The Daiquiri: From Stiff Drink to Slushie and Back Again

Sarah McColl
Editor in Chief
December 11, 2013

If a Prohibition-era daiquiri walked into a bar today, it wouldn’t recognize itself. Once the potent drink of archetypal manly men (Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, and high-ranking naval officers all called it a favorite), the daiquiri is more commonly known today as an alcoholic slushie favored by cocoa-buttered spring breaker set, blender-whipped and available in a rainbow of syrupy tropical flavors. So how did a classic cocktail morph into a boozy Big Gulp? Wayne Curtis, author of And a Bottle of Rum, shares the story of the drink and reintroduces the daiquiri as it should be-a strong, perfectly balanced cocktail with a flurry of ice shards on its pale surface looking, as Hemingway wrote, like the wake of a ship’s bow cutting through the sea.

Photo: Getty Images

The origin of the classic daiquiri 
The widely accepted creation myth goes like this: In the 1890s, an American mining engineer named Jennings Cox was working for the Spanish-American Iron Company in the small village of Daiquiri, Cuba. He mixed up a drink with local rum, lime juice, sugar, and served it over ice. “The daiquiri cuts through the humidity, heat, and haze of the tropics with an uncanny precision,” Curtis writes in his book. “It has an invitingly translucent appearance when made well, as cool and lustrous as alabaster.” The cocktail didn’t hit American shores until 1909, when Admiral Lucius W. Johnson brought the drink back from Cuba to the Army and Navy Club in Washington, DC. “The main problem with [the story],” Curtis told Yahoo, “is that somebody in the 1890s did not invent mixing lime and sugar and rum. That’s been done for a long time. Probably the one thing that he did add to it was the ice. Before that, it would have been drunk warm.” 

Photo: Corbis
Sailors are served their rum ration

Rum falls out of favor 
For Cox, Lucius, and drinkers at the Army and Navy Club more accustomed to drinking whiskey or gin, the drink would have been a novelty. “Rum was a hugely popular drink in North America up until about the Revolution,” Curtis told Yahoo. “Then it disappeared by the late 19th century more or less because whiskey was so much more available, and was a lot harder to source the rum. And the rum was pretty bad.” With a reputation as “rotgut swill that the sailors would suck down to stay warm,” rum didn’t regain popularity with American drinkers—and the daiquiri didn’t solidly gain its foothold—until Prohibition drove them to Cuba’s barstools and the favorite local cocktail. 

Photo: Corbis
In Havana in 1930, tourists find free beer at every turn.

Prohibition popularity 
"Havana became the saloon for the United States during prohibition," said Curtis. In Cuba, Americans sipped their first above-pirate-grade rum, thanks to the Bacardi family. "They started paying more attention to aging, filtering, and to the proportions they used in distillation. So Americans showed up in Havana to get a drink, and they tasted the rum and they thought, ‘Whoa, what’s this? This is really good.’ That was when [the daiquiri] became a really popular drink and started popping up more in the press and after Prohibition it persisted. People realized it was a good, solid, simple drink." 

Photo: Wikipedia
Ernest and Mary Hemingway with Spencer Tracy at the bar in El Floridita, Havana, Cuba, circa 1955.

Hemingway and daiquiris 
Ernest Hemingway added additional appeal to the drink (and his own daiquiri-creation myth) in 1932 when he first arrived in Cuba and lived down the street from El Floridita, a bar dubbed ‘the cradle of the daiquiri,’ Said Curtis: “The story is he walked into the Floridita to use the men’s room. He came out and saw the bartender Constantino had been making a bunch of daiquiris. He took a sip of one, and he said, ‘That’s not bad, but I prefer mine with twice the lime and none of the sugar.’” Hemingway, who could knock back more than a dozen drinks in a single sitting, was a diabetic, but his sugarless daiquiri “is not potable,” warned Curtis. “All that lime and no sugar? That’s just too, too sour.” 

Photo: Flickr | by Jing Hong (Yalta)

How the Papa Doble was born and when the additional ingredients were added, to create what’s now known as the Hemingway Daiquiri, Curtis wrote, “is a matter of considerable contention among cocktail sleuths, who have been poring over the clues ever since Hemingway walked out of the bathroom.”

Papa Doble, or the Hemingway daiquiri recipe
2 ounces white rum 
3/4 ounce fresh lime juice 
1/2 ounce fresh grapefruit juice 
1/2 ounce maraschino liqueur 
1 lime wheel, for garnish (optional) 

Fill a cocktail shaker with ice. Add all remaining ingredients except the lime wheel and shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe and garnish with the lime wheel. 

Photo: Getty Images
Do you like pina coladas? Then you’ll like these paper-umbrella versions of the daiquiri.

Decline of the daiquiri 
So how did the drink of choice for Hemingway, described by Curtis as “the archetypal manly man, bare-knuckle fighting and hunting game” become the drink people associate with “slushie machines and sunglasses and floppy hats and girly days out”? We started taking shortcuts — sour mix instead of fresh lime, making huge quantities and not hand-shaking them — and the spirit of the cocktail got lost along the way. “They just started tasting like crap,” said Curtis. In the 1970s, as we entered the era of wine spritzers and light beer, classic cocktails fell out of fashion. “We moved into the Wonder Bread and Kraft cheese era, so liquor just followed along,” he said. Perhaps as a way to make the classic cocktail palatable to people who didn’t like the taste of liquor, Curtis suggested, the daiquiri chased after the popular piña colada. Into the blender with more sugar it went, and the daiquiri as a tropical slush was born. 

Photo by: Corbis

The original daiquiri returns 
It’s only recently that drinkers have embraced the simplicity of small, strong, classic cocktails again. Imagine that you’re sidling up to a bar stool in Havana during Prohibition and make a daiquiri as it was originally intended. It’s the perfect sweet-tart refresher in the wilting summer heat. 

Use Curtis’s trick for a frosty daiquiri: “I like to mix crushed ice and cubed ice to shake it. It helps to water the rum down a little bit, and also it leaves some of those ice flakes in there, which I like.” He recommends Banks 5 Island White Rum for a daiquiri. If you can’t find it, use Mount Gay White Rum or Cruzan White Rum. 

Classic daiquiri 
2 ounces of rum 
1 ounce fresh lime juice 
½ ounce of simple syrup 

Fill a cocktail shaker with a mixture of crushed and cubed ice. Add ingredients and shake. Strain into a chilled coupe glass.