Classic Cocktails in History: the Daiquiri

Cuba has a very complex past. Most of us only know of it as a Cold War foe of the United States, a very foreign country only a hundred miles away. It has been that way since Castro took power in the late 1950’s. First discovered by Christopher Columbus and claimed for Spain, this small island has been coveted by other countries for its entire history. It has a temperate climate, making it great for growing crops, and a location that was excellent for a stopping point after several months at sea. Spain was the primary owner of the island through most of its history, but it was not without a fight. The rich land attracted pirates and privateers from Britain and France to steal what treasures they could from Spanish ships. Once Spain allowed some flexibility in the colony’s trade, the floodgates opened and money came pouring into the coffers. They were filled primarily by two different crops; tobacco and sugar. Tobacco was very easy to process. Sugar was not. There was a complex system used to create sugar crystals, and the leftover molasses was a sticky mess to discard. This sets the backdrop for the creation of one of the finest cocktails in modern history: the Daiquiri.

Classic Daiquiri made with Cuban rum, courtesy Cocktailmarler

Classic Daiquiri made with Cuban rum, courtesy Cocktailmarler

During the turbulent struggle for naval supremacy, Spain and England traded blows around the edges of South America, the Caribbean, and anywhere there was water and unclaimed territory. Both sides used whatever means possible, including pirates and privateers, to gain an advantage in the resource rich Americas. The British were struggling to expand their foothold in the Americas; Spain was struggling to maintain the land they had, and the resources it was providing the ailing empire. The British were also struggling to stay sober on the seas. The sailors were provided a gallon of beer a day through a law passed in the 17th century. Due to the massive amount of beer they had to supply to a military force 4,500 miles away, a pint of rum was considered a fair substitute. It was easier to get, but far more potent. It was not until 1740 that someone was able to sober up the navy. Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon ordered that the rum ration be mixed with water and citrus juice (usually limes) to dilute the potent spirit. This gave the English the edge of fighting a little more sober, and healthier. It also is one of the earliest known instances of the combination of lime juice, water, and rum, the base of what would become a Daiquiri.

Spain survived the encounters with Britain and held on to many of its American acquisitions for over a century, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other islands a little too close to home for us. It did not sit well with a United States eager to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, asking European powers to kindly stay on their own side of the world. The biggest of the conflicts caused by this was the Spanish-American War, and Cuba had a starring role to play. They were seeking independence from Spain, and Colonel Theodore Roosevelt advocated helping them achieve it. The U.S. landed troops on a beach named Daiquiri, just a short distance away from an iron mine in Santiago. This “splendid little war” allowed the United States to occupy Cuba and do what Spain had done for centuries before; profit from the vast resources of the island.

Original handwritten recipe via Bacardi

Original handwritten recipe via Bacardi

One of the people making a healthy profit was Jennings Cox. He was one of the first iron miners on the island once it was safe, and generally credited with creating the original Daiquiri. The story goes that while he was entertaining guests one night, he ran out of the gin everyone was enjoying. He went out and purchased the easiest liquor he could find, which was rum. Adding lemons, sugar, mineral water, and ice to the rum, he turned it into a punch for his guests. They loved it, and wanted to know what the name of it was. He did not have a name for it; it should have been called a rum sour according to the conventions of the day. Cox did not feel that was good enough for such a fine drink, so he named it for the nearby beach and called it Daiquiri.

Jennings Cox’s Original Recipe (via Bacardi)

  • 6 Lemons

  • 6 tsp./ 30 ml Sugar

  • 6 c./ 1.4 l of Bacardi Rum

  • 2 c./ .5 l of Mineral water

  • Crushed ice

Put all of the ingredients into a bowl and mix well. Add the ice after the mixture is stirred thoroughly. Ladle into cups and enjoy. If you read the original recipe, this serves six people.

The combination of water, rum, sugar, and lemon was a combination well known to the natives of Cuba. The general recipe was well known to bartenders in the form of a little ditty “One sour, two sweet, three strong, four weak”.  Jennings Cox threw together a great cocktail on the fly, but it was a punch designed for multiple servings. American knowledge of the drink is often credited to Admiral Lucius W. Johnson, a US naval officer who visited Cuba and fell in love with it. He allegedly introduced it to the Army and Navy Club in Washington D.C. and the University Club in Baltimore. From there it started to spread, and as many bartenders are prone to do, there were some alterations made. While it was spreading and being altered in the United States, it was being refined by the bartenders of Cuba. The cocktail went from a punch to a single serving drink, and from being poured over ice to shaken with ice and strained into a chilled glass. The mineral water was removed as it was discovered that the melting and crushing of ice into the cocktail would provide the “weak” element to the cocktail and balance the flavors out.

El Floridita bar present day, Havana, ctsy Tony Hisget

El Floridita bar present day, Havana, ctsy Tony Hisget

It was not until the 1930’s when the Daiquiri started to really step into the limelight, courtesy of two of the biggest writers of the era. Very little is said about F. Scott Fitzgerald as it relates to the cocktail. He was the first to put it one of his novels; it had a brief cameo in This Side of Paradise, written in 1920. Volumes have been written about the other author most associated with the Daiquiri, Ernest Hemingway. He had a profound impact on not only the popularity of the cocktail, but even created his own variation on it. The Hemingway Daiquiri, or Papa Doble, was a variation of the Daiquiri he worked out while drinking at El Floridita. Hemingway was a diabetic, and the sugar did not agree with his system. To maintain the sweetness, he added grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur. He also doubled the amount of rum in the cocktail (thus adding the doble to the name). He became linked to Cuba, and to the cocktails there. He even wrote on the wall of La Bodeguita del Medio “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My Daiquiri in El Floridita.” Hemingway and his thirst for alcohol made a few bars, and bartenders, famous in Cuba.

