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How the Daiquiri Crossed the Gulf

00:00 June 30, 2011
By: Annie Ritchart
[Where Y'At Staff/Provided Photo]

Rum. Sugar. Lime.

I think it is safe to say that if you put these three ingredients into a single cocktail glass, the concoction does not scream, "daiquiri!"—especially not in New Orleans. Here, we drink our super-sized daiquiris sweet, slushy and strong. Once upon a time, though, the daiquiri was not a mass produced mix with franchise locations across the region and on Bourbon Street. The question, then, is how did the once carefully crafted daiquiri evolve into a Starbucks-on-every-corner-like business in New Orleans?

The original daiquiri is believed to have had humble beginnings on an island not too far from here. During an 1898 mining excursion, expedition leader Jennings Stockton Cox, according Bacardi's historians, noticed that his miners would often mix rum with their coffee—a flawless combination of flavors. Cuban rum was and still is popular for its light and smooth texture and for the ease with which it complimented other light flavors. It is said that Cox experimented with the rum and, unbeknownst to himself at the time, created a cocktail that would travel from Cuba to the United Stated in spite of a war, prohibition and a trade embargo. The daiquiri was born and named after its place of origin, Daiquiri, Cuba.

In a similar fashion to New Orleans today, tourists flocked to Cuba during the 1920s to get a taste of the country's local flavor—to dine, drink and dance. On this rum-producing and distributing island, tourists could legally enjoy alcohol. Among these pleasure-seeking Americans was Earnest Hemingway. When he wasn't writing his next masterpiece, he was at an Old Havana bar, El Floridita, coined the "cradle of the daiquiri" after its famed cul-de-sac shaped bar where Hemingway consumed many a daiquiri. Today, the daiquiri is described as one of the writer's favorite drinks. In fact, the bar has erected a bronze statue of Hemingway in his regular spot at the bar. It was at El Floridita where shaved ice was added to the simple three-ingredient cocktail that Hemingway loved. According to The Atlantic's Wayne Curtis, Basil Won wrote in his book, "When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba" (1928), "The drink is shaken by throwing it from one shaker and catching it in another, the liquid forming a half-circle in the air," complimenting the half-circle-shaped bar so well.

In 1937, this handcrafted version of the daiquiri was plugged in with the advent of the electric blender introduced at a restaurant show in Chicago. The ability to mechanically blend ice would change far more than just the texture of the once iceless cocktail; this was just the beginning of the daiquiri revolution. "Some progressive Era American bartenders took to sweetening their daiquiris—aka "Bacardi Cocktails"—with grenadine," explains Imbibe author David Wondrich. With a new texture, color and flavor, the daiquiri began its evolution from a skillfully mixed cocktail into an easy to produce, consistent slushy accessible not just to those able to take a trip to Cuba (which is now even more feasible with flights out of New Orleans, if you can manage to be granted a visa), but to anyone wanting to cool off at the levee on a hot summer's day.

We have Mr. David Briggs Jr. to thank for the New Orleans daiquiri revolution. Briggs Jr. sought to change the way we produce and consume the once shaken cocktail. Not only did Briggs Jr. modernize the daiquiri, he also modernized the entire frozen beverage industry. He transformed, his company boats, a once complicated, costly and inconsistent frozen drink into a premium and consistent drink available in a go cup. In 1983, Briggs Jr. opened his first New Orleans Original Daiquiri that became instantly popular. Briggs Jr.'s vision grew into what is now a regional chain with 29 locations throughout Southeast Louisiana.

In addition to the widespread popularity of Brigg Jr.'s frozen-style daiquiri in New Orleans, more recently, a new generation of mixologists has taken this city by storm offering versions of the daiquiri that Hemingway might have recognized. Wondrich provides a recipe that will take the daiquiri drinker back to its Cuban roots:

  • 1 Jigger [2 OZ] Bacardi Rum
  • 2 Dashes [1 TSP] Gum Syrup
  • Juice of ½ Lime
  • Shake well in a mixing glass with cracked ice, strain and serve.
It may have been a geographic convenience (New Orleans and Cuba lie across from each other on either side of the gulf) or just one 1980s entrepreneur that proved to be the catalyst for the widespread popularity of the drink. Either way, like any great idea, it grows as the business grows and, eventually, takes on a life of its own. Change is most certainly not always bad, but it can't hurt to revert to the traditional from time to time. Give the original daiquiri a try, the cocktail that Hemingway described as "so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots."

Who knows what will happen if the trade embargo does get lifted and what new combinations may be created with authentic Cuban Rum. Until then, let's enjoy the ice-cold versions of the daiquiri New Orleans has to offer.

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