, I die a little on the inside.

A true daiquiri is simple. At its core, it’s three ingredients. Though one can dress it up, to me it’s like adding a pocket square to an immaculate suit. Properly done, it accentuates perfection, improperly done, it can be garish and offensive. In case you’re wondering, here’s the recipe:

  • 1.5 Oz. White Rum (I prefer El Dorado 3 Year Old; it’s aged in bourbon barrels for three years)
  • .75 Oz. Fresh-squeezed lime juice
  • .75 Oz. Simple Syrup

Chill a cocktail glass. Build all ingredients in cocktail shaker, shake vigorously for 10-15 seconds (depending on your ice), double strain (e.g. strain through a Hawthorne strainer into a fine strainer held over the glass), serve up, with a lime wheel as a garnish.

That’s it. In about 30 seconds (a little more if you include making the syrup), you’ve crafted one of the best classic cocktails there is. The co-opted state of the daiquiri has ruined this drink. Rather than associating the daiquiri with a light, tart, refreshing drink that can be tippled all day long, people associate it with the cloying, hangover-inducing smoothies you get out of the same machines that serve Slush Puppies.

It wasn’t always this way. Like I’ve mentioned previously, we probably owe the first daiquiri to our drinking guardian angels, Britain’s Royal Navy of yore. In the mid-1700s, in a move that would eventually lead to the pejorative nickname “limey,” Adm. Edward “Old Grog” Vernon would move to mix the daily rum ration with water and citrus, creating his eponymous “Grog” or “Grog Bowl.” This had the intended effect of sobering up his sailors enough to fight the Spanish, and the unintended effect of safeguarding his sailors against scurvy. Reports are scanty as to what it tasted like, but my best guess is … terrible. The recipe was changed towards the end of the 18th century to incorporate sugar and later ice.

During the Spanish-American War, the United States military landed troops on a Cuban beach by the name of Daiquiri (you can probably see where this is going). This beach was situated close to a vein of iron ore, and once the island was captured by American forces, said iron was ready to be mined. Jennings Cox, an enterprising American, was the man for the job.

In a story that remains undisputed to this day (which is frankly shocking, for a cocktail recipe), Cox supposedly created the daiquiri at a social gathering at his house near the mine. The spirit of choice that fateful evening was gin, but apparently Cox and his guests drank his supply dry. Faced with either sobriety or a 19th century “liquor run,” Cox chose the latter. Given that he was in Cuba, the obvious choice was rum, a byproduct of the island nation’s burgeoning sugar trade. Cox mixed rum, lemon, sugar, mineral water, and crushed ice, and served the drink as a punch, instead of individual servings. Naming conventions of the time would have suggested that Cox call his creation a “rum sour,” but he didn’t feel that was a grand enough name for his creation. Thus, citing the little beachhead down the road that had positioned Cox in Cuba so successfully, the daiquiri was born. Bacardi has access to Cox’s original handwritten recipe, which is as follows:

  • 6 Lemons
  • 6 Cups Bacardi Silver Rum
  • 2 Cups Mineral Water
  • 6 Tsp. Sugar

Place all of the ingredients except ice in a bowl and mix well (juice the lemons, obviously). Add the ice after mixture is thoroughly incorporated. Ladle into cups and serve. Serves six.

Cox was successful at promoting his punch amongst the Cuban population, who had long experimented with citrus, rum, and sugar. However, the daiquiri wouldn’t become truly famous in the states until an American naval officer, Adm. Lucius W. Johnson, tried it and fell in love with it during a deployment in Cuba. Upon his return to the states, Johnson supposedly introduced bartenders at the Army and Navy Club in DC and University Club in Baltimore to the daiquiri, where it has remained ever since. Cuban bartenders would concurrently work to turn the daiquiri from a communal punch into an individual cocktail — an endeavor that our next topic of focus would appreciate very much.

Far and away one of the most famous daiquiri drinkers was Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s drinking feats and love of all things Cuban are the stuff of legends, so it’s no surprise that “Papa” took to daiquiris like a fish to water. Hemingway is one of the few people who gets a pass on modifying the daiquiri, since he created what is essentially the square-fold, white cotton pocket square of the daiquiri world (to borrow from an earlier analogy). Hemingway’s beloved Papa Doble (so named because of the double portion of rum in the drink), eliminated the simple syrup, and instead got its sweetness through maraschino liqueur, a liqueur made from the distillation of sour Marasca cherries (while we’re on the subject of co-option, this liqueur has nothing to do with the dyed red cherries we put on top of ice cream). Hemingway also added a touch of grapefruit to round out the cocktail. It’s unclear if the drink is meant to be served up or “on cobbles (aka over crushed ice),” but recipes are fairly consistent:

  • 3 Oz. White Rum
  • 1 Oz. Lime Juice
  • .5 Oz. Grapefruit Juice
  • .25 Oz. Maraschino Liqueur

Chill a cocktail glass or prepare a Collins glass, build ingredients in shaker tin, shake for 10-15 seconds (depending on your ice), and either double strain (in the case of the cocktail glass) or pour into the Collins glass (in this case, top with crushed ice). For either preparation, garnish with a grapefruit peel.

There’s an old bartending “ghost story” that Hemingway got up the courage to kill himself by drinking 3-4 Papa Dobles in the early morning, but this is likely apocryphal. I for one appreciate its falsity, because it would be a black mark on a decidedly wonderful drink.

All this history aside, the question remains, how did we get to where we are today? How did the state of the daiquiri become so abysmal?

It appears as though we have World War II to thank for that. As the war wound down, women who had previously worked in factories or other wartime industry decided that they rather liked having gainful employment, and sought to keep their jobs while maintaining their presence at home. Thus, an era of gadgets and gizmos that sought to economize the on-the-go housewife’s time was born. The blender, despite being invented in the 1930s, was only gaining popularity at the end of the 1940s, as more and more families snatched them up as helpful kitchen tools.

In 1952, Mabel Stegner would begin the inexorable downturn of the daiquiri by publishing her horrible cookbook Electric Blender Recipes. The only cookbook I know of with a more depressing title is Microwave Cooking for One. Thanks to Mabel, the strawberry daiquiri was invented, forever altering the landscape of Caribbean cocktails. The biggest problem with these drinks is not their alcohol content; typically they have that in spades. It’s more the cloying sweetness that things like strawberries, mangoes, and pineapples add to a cocktail, which totally throw off its balance. These cocktails will get you drunk, but you will definitely pay for it the next day.

Today, purists will often debate what constitutes a “true” daiquiri. Some say that because Cox’s recipe calls for lemon, lemon should be used. Lemon juice does mellow out the drink’s acidity, but I much prefer the tart bite of the lime. What all purists agree on, however, is what people call daiquiris today are a far cry from true daiquiris, and would probably make Papa roll over in his grave. While I’m stuck on this cruise ship, I’ll stick to drinking rum on the rocks.

Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, Alex Hecht, out.

 

Alex Hecht is editor of Molotov Cocktail. He works as a Security Analyst in Washington, DC. Before working for the man, he managed the Gibson, a cocktail bar in DC’s U Street corridor. Alex’s life is admittedly mellower now, but his liver probably thanks him for that.

 

Photo credit: jon oropeza