Drinks

The Rum Also Rises

Real daiquiris aren't what you think. They're even better.
The Story Behind Real Daiquiris
Photo: Rachel Vanni/Tasting Table

If the word daiquiri immediately evokes unpleasant memories of syrupy, umbrella-laden frozen drinks and spring break trips gone wrong, we've got news for you: Daiquiris aren't what you think. In fact, a lot of bartenders call the daiquiri one of their favorite cocktails. So it's time to get to know the real thing.

Contrary to popular belief, true daiquiris are not overly sweet slushies that accompany the never-ending happy hour special at your nearest chain restaurant. Instead, true daiquiris consist of only rum, sugar and lime. Although sometimes still served frozen or atop small mounds of crushed ice, they are decidedly different and altogether classier than their Slurpee-like alter egos.

The drink is so simple some bartenders even consider it to be the ultimate test of their skills.

Simon Ford, who cofounded spirits company The 86 Co., which makes gin, tequila, and Cuban-style rum that's ideal for daiquiris, likens the drink to an omelet or a risotto for a chef: seemingly simple but difficult to master. "It's the most difficult of the sour drinks to get right," he says.

As Jane Danger of NYC Cuban bar Cienfuegos puts it, "The hardest drinks to make are the simplest. They really let the ingredients shine through, and it shows the strength of a good bartender to be able to balance them. If you want to test a bartender, order a daiquiri and see what you get."

Bobby Heugel of new Houston cocktail bar Tongue Cut Sparrow takes it a step further. "I think people forget how much limes change throughout the year," he says. "If the limes are bad, the daiquiris are going to be bad. Maybe the sign of a great bartender would be one who tells you not to order a daiquiri if the limes aren't fantastic."

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The origins of this pure and simple cocktail date back to Cuba at the turn of the 20th century. Although the drink didn't gain popularity in the U.S. until around the 1940s, it was well loved in Havana and beyond, becoming the signature drink of historic cocktail bar El Floridita. Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, El Floridita's head bartender at the time, is credited with inventing the frozen daiquiri around the 1930s, and for serving frequent visitor Ernest Hemingway himself.

"Hemingway spurred one of the daiquiri's classic variations, known as the Papa Doble, because he was famous for ordering doubles," Ford explains.

As a diabetic and a fan of a strong pour, Hemingway prefered his daiquiri with two ounces of white rum, the juice of two limes and half a grapefruit, maraschino liqueur and no sugar. Other sophisticated versions that dress up the drink but stay far away from a cloyingly sweet vacation cooler include the Daiquiri No. 2, which adds orange curaçao and orange juice; the No. 3 with grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur; and the No. 4, which utilizes maraschino liqueur and, in some cases, pineapple rum (get the recipe). For a "vivacious and funky" take on the classic, Danger suggests swapping in a darker, aged Jamaican rum.

No matter the recipe, the key, though, as Ford explains, is the right balance of flavors and the utilization of a clean-tasting rum with a dry finish.

"A light, white rum allows you to go off in a lot of different directions and makes for the perfect balance: slightly sour, not too sweet and very refreshing."

So how did we get from this simple cocktail to where we are today? How did a cocktail with such a deep and vibrant history turn into something so misunderstood and even disrespected? Bartenders have a few theories.

"I think Prohibition really changed our palates and the way we drank, and it took a long time to catch up after that," Danger says. "Once we had, it became all about convenience. The 60s and 70s introduced the soda gun and the sour mix, and drinks like the tequila sunrise. Convenience ruined a lot of drinks, like mojitos, margaritas and more, and we're still trying to fix the damage."

Heugel agrees. "We started getting a lot of processed ingredients in the 70s and 80s, and things took a turn for the worse."

Ford also points out that drinking culture itself changed during this time period.

"The drinks themselves weren't important so much as the image of drinking them," he says. "As beach resorts become big destinations, strawberry daiquiris and piña coladas became the norm."

While bartenders and distributors are working to educate drinkers about the real flavors of the daiquiri, there's still a lot of work to be done.

"I think at this point, we sit somewhere in the middle," Heugel says. "There are two expectations now, with classic cocktail dorks being surprised by the nod of the crushed ice, and then other customers who are expecting something more like what they'd get at Chili's. But the pineapple rum [in the Daiquiri No. 4] is so fresh and expressive that they end up loving it anyway."

Still craving that frothy, sweet and frozen slushie from your spring break days?  

"There's nothing wrong with ordering a frozen daiquiri, as long as it's made with fresh lime juice and sugar," Danger says. "You can even muddle fresh strawberries in with the rum and have yourself a real strawberry daiquiri."

What? You thought we were giving up on the strawberry daiquiri altogether? Beach, please.

See below for a list of classic cocktails to master after you've tried out the daiquiri. 

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