Plato & Aristotle Walk into a Bar
A meditation on the art and science of mixing the perfect Daiquiri.
There are two ways of looking at a Daiquiri.
Okay, three ways, including the one that says “what the hell are you doing looking at that enticing little green pool of sheer refreshment when you could be drinking it?” That, of course, is the sensible way.
But for those with an unshakably analytical cast of mind, there are the other two. One sees the Daiquiri as a Rum Sour; a simple variation on a standard, even elemental pattern of drink-mixing. To the other, the Daiquiri is a Daiquiri and nothing else; it’s the unique end of a long chain of choices made by individuals.
A philosophically-minded mixographer might distinguish these as the Platonic approach and the Aristotelean one; the one that starts with divine, pre-existing forms and seeks to understand the things in this world as often-imperfect reflections of them, and the one that starts with what’s right there in front of us and moves on to patterns and forms, if necessary, from there. If you had Plato and Aristotle peering into the same tidal pool full of fish, Plato would be the one saying, “isn’t it cool the way those fish, from the little school-swimming ones to that big, ugly fucker lurking under the rock there, all have scales and fins and gills, pretty much in the same places,” while Aristotle would be the one going “hey, there’s a skulion, and look at that batos burying himself in the sand like they do, and man, how those sardinoi do swarm!” (I am of course grossly oversimplifying things here, but hey, I’m a drinks writer, not a philosopher.)
I bring up our Greek philosophers because if you patronize modern craft-cocktail bars—the kind of bar that has 11 mezcals and two flavored vodkas; that has a drinks list where every name is a play on the title of a Mountain Goats song (“I’ll have ‘The Coroner’s Gimlet,’ please”); that has bartenders who know all of the drinks in the book and none of the dirty jokes—then the odds are very high that you’re drinking Platonically, whether you know it or not. And that’s fine. But it’s also not fine.
Most young bartenders learn to mix drinks these days according to the “Mr. Potato Head” method (as master bartender Phil Ward christened it): you take a known drink, and you switch out this and you switch out that and voilà! New drink. Eventually, this gets applied to existing drinks, too. If one is close to a known pattern, it gets pulled into that drink’s orbit and its recipe—its “specs,” to use the current bartender jargon—gets bashed around until it fits the pattern. Keep at it and you can eventually reduce all known drinks to variations on just a handful of these patterns.
The award-winning new Cocktail Codex, by the team of Alex Day, Nick Fauchauld, David Kaplan and Devon Tarby, does just that, presenting the wide and tangled world of mixed drinks as “intuitive progressions” from just six “well-known templates,” as Day explains in his introduction: The Old-Fashioned, the Martini, the Daiquiri, the Sidecar, the Highball and the Flip.
Now, the Cocktail Codex is actually a fine, intelligent book that presents as compelling a case for the Platonic approach as can be made, while still accounting for little things like tradition, chance and the irrepressible power of human variation. Day and his crew are not the problem (indeed, their New York bar, Death & Co., has consistently served me some of the very best drinks I’ve had in the city for well over a decade). Others, however, use far less nuance, to the point that no matter how far out the drinks sound when you’re ordering them, when you’re sipping them they all seem more or less the same as what you get in any other bar. They’re exercises in applied theory rather than individual drinks.
Mixing drinks doesn’t have to be so abstract. Sure, bartenders have always relied on patterns to a certain degree, from the far-off days of Jerry Thomas on. When Thomas told the readers of his 1862 How to Mix Drinks that you made a Santa Cruz Fix by taking a Brandy Fix and “substituting Santa Cruz Rum instead of Brandy,” that was the original Mr. Potato Head-thinking. But there have always been bartenders who focused more on executing the recipe no matter what its eccentricities may be rather than worrying if there was a way to “improve” it so it better matches some higher pattern.
I’d like to get back to that Daiquiri we started with, but to do it I’d like to rope in a couple of other drinks, too: Brazil’s Caipirinha and the ‘Ti Punch of the French Caribbean. Like the Daiquiri, these two drinks can each be described as a simple mix of a sugarcane distillate with lime juice and cane sugar.
In fact, a great many modern bartenders treat the Caipirinha like a muddled Daiquiri on the rocks, with simple syrup for the sugar and Brazilian cachaça for the Cuban-style white rum (I can say this having tested literally hundreds of bartenders as a part of the Pernod-Ricard company’s long-running BarSmarts certification program). They’ll muddle everything in the shaker, shake it all with ice, and strain it over fresh ice. I’ve also seen, if less frequently, the ‘Ti Punch handled as another rocks-glass Daiquiri, but based on rhum agricole, with Martinique cane syrup for the sweetener and the lime in the form of a fat wedge that is squeezed directly into the glass.
Both of those approaches will yield a perfectly palatable drink, even a refreshing one. What they will not yield is an interesting one or one with individuality. The Caipirinha and the ‘Ti Punch are not standard rum-lime Sours. They evolved in different worlds, as parts of different traditions, and they’re meant to serve different needs.