Hemingway Daiquiri

  • 3 oz./90 ml of White rum

  • 1 oz./30 ml of Lime juice

  • .5 oz/ 15 ml of Grapefruit juice

  • .25 oz/ 8 ml of Maraschino liqueur

Chill a cocktail glass with ice or in a refrigerator. Pour all of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker over ice and shake gently. Strain into the chilled cocktail glass and enjoy. This cocktail can also be served in coupe.

frozen daiquiri dispensers in Baton Rouge, LA, ctsy Corey Taratuta

frozen daiquiri dispensers in Baton Rouge, LA, ctsy Corey Taratuta

Hemingway also came at the beginning of a transitional time for the cocktail in Cuba. Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, the bartender of where the author was imbibing his Daiquiris, was adding a subtle change to the drink. In the 1930’s two products hit the general public that would change the Daiquiri for generations: the refrigerator and the blender. Constantino, or “El Grande Constante” as he was known to some, was making the drink a little frostier. With a machine that could make or hold as much ice as you needed, Constantino was in the process of adding the ice back into the drink. It was crushed ice, not cubed as it was closer to Cox’s time, but the ice had returned. As the fame of the Daiquiri spread, it became harder and harder to keep up with the growing demand at bars all over. In 1938, Fred Waring rolled out a machine to help speed up the drink making process. It would pulverize the ice faster, making drinks with crushed ingredients easier to make. It was called the Waring Blender, and it either catapulted the cocktail to the next level or ruined it, depending on who you ask. (Most bartenders will probably go with ruined.) With the ability to purée any fruit, the lime flavored Daiquiri moved to banana, strawberry, mango, or any other flavor you could think of. The ability to crush as much ice as you could made the drink get bigger and bigger. Over time, the delicately balanced cocktail turned into the off balance, sweet slurry we have come to expect.

In the late 40's and 50's, a cultural predilection for tropical climates and foreign liquors pushed the popularity of the cocktail into the American psyche. After World War I, Prohibition, and World War II, the whiskey that Americans typically enjoyed in cocktails was in short supply. Rum and vodka became popular, and the Daiquiri rode that wave of popularity to enjoy the beach-staple status it enjoys today. It also brought on the boom of switching popular gin cocktails to vodka (vodka “left you breathless” after all) and the Tiki cocktail craze. As liquor masking heavy flavors became popular, so did the fruity and overly-sweet version of the Daiquiri. Like many other old standbys of the early 20th century, the three ingredient masterpiece became a thing of old men and an ancient era. Showing off the technology of the time is what people were looking for, and that frozen Daiquiri filled that niche. The Daiquiri remained like that, frozen in its sweet tomb, until the hand-crafted cocktail boom of the 1990’s.

lime blossom, ctsy Prosthetic Head

lime blossom, ctsy Prosthetic Head

The Nineties started the long return to hand crafted cocktails with fresh squeezed juices. Using liqueurs and bitters for flavor over processed sour mixes gave bartenders new options. Bottles of sour mix were replaced with plenty of lemons, limes, and sugar. Bars began to infuse their own spirits, create specialized simple syrups, and head back to the delightfully heady days of exploring the flavors inherent in the spirits. Old became new again, and there was an appreciation for what the bartenders of yore were creating with simple ingredients. The Daiquiri is still working to lose its sordid past as a party cocktail, much like the Martini and the Margarita. It is one of the elites in cocktail history. Many scholars and historians see it as one of the pillars of the cocktail world. It deserves that reputation. It is one of the few rum drinks that stands so tall in history (the Mai Tai being another one), and one of the few sours that has its own identity. There has been some sort of variation of rum, lime, sugar, and water since it was the raw spirit rumbullion. It is also one of the few classic, old school cocktails that does not involve bitters (martinis were originally made with orange bitters).

Classic Daiquiri

  • 1.5 oz./ 45 ml White Rum

  • 1 oz./ 30 ml Simple syrup (I prefer a 1:1)

  • .75 oz./ 23 ml Lime juice

Chill a cocktail glass with ice or in a refrigerator. Pour all of the ingredients into a cocktail shaker over ice and shake gently. Strain into the chilled cocktail glass and enjoy. You may substitute 1 oz./30 ml of lemon juice if you have difficulty finding limes.

With the current "limepocalypse" that is happening in the US, there are some interesting questions about this cocktail. Is it still a Daiquiri without the lime? Can you substitute? Like any good debate on how cocktails used to be made (Bring up how you feel an Old Fashioned should be made among a group of three or more bartenders. Go ahead.), there is an argument for making a TRUE Daiquiri with lemon juice. The one Jennings Cox made (and wrote the recipe for) called for lemons, and that is considered by most to be the first use of the name with the cocktail. The lemon blends into the cocktail more, taking away a little of the tartness the lime brings to the table. If you want to get more tartness, you are going to need to add extra lemon juice. Most recipes you will find for using lemon will call it a lemon Daiquiri. They will also call for that extra lemon we were discussing.

Americans landing at the pier at Daiquiri, ctsy James Burton

Americans landing at the pier at Daiquiri, ctsy James Burton

Cuba was the epicenter for the creation of a cocktail that was an instant classic. The blending of lime, rum, and sugar was made to go together. It was concocted at a time when rum was relatively unknown, and Cuba was just starting to feel a little freedom. Before the US embargo in the 1950’s, tourists were flocking there for the cooling effect of a Daiquiri in warm tropical breezes while sitting on a beach and reading Across the River and Into the Trees. The Daiquiri is a perfect summer drink, and now is the perfect time to go out and rediscover it.