Cocktail Time – The Daiquiri

The Daiquiri is one of the world’s great cocktails and forms the base from which an almost infinite range of varieties can spring. But there was a time when this colossus of the cocktail pantheon typified all that was wrong about the liquor industry.

Its birthplace was Cuba and the Daiquiri’s history, like that of the island itself, was shaped by two grand idealogical events in 20th century history.

Members of the 5th Temperance Battleaxe Brigade display their least successful slogan

Members of the 5th Temperance Battleaxe Brigade display their least successful slogan

The first was described at the time as the “Noble Experiment”.

On October 28th 1919 the U.S. Congress passed the Volstead Act (named after the senator who’d proposed it), which then became the 18th amendment to the constitution.

More commonly known as Prohibition, the ban on the sale, manufacture and transportation of alcohol lasted until it was repealed by the 21st amendment on December 5th 1933.

The other major event was the 1959 communist revolution.

But if we look back at cocktail legend, they tell us that the Daiquiri was born towards the end of the 19th century. So what do these two events have to do with the Daiquiri’s story?

Let’s go back to the beginning…

Sugar cane had been a staple crop in Cuba from the earliest days of Spanish rule but until the 19th century Cuban rum was a dark and powerful potion  which salty sea dogs would dose themselves with before sleeping with their cabin boys. Only after modern distilling and filtering techniques had been introduced in around 1850 did rum start to become a smoother more palatable substance.

Like the birth of almost all drinks the story behind the Daiquiri legend is somewhat hazy but the most repeated story places the drink’s origins in the hands of a couple of bored mining engineers in the late 1880s. These pioneering gentlemen, Mr Cox and Mr Pagliuchi, found they only had rum, sugar and the locally grown limes with which to slake their thirst at the end of the long, hot, tropical days. One thing lead to another and soon they named the resulting concoction the Daiquiri after a nearby town.

It remained a local staple and word of the delicious mixture slowly spread. But it wasn’t until the Prohibition era that it began to truly flourish and was refined and perfected by one of history’s truly legendary bartenders.

Although his business card claimed he was a used furniture salesman, Al Capone owned a distillery in Havana to supply the Chicago speakeasy trade

Although his business card claimed he was a used furniture salesman, Al Capone owned a distillery in Havana to supply the Chicago speakeasy trade

With the onset of Prohibition, American tourists flocked to Cuba where they could sample the Havana nightlife and drink legal booze without fear of being arrested.

Constante Ribalagua worked at a popular Havana bar on the corner of Obispo and Monserrate streets. Formerly known as La Pina de Plata, The Silver Pineapple, it had changed it’s name to La Florida with an influx of customers from the Sunshine State. Later the name changed again, to La Floridita, in order to differentiate itself from a number of bars that had christened themselves Florida to cash in on the bar’s growing reputation.

Ribalagua developed a series of simple, subtle and beautifully balanced, variants of the Daiquiri on La Floridita’s cocktail list. Eventually dubbed El Rey de los Coteleros – The King of the Cocktails – by his peers, Ribalagua squeezed his fresh limes by hand lest any bitter oil from the peel ruin his delicate creations.

His skill and dedication to his art would probably have ensured the Cocktail King’s immortality but his association with his most famous customer guaranteed it.

Ernest Hemingway had become famous by the age of 30 and wealthy enough, from the sale of movie rights to his books, to finance a hunting, fishing and drinking lifestyle that became his hallmark until he shot himself (with his favourite shotgun) in 1961. He often waxed lyrical about Cuba and would invite his Hollywood friends to join him on visits to La Floridita to taste Ribalagua’s creations. Hemingway’s heroic round-the-world drinking bouts took its toll however, this anecdote from Tom Dardis’ The Thirsty Muse can perhaps give a little perspective…

“Hemingway appeared to have a special talent for drinking, despite occasional signs that all was not as benign as it may appear. In 1928 he suffered the first of a long series of self-inflicted accidents – the one involving pulling the wrong chain in the hall toilet of his apartment, thereby bringing down the entire heavy glass skylight. The wound left a scar on his forehead that he carried for the rest of his life.”