To make a Caipirinha the Brazilian way, you’ll forget about the cocktail shaker and the simple syrup. The Caipirinha is not a bar drink. In the back-country of São Paolo state, where the drink was born at the beginning of the twentieth century, the “pinga com limão” (cachaça with lime) or “Batida Paulista” (São Paolo Muddle) was a folk drink, the kind of thing your granny would whip up when you were feeling a bit low. Such drinks use as little specialized equipment as possible. They also don’t worry about engineering a precise, knife-edge balance between sweet and sour.
The most important part of traditional Caipirinha-making is preparing the lime. Most modern bartenders will simply cut the thing in half and then hack one of the halves into chunks. In Brazil, though, this is where the real technique comes in. In expert hands, preparing the lime is a four-step process that takes far longer to explain than it does to perform.
1. Cut the top and bottom off the lime—its Arctic and Antarctic, if you will. You want to cut just enough so that the green flesh is exposed.
2. Slice the lime in half from pole to pole through the woody white stem that runs through the middle of the fruit (its ends are the little white dots in the middle of each exposed bit).
3. Extract the stem from each half of the lime with a couple of long, shallow cuts angled to meet beneath it. You should end up with two neat lime-halves, each with squared-off ends and a v-shaped notch running down the middle of its flat side.
4. The final step is to cut downwards from the bottom of the notch, but not so far as to completely split the lime-half. Then a couple of cross-ways cuts are made, dividing the flat face of the lime into three roughly equal parts; these, too, do not go all the way down, but leave a little skin in the middle to hold all the parts together. Repeat for the other half (you’re doing two because if you’re sipping a Caipirinha, you want to be doing it with a friend). Your final product should be two lime halves, each segmented to make it easy to muddle but still hanging together just enough to make it easy to handle.
Okay. Now it’s easy. Take a big, Double Old-Fashioned glass—a “bucket glass,” as it’s known—and put a heaping teaspoon of plain white sugar into it, and maybe two, depending on how big and juicy your limes look and how much cachaça you think you’re going to pour in there. Grab one of the lime-halves and put it in the glass, skin-side down. Now take your muddler—the only specialized tool you need here—and press the hell out of it. Without the woody stem, you’ll be able to neatly extract all the juice. At the same time, you’ll be grinding the skin into the sugar, flavoring it with some of the bitter lime-oil. You want that.
Now the cachaça. You want the clear kind. If you can spring for an artisanal one, such as Avuà or Novo Fogo, so much the better. If not, one of the cheap commercial ones will still get you where you need to go. How much do you put in? The answer, I suppose, is, how much do you want to drink? Just make sure you leave room for ice, which you’ll add after stirring the booze in with the lime slurry. How much ice? Up to you.
This is the kind of thing that drives a dedicated Platonist nuts. There is no ideal Caipirinha—there’s just a technique. Muddle a lime up with some sugar, throw in some cachaça and ice, and done. With sugar, booze and ice all in play, it seems like the Caipirinha barely has a set of specs at all. But that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary: it does follow a pattern, but one of use, not theory. The proportions depend on who will drink it and what the occasion is. If it’s meant as a slow-sipper, it will probably have more booze, ice and sugar (for texture). If it’s a quick hoist, there will be less.
The ‘Ti Punch is just as situational. In fact, in Martinique there’s a saying about that you’ll hear the minute you start drinking these things: “chacun prepare sa proper mort”—“each prepares his own death.” Like the Caipirinha, the roots of the drink are in DIY and suit yourself.
You start by covering the bottom of a rocks glass with sugarcane syrup, thickly if you want it sweet, much less so if you don’t.
Then comes the lime, which also needs special treatment: you cut a medallion off the belly of the fruit, just a little bigger around than a quarter. There should be a nice swell of peel on the outside and a ring of white surrounding a little pocket of green flesh on the inside. Squeeze this, skin-side down, into your glass so that the bitter lime-oil will coat the syrup.
Now add a shot—however you define that—of 100-proof white rhum agricole (Neisson, J.M and La Favorite are favorites here).
Ice? Well, that’s a little controversial. Many in Martinique claim that a proper ‘Ti Punch should never have ice. But that seems like a bit of a modern overcorrection. Back in 1903, anyway, a long article on the island in the French magazine La réforme sociale defines a ‘Ti Punch as a “breuvage fait de rhum, de sirop, de citron et de glace” (“a beverage made of rhum, syrup, lemon and ice”). In the 1973 edition of his standard work, Antilles et Guyane a travers leur cuisine (The Antilles and Guyana Through Their Cuisine), Dr André Nègre not only specifies that the citrus must be “a scrap of lime-skin,” with maybe “a few drops” of the juice, but insists that the whole thing be stirred together with ice.
As with the Caipirinha, there is one piece of special (if decidedly not fancy) equipment that comes in handy here, and that’s a “bois lélé”—a long stick with a star of horizontal roots projecting from the bottom, each trimmed down to half an inch or so. You sink the roots in the glass and spin the stem between your palms and everything gets mixed up neat as you please. Fun, easy and effective. Not, however, standard drink-mixing protocol, and the results are not remotely like a Daiquiri (to their credit, the Cocktail Codex crew classify this one with the Old-Fashioned, which is certainly more appropriate, what with the lime acting more as bitters than as a souring agent).
The more you try to pull either of these drinks into the standard rum-lime-sugar Daiquiri pattern, the more you lose what makes them interesting. But you can say the same for the Daiquiri itself.
The modern “pattern” Daiquiri goes something like this: an ounce-and-a-half good white rum, three-quarters of an ounce lime juice, and three-quarters of an ounce simple syrup. Shake, strain, garnish with lime wheel. If, however, you go back to the oldest Cuban bartender’s guides, you’ll notice that the consensus of their various versions is just a little bit different.
For one thing, the Cubans didn’t measure the lime juice: it was just the juice of half a lime, however big that is (some recipes called for a whole lime, but that would have been the very small key lime rather than the now-standard, larger Persian lime, which took over in the 1920s). And the rum is always Bacardi, but a Bacardi that doesn’t exist anymore, with lots of pot-still in its blend. More importantly, though, none of them use simple syrup. When they’re calling for sugar (rather than, say, grenadine, or a spoonful each of sugar, grenadine and curaçao, as in John B. Escalante’s 1915 Manual del Cantinero, the first Cuban cocktail book), they’re calling for granulated sugar.
The preference for sugar over syrup in sours is an old insider’s rule of American bartending; as old-timer Bill Kelly put it in 1946, “for real life in a drink give me sugar.” The dry sugar not only affects the taste—I’ll get to that—but it also affects the preparation of the drink in pattern-breaking ways. One of the main advantages of the Platonic school of drink-mixing is efficiency: by assimilating drinks to known patterns, you’re also assimilating them to known, and streamlined, procedures.
Sugar dissolves well in water but not in alcohol. Hence the standard simple syrup, which is just sugar and an equal volume or weight (the difference is slight) of water. If you’re not using it, you need an extra step: first you add the lime juice to your shaker, then you add the sugar. What you want is a standard barspoonful. If it’s a small barspoon or the lime seems extra-juicy, heap the sugar up a little. If it’s large or the lime is extra-dry, well, you know. Then you stir, maybe half a dozen back-and-forths with the spoon. This takes less than five seconds; you don’t need all the sugar to dissolve, just most of it. Then it’s rum—see below—and ice and shake, shake, shake (this will dissolve all the remaining sugar).
For some bartenders, that few seconds of stirring represents an intolerable inefficiency, one that’s compoundedd when you pour the drink. A key advantage of the standard-pattern Daiquiri is that you start with a known and fixed amount of liquid, with the lime and syrup accounting for a predictable ounce-and-a-half of it. This allows you to fit the drink in the same glass you’re using for a Manhattan or a Sidecar or that “Moon over Goldschläger” from the Mountain Goats menu.
Made the old Cuban way, however, the Daiquiri usually has less lime juice—half a standard Persian lime yields about half an ounce of juice. Without the water that’s in the simple syrup, the sugar only adds a little volume: lime and sugar together will yield only something like two-thirds of an ounce, give or take. That gives you more room for rum, of course: there’s no excuse for using less than two ounces, although you don’t want more. But even then, you’ll still be a third of an ounce short compared to a standard three-ounce pattern Daiquiri. That means you’ll need stock a smaller glass to put the drink into, with all the inefficiency that goes with that (in a good bar, accepting a lower “wash line”—the level of the liquid in the glass, is a no-no).
If, however, you’re willing to tolerate that extra few seconds for stirring and keep a special Daiquiri glass around, you’ll get a different drink. Not radically or obviously, but subtly and discernably. Tasted side-by-side with a syrup-based Daiquiri, you will be able to tell them apart. The sugar one is brighter, cleaner, crisper. The syrup one is rounder, with a slightly slick texture and a sweet molasses note not found in the sugar one. We could speculate as to why this is, bringing in sugar-water bonding and a whole lot of other stuff, or just file it as useful information. Some people, tasting both, will prefer the pattern Daiquiri. Most do not. I do not.
As with the Brazilian Caipirinha and the ‘Ti Punch of Martinique, the old Cuban Daiquiri is more procedure than pattern. There are other drinks where this is true: the Mint Julep is one, and modern bars have trouble with it as a result. But if an Aristotelean approach to bartending, where these unique species are incorporated as they are and not assimilated to larger families and patterns of drinks, might take more preparation and training, it pays off with drinks that are different; that preserve nuances and edges that are otherwise buffed out.
In a world that seems dedicated to eliminating all nuance and driving a Mack truck through subtlety, that makes them extra precious.