One of the most common questions I get behind the bar—after, “What’s your favorite thing to make?” (answer: money, duh)—is, ‘What is your favorite cocktail?” This seems like an innocuous-enough question, but to answer it honestly and frankly is difficult.
What defines someone’s favorite cocktail? Is it the cocktail one drinks the most often? Is ice-cold vodka with cheese-stuffed olives really anyone’s favorite cocktail, or just a “go-to” to help someone unwind after a long day? By that logic, my favorite cocktail is a boilermaker. A beer and a shot is hardly a cocktail in any modern sense of the word, however, unless you do it the way we occasionally do after work—that is, taking a slim shot-glass of bourbon, and dropping it into half a glass of pilsner. It’s a powerful way to end a shift.
That’s not what anyone wants to hear, though. I generally respond immediately by saying it’s the daiquiri, since it’s the cocktail I drink the most frequently, and certainly one of my all-time favorites.
Depending on my audience, I sometimes hear their respect for me and my bartending abilities crash to the floor like a tray of drinks. One of the customers (a lady, usually) will emphasize what they’re all thinking: “A daiquiri? Really?!”
To some people, a daiquiri is something consumed from a foam cup or tacky plastic “yard” on Bourbon Street, the Vegas Strip or anywhere else it is socially acceptable to consume frozen, sweetened stock-car fuel. Others will know better, and for the rest of you … well, it’s time to enjoy one of life’s true pleasures.
Dale DeGroff resurrected the term “mixologist” to separate what he was doing from the beer-and-highball jockey down the street (but please don’t ever call me a mixologist; even DeGroff now regrets bringing the term into modern parlance). Similarly, I wish I had a simple way of letting people know that the daiquiri I consume is a far different animal than what they expect. Classic daiquiri, real daiquiri, fresh lime and sugar daiquiri—none of these seem to quite do the trick. So usually, I just use my old “Try it; if you don’t like it, I’ll drink it” routine. I rarely get to drink it.
This is a drink with a long and storied history. The conventional story—the one Bacardí rum promotes—has to do with a mining venture in Southeastern Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. A mine engineer named Jennings Cox was entertaining friends when he ran out of gin. Believing, incorrectly, that alcohol and citrus prevented malaria (and perhaps other tropical diseases), he substituted Cuban rum. Another engineer, named Pagliuchi, claimed to have come up with the name by referencing the local place name. The story continues that Admiral Lucius W. Johnson brought the drink to the Army and Navy Club in Washington, D.C., and it spread throughout the nation from there. The same club even has a room named after the drink. (There is another drink named after the club, but that is for another time.)
Other sources differ slightly on the naming, including Basil Woon’s When it’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, which I first learned about in an article on the Difford’s Guide website. To paraphrase, Woon states that the mine’s engineers were enjoying the new cocktail at the bar at Santiago’s Venus Hotel when Cox himself named it. Difford also references a drink called the “canchanchara,” a sort of rum punch with lemon and honey, as a possible predecessor of the daiquiri.
It seems unlikely to me that this mining engineer was the first one to combine rum, lime, sugar and ice. Aside from the “canchanchara,” a drink about which I must admit my previous ignorance, I was certainly aware of “grog.” Not to be confused with Trader Vic’s better-known Navy Grog (a heady mixture of three rums, including an over-proof rum, lime, grapefruit and allspice), grog was a mixture of diluted rum, water and lime consumed by British sailors. Admiral Edward “Old Grog” Vernon, in the mid-18th century, gave strict orders that all rum rations should be mixed with water. He did allow for sugar and lime to be added, if the sailor had the funds for such purchases. Sounds like a daiquiri, no? In fairness, some sailors were drinking rum and water, and it was still “grog” … and it’s probably fair to assume nobody had ice. It became a staple of the British Navy.
Back to the daiquiri: Cox certainly had plenty of documentation, including both witnesses and the handwritten recipe in his journal (from Bacardí by way of The Alcohol Professor website
- 6 lemons
- 6 teaspoons of sugar
- 6 cups of Bacardí rum
- 2 cups of mineral water
- crushed ice
Well, it sure sounds like a party, but it doesn’t really sound like a daiquiri. Picking up on the drink where David Wondrich does in Imbibe!—at the Army and Navy Club, and then onto Hugo Ensslin, who has the drink as “The Cuban Cocktail” in his Recipes for Mixed Drinks from 1917—we get this recipe:.
- 1 jigger of Bacardí rum
- 2 dashes of gum syrup
- Juice of half a lime
OK, now this sounds like a daiquiri! It’s a bit on the dry and boozy side, and the gum is unnecessary … but we’re nearly there. I also agree with Wondrich that the Bacardí rum we know in the U.S. is not best for a daiquiri; it doesn’t have enough body or funk. I am fond of saying that the only way to get two bartenders to agree on the best rum for a daiquiri is to shoot one; I, in the absence of true Cuban rum, prefer Wray and Nephew, a Jamaican over-proof white rum with lots of funk. One of those babies is sure to get your night going. Rums from Panama and Nicaragua are great daiquiri rums, too, and many swear by the rich demerara rums of South America or the agricoles of former French Colonies, or … well you get the idea.
As far as the recipe goes, the most common one is certainly:
- 2 ounces of the rum of your choice
- 1 ounce of fresh lime juice
- 3/4 ounce of simple syrup (1:1)
- Shake, up in a coupe
I actually prefer a half-ounce of simple syrup, and I am not alone. At home, I use a teaspoon of superfine sugar, and it’s divine—a much racier drink without the polymerized simple mouth feel. This is one drink that can be made beautifully at home by nearly anyone; in fact, it may be better to make at home: Squeezing limes à la minute is much better for the finished product. Most bars can’t juice on the spot, for logistical reasons, and the super-fresh lime offers a noticeable flavor difference.
As my bar manager said when it was 115 outside with humidity creeping up into the 30s: “It’s daiquiri weather.” Sure enough.
Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at email@example.com.