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In Square Meal’s ongoing series looking at the world’s classic cocktails, Julie Sheppard reveals the history of the daiquiri and finds out how to mix the perfect glass
It’s given us Fidel Castro and The Buena Vista Social Club, but there’s more to Cuba than communist revolutionaries and Latin grooves. It’s also the birthplace of not one, but two classic rum cocktails: the mojito and the daiquiri. While the minty mojito is now ubiquitous on cocktail lists across the land, the daiquiri is more of a connoisseur classic – one for the true rum aficionado.
‘The daiquiri is one of the best exponents for rum,’ says Ian Burrell from Caribbean restaurant Cotton’s in Camden, which specialises in rum cocktails. ‘It’s a simple cocktail using ingredients that grasp the flavour of the rum and let it shine.’
The simple blend of rum, fresh lime juice and sugar was reputedly invented around 1905 by an American mining engineer named Jennings Cox, who was working at an iron mine in the town of Daiquiri near Santiago on the southeast coast of Cuba. Legend has it that Cox came up with the idea when he ran out of gin while entertaining guests. But it’s just as likely that this combo was already being drunk in Cuba before Cox arrived, since limes, sugar cane and rum are three things the island produces in abundance.
Either way, the daiquiri remained a Cuban speciality until 1909, when a US Navy medical officer named Admiral Lucius Johnson discovered it and sailed back to the States with the recipe. He introduced it to the Army and Navy Club in Washington DC, from where the recipe spread across the rest of America. The daiquiri’s popularity grew quietly at first, though it merited a mention F Scott Fitzgerald’s book This Side of Paradise, published in 1920. In an episode that’s a clear warning to drink the rum concoction in moderation, a group of characters order a round of double daiquiris as a precursor to a very drunken evening which ends up with them hallucinating about a purple zebra.
Despite this worrying potential side effect, the daiquiri experienced a huge surge in popularity in the 1940s thanks to President Roosevelt’s Good Neighbour Policy. Wartime rationing had made many products, including liquor, hard to come by, so Roosevelt opened up trading relations with Latin America, the Caribbean and, of course, Cuba. Suddenly not only was Cuban rum readily available, but all things Latino were in vogue and so rum-based cocktails such as the daiquiri became the drink of choice. In fact the Yanks liked the daiquiri so much that they celebrate National Daiquiri Day on 19 July every year.
Unsurprisingly, several famous Americans have counted the daiquiri as one of their favourite tipples, including John F Kennedy. But its most legendary fan is author Ernest Hemingway, who adopted Cuba as his home when he bought a house there in 1939. A regular at El Floridita bar in Havana, Hemingway was introduced to the daiquiri by bartender Constante Ribailagua, who had perfected Cox’s original rum, lime and sugar concoction. So good was the result that El Floridita became known as La Catedral del Daiquiri, or the Temple of the Daiquiri, and on one occasion Hemingway apparently drank 16 double daiquiris in one sitting there.
Not content with perfecting the original recipe, Ribailagua also invented several variations including the Mulata, made by adding coffee liqueur, and the Hemingway, which leaves out the sugar and adds grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur. He is also credited by some with creating the first frozen daiquiri, though since the first electric blender, the Wareing Blender, was unveiled in Chicago in 1937, that credit may belong to someone else.
Moreover, purists such as rum expert Dave Broom believe that the frozen version with its slushy ice strays away from the roots of the daiquiri. ‘In its purest form the daiquiri is a sour,’ he explains. ‘The importance of sours is that they are sharp, short, cold drinks. As far as I can tell, the idea of a frozen daiquiri came about through a lazy misreading of what Constante Ribailagua did to the drink at the Floridita. His recipe involves blending the daiquiri in an electric blender but then straining through a sieve so that there was no ice in the drink. Adding crushed ice in the glass simply dilutes the drink. So it might be cold but it is no longer short and vitally it is no longer sharp... ergo it is no longer a sour!’
So how should a daiquiri be made? The key is to get the balance of ingredients right. Too much lime and the cocktail will be too sour and sharp; too much rum and it will only taste of alcohol; too much sugar and you get an unpleasantly sweet mix. According to Burrell the secret lies in knowing your rums.
‘Some rums are a lot sweeter than others, so you need to adjust the measurement of your rum depending on which brand or style you use,’ he says. ‘For example with agricole rhum [made in the French West Indies], which is more floral and fruity, you don’t need the extra sweetness from the sugar.’ Burrell thinks that white (or light) rum works better in a daiquiri. ‘But gold rum can work too. You just have to take into account that gold rum has more caramel flavours, so it’s sweeter and you need to adjust your measurement again,’ he explains.
So it’s a case of figuring out which style of rum you like best – or if you already have a favourite brand, experiment with it and work out which measurement of rum gives you your perfectly sour daiquiri. Or better still, make like Hemingway and head to Floridita (there’s a namesake in London if you don’t have the time to fly to Havana) where you can prop up the bar and get someone else to do the experimental mixing for you. Though we definitely don’t recommend you try to match Hemingway’s record of 16 doubles…
45ml white rum
25ml lime juice
½ teaspoon of sugar
Method: Mix all the ingredients together in a shaker filled with ice cubes. Shake well then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Cotton’s 55 Chalk Farm Road, NW1 020 7485 8388
Floridita Bar 100 Wardour Street, W1F 020 7314 4000
LAB 12 Old Compton Street, W1V 020 7437 7820
Mahiki 1 Dover Street, W1S 020 7493 9529
Trailer Happiness 177 Portobello Rd, W11 020 7727 2700