Some people start wearing seersucker after Memorial Day. I start drinking Daiquiris.
If I could spend the days between the last Monday of May and the first Monday of September with one of these iced dew-drops close at hand at all times, and still remain married, housed, and employed, that would be the entirety of my plan for the summer. Sip Daiquiris; watch the world go by; pretend life is good.
Even though, in this vale of toil and tears, I can’t pull such a thing off, I can still dream about it and, occasionally at the end of the day break off a little corner of it. There’s something about the cool, crisp kiss of a properly-made Daiquiri that makes it a miracle pill for being hot and bothered. Each one is like a little dipper of the old, pre-global warming Arctic Ocean in January, magically desalinated and infused with alcohol and poured into your glass.
That is exactly what the drink was invented to be. We know that because, unusually for one of the world’s great drinks, which tend to be born in shadow and spread by underground telegraph, we have remarkably solid information on how the Daiquiri was invented. The best account comes from a 1935 letter from Robert Huntington Lyman Jr. to the New York Sun’s “Along the Wine Trail” column. Lyman, a Pennsylvania-born mining engineer, was serving as comptroller of the Spanish-American Mining Co.’s large iron mines in the hills above Daiquiri, a little fishing port 20-odd miles east of Santiago, Cuba. But I’ll let him tell the story.
“Jennings S. Cox, Jr. was general manager… There were seven of us on the staff and we all lived together on the property. We were known in Santiago as La Mina de los Siete Solteros, or the mine of the seven bachelors.
“The insurrection [i.e., the popular uprising that led to American intervention and the Spanish-American war] was on full tilt, 1897, and several hundred Spanish troops were camped on the property, not so much to protect us as to prevent the ‘insurrectos’ from stealing our explosives. There was, of course, no safe overland communication with Santiago and we had to rely on the water route with very irregular boat service.
“Occasionally, very occasionally, when the tug Colon was coming out with supplies a cake of artificial [i.e., machine-made] ice would be aboard for our use at the mine. Barring the occasional bottle of Scotch secured from an ore cargo boat, the only hard stuff we had available was Bacardi rum.
“In our thirst for knowledge and other things, we naturally tried out various mixtures in which, however, Bacardi was always the base. Limes were, of course, abundant and when ice was at hand we just naturally discovered that a stiff jigger of Bacardi with a little sugar, half a lime and a generous amount of cracked ice rang the bell. This combination, decanted, just about filled a cocktail glass and thereby became known, very improperly as a cocktail [cocktails at the time had bitters and no fruit juice—ed.], but to us ‘patrones’ it was never known by any name other than a ‘Daiquiri.’
“Of the seven of us, all of whom no doubt had suggestions to offer as to proportions, ingredients, & c., each always claimed credit for the creation, none more violently than myself, but the contribution added so much to the sum of human happiness there’s glory enough to go around…
“All the above happened before the Spanish war, and even then we had transplanted the tipple to the Anglo-American Club in Santiago, where it immediately became the popular drink.”
Lyman’s story checks out in just about as many of its details as can be checked out; indeed, he wrote letters to American newspapers about his experiences in Cuba. In 1898, when the Americans, who landed at Daiquiri, reached Santiago, many of Army and Navy officers and their entourages made the Anglo-American Club their home-away-from-home. There, Cox—with mining operations temporarily suspended—held forth from behind the club’s piano, deploying his “fine voice,” as one observer noted, and “inimitable way of putting character into his songs” to great effect on ragtime ditties, barracks-room balladas out of Kipling and whatever else popped into his head.
The one hitch in the story is the fact that the contemporary accounts of drinking at the club mention plenty of Bacardi, made right there in Santiago, but taken with soda, under the name “el mismo” (“the same,” as in “I’ll have the same thing he’s having”), not shaken up into a Daiquiri. That doesn’t mean that Lyman’s story is wrong, of course. Sometimes drinks just take a while to find the right agent of transmission.
That probably came in January 1909, when Lucius Johnson and John Manchester, then junior officers in the Navy Medical Corps, were touring the battlefields of the Spanish-American War and ran into Jennings Cox, still at Daiquiri. He irrigated them with Daiquiris, as Johnson recalled in 1951, and they liked it. When they returned to Washington, they talked the bar of the Army-Navy Club into making the drink, which involved procuring Bacardi rum (then imported only in small quantities). Officers drank, and they drank Daiquiris.
By then, however, so did travelers to Cuba: The drink first appears in print that same year, as a Havana specialty; apparently, one of Cox’s engineers was a regular at the popular Café Telegrafo there, where he taught Emilio “Maragato” Gonzalez (1868-1940), head bartender there, to make the Daiquiri drink, and Margato’s version of it had begun to catch on around town. With momentum behind it on at least two fronts, the Daiquiri made rapid progress. By 1914, it was everywhere, both in Cuba and in America, one of the great new drinks of the decade.
The original version—well, we have Cox’s recipe for that, which involved adding soda before shaking and pouring the whole thing unstrained into a glass. Of course, Lyman’s version might have been different (he didn’t include it in his letter), and so might the version of any of the other seven bachelors. But once the concoction ran through the shakers of Maragato and the other expert mixologists in Havana, it came out as simple and refined as a drink can be.
Most modern drink-mixers make their Daiquiris with simple syrup and a lot of lime juice—at least three-quarters of an ounce. This makes a pleasant drink, but it’s not what they were making in Havana. The simple syrup adds volume to the drink, its true, but it also brings a slight plasticy texture to it. The original Cuban recipe used less sugar and lime and thus, proportionately, more rum, and it began with the simple step of stirring the sugar into the lime juice. I find that this makes for a brighter, leaner drink and takes little additional time.
Unfortunately, we no longer have the same Bacardi they had before World War I, which was largely made in pot stills and was, judging from old bottles I’ve tasted, a richer, funkier rum than the present one. If you’re traveling abroad, bring back some Havana Club 3-Year-Old, which has the funkiness if not all the richness. Other good options are Banks 5-Island, Denizen Aged White Rum, Plantation Three-Star, and Caña Brava, all of which have some of that sugarcane flavor.
Now I have some Daiquiri drinking to get back to.
Half a good-sized, juicy Lime (this should be around .5 oz; if conspicuously juicy, add more sugar; if conspicuously stingy, add more juice)
1 tsp Sugar
2 oz Good, white rum
Squeeze the lime directly into a shaker. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the rum, fill the shaker with ice and shake viciously. Strain into a chilled cocktail coupe. Do not garnish. Repeat until you’re cool.