The Daiquiri Variations
Even with its baggage, the classic rum drink is an essential cocktail.
In the unrelenting deluge of fancy new drinks to sample, I often forget about important things. Like, for instance, I completely forgot how good a daiquiri can be. By some strange turn of events, I went almost a whole year without thinking about daiquiris. Then, suddenly, during one particularly gross, sweaty midsummer-evening trudge home, it struck me: You know what would be pretty awesome right about now? A daiquiri.
Now, when I say daiquiri, I mean a simple, elegant, shaken drink with only three ingredients—rum, lime juice, sugar—served straight up. If the word "daiquiri" makes you think of a frozen blender slushie or something that involves strawberries or bananas, that's okay, but you and I will not be on the same page.
David Embury, in his classic 1948 book The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, listed the daiquiri as one of the six basic cocktails to be mastered, along with the martini, Manhattan, old fashioned, sidecar and Jack Rose—a curious list.
While I believe that a daiquiri is one of the essential cocktails, any definition of “essential” cocktails must be updated from 1948. Personally, I would remove the sidecar and the Jack Rose—though I enjoy both, I don’t find them essential. I would replace them with the margarita and the Negroni. (Perhaps you have your own Essential Six? If so, please let me know!)
“It is, in my opinion, a vastly superior cocktail to the Manhattan,” wrote Embury about the daiquiri. While I understand the praise, this was crazy talk. Embury was wrong. But Embury was wrong about a lot of things—including the fact that he was a racist who worked against desegregation during the 1940s (Wayne Curtis wrote about this a few years ago.) Embury will not be the only problematic mid-20th century daiquiri lover to be mentioned in this article.
In any case, let’s just agree that the daiquiri is a great, classic drink. As with the Manhattan and the martini—or more recently with the Negroni—there are endless variations. Do you use sugar, simple syrup, or perhaps honey in your daiquiri? Do you substitute a liqueur, falernum, or orgeat as the sweetener? Do you use an aged or unaged rum?
Here’s a basica daiquiri formulation I enjoy: 2 ounces of white rhum agricole, a half-ounce of lime juice and a teaspoon of sugar. This is shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. Remember this: Never garnish a daiquiri.
So why did the daiquiri grow so popular in mid-20th century America? During the 1940s and 1950s, excellent rums were much easier to obtain in the U.S. than other spirits, which had been rationed during World War II. People could get their hands on good Cuban rums such as Havana Club and pre-Fidel Bacardi. The former is still banned in the U.S.—at least the real stuff. The latter was significantly different from what Bacardi made years later in Puerto Rico, particularly when Bacardi decided to turn its white rum into a sort of rum-impersonating-vodka in the 1970s.
The daiquiri’s origins, of course, lie in Cuba, where the drink was named for a beach near Santiago of the same name. The drink was created by group of American mining engineers around 1900. By 1909, a Navy medical officer, Adm. Lucius W. Johnson, brought the drink back to the Army and Navy Club in Washington.
Half a century later, the daiquiri became the favorite drink of another Navy man, John F. Kennedy. Sure, Kennedy may have enjoyed his daiquiris, but that didn’t stop his hostility toward Cuba and his leaning into the trade embargo.
When talk of Cuba and politics and drinking pops up, another name usually isn't too far behind: ol’ Ernest Hemingway. Speaking of problematic…see Ken Burns’ documentary for on that. A few months ago, I published a travel essay in the Washington Post about my own small reckoning with Hemingway in Spain.
To be clear, rum itself can be problematic, just like numerous famed mid-century men. As I’ve written before:
Anyway, Hemingway is probably the most famous daiquiri drinker. Hemingway’s preferred version, made at El Floridita in Havana, includes grapefruit juice in the mix and replaces the sugar with maraschino liqueur. It was made in a blender with crushed ice, too, meaning Hemingway may be indirectly responsible for the scourge of frozen daiquiris. (El Floridita's bartender actually strained out the ice. The recipe below is without blender and crushed ice.)
I find the basic daiquiri to be the perfect cocktail to test drive a white or aged rum. I could tell you that I always use great rums such as Hampden Estate, 8 year-old from Jamaican pot still, or Equiano, an aged African-Caribbeam rum we wrote about last year. Or amazing white rhum agricoles like Neisson Blanc, Rhum Clément Canne Bleu, or Rhum Père Labat Blanc.
Mostly, though, I use the kinds of value rums that rum geeks don’t always love, but you’ll find widely available. For white rums, I will go with Rhum Barbancourt Blanc from Haiti, Chairman’s Reserve pot-still white from St. Lucia, or Diplomatico Planas, an aged white from Venezuela (under $30). For more aged rums, I go with Flor de Caña Gran Reserva 7-year-old (under $25), Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry, a lightly aged Jamaican blend (under $25), or Equiano’s new lightly aged bottling.
Hemingway famously enjoyed this one at El Floridita bar in Havana. He probably drank them with pre-revolution Bacardi. I find this works best with funkier white rums or white rhum agricole.
2 ounces rum
½ ounce fresh grapefruit juice
½ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce maraschino liqueur, preferably Luxardo
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the rum, juices and maraschino liqueur. Shake vigorously for at least 30 seconds, then strain into a chilled cocktail (martini) glass.
This classic, invented at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, is essentially a daiquiri that relies on apricot liqueur as its sweetening element. I like Rothman & Winter Orchard Apricot. Numerous variations abound, including some that unfortunately call for pineapple juice. As with pizza: Avoid the pineapple. Stick with lime juice only. Here, I think a lightly-aged rum mixes better with the apricot liqueur. I like Flor de Caña Gran Resevra, Plantation Xaymaca Special Dry, or Rhum Clément VSOP.
2 ounces rum
¾ ounce apricot liqueur
¾ ounce freshly squeezed key lime juice
Fill a shaker with ice. Add rum, apricot liqueur, and grapefruit juice. Shake vigorously, then strain into cocktail glass. This is also nice on the rocks.
This variation was created by Jackson Cannon, of the dearly-departed Eastern Standard in Boston. John F. Kennedy’s drink was the daiquiri, and Cannon named this variation for his maternal grandfather, John Francis “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, the former mayor of Boston. Even though this has honey syrup in the mix, the grapefruit balances things out so it’s rich and complex.
2 ounces aged rum
¾ ounce fresh grapefruit juice
½ ounce honey syrup
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add the rum, honey syrup, juice and bitters. Shake vigorously, then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.