I fucking love you maaaan. You're my best mate....

I fucking love you maaaan. You're my best mate....

So what does the Cuban Revolution have to do with all this you may well ask?

When Castro’s rebels overthrew U.S. backed dictator Batista, on January 1st 1959, Cuba became one of the central fronts in the grand ideological battle known as the Cold War. As the tension between the Americans and Castro’s regime (backed by the Soviet Union) grew, an embargo was partially imposed on Cuba by the U.S. in October of 1960. These sanctions became gradually tougher and eventually led to travel restrictions between the two countries following the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

The Cuban Missile Crisis. The closest the world has come to the ultimate nuclear bar brawl.

The Cuban Missile Crisis. The closest the world has come to the ultimate nuclear bar brawl.

With travel to Cuba banned, the cultural development of the Daiquiri moved from Cuba to the United States. The Daiquiri, this simple blend of sugar, fresh lime juice and rum which had delighted the Cocktail King’s visitors from Florida, proved to be a versatile base for experimentation and American bartenders set to the task.

Sadly, not all bartenders are created equal and the Cocktail King’s deft variations on a theme now began to suffer in the hands of lesser practitioners. And, as though the drink itself were an allegory of pre-revolution Cuba, it began to be corrupted by the forces of capitalism. First to go was the fresh lime juice, replaced by the less expensive lemon juice or, in the worst abuses, by a bottled concoction called sours with an much longer shelf life. The rum was no longer Cuban, of course, and was replaced by other brands but principally Bacardi who ended up as big winners* in the post-revolution fallout.

Finally, as American bars multiplied, increased competition lead to the use of fruit, fruit liqueurs and happy hour promotions that meant even cheaper base ingredients. And this is where the story may have ended. With the Daiquiri reduced to a pathetic shadow of its magnificent former self.

But back in Cuba it was as though time had stood still.

And Ribalagua’s originals had been preserved like insects in amber.

When demand for retro cocktails grew in the 1990s these variants were studied by a new generation of bartenders eager to learn the secrets of the Cocktail King. The Daiquiri was born anew and began to be crafted once again with the kind of dedication to the drinks making craft the El Rey de los Coteleros had displayed all those years ago. We’ll look at Constante Ribalagua’s Daiquiri variations in a later post but, until then I present…

The Daiquiri

Combine…

1 part sugar syrup

2 parts lime juice

8 parts white Cuban rum

…in an ice filled cocktail shaker

Shake. Strain. Savour.

As a final note let’s have a quick video demonstration from the kind of bartender who almost consigned the Daiquiri to the grave.

What is it that would make you suspicious of this man’s drinks-making credibility?

  • Is it the lack of fresh lime juice?
  • His version of Daquiri history after he pours the drink?
  • The nose picking perhaps?

And to think… this man works for a company that “trains” thousands of bartenders every year. Where’s Papa Hemingway’s shotgun when you need it?

*Bacardi was a family owned Cuban rum distillery. Pioneers in the art of charcoal filtration, they led the way in the development of the light, aromatic Cuban style of rum. They also led the way in political bet hedging. They donated money to Castro’s revolutionaries whilst building distilleries in Puerto Rico to save on import taxes to the USA and maintaining CIA contacts in the U.S. When it became clear that Castro would stick to his promise of nationalising the rum industry and ban any private property, the Bacardi clan packed their bags and left. The revolution had cost them a fortune but, with Cuban rum now subject to sanctions, the foundation was laid upon which the $6 billion dollar Bacardi empire was built. Bacardi’s war on the Castro regime has never ceased. The company once bought a WWII-vintage B-26 bomber in the hopes of funding private bombing of Cuban oil facilities and, more recently, were major influences on the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 which sought to extend the scope of the embargo and prevent unhealthy competition from Cuban rum brands.


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For more cocktail histories and recipes at Notes: Cocktail Time

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One Response

  1. […] that $3 million ad campaign launched the brand, Sidney Frank sold the rights to Grey Goose vodka to our old friend Bacardi for over $2 […]

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