Julio Cabrera, a Miami-based cocktail consultant, mixes a daiquiri in the town of Daiquiri, Cuba, where the cocktail was created in 1898. Cabrera organizes trips to Cuba with U.S. bartenders to teach them about Cuban cocktail history.(Photo: Rick Jervis)
DAIQUIRI, Cuba – Goat farms, banana groves and the occasional ox-pulled cart inhabit this sleepy hamlet in the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, about 17 miles east of Santiago de Cuba, offering little evidence of the history hiding in these hills.
Two miles down the road, Teddy Roosevelt, his Rough Riders and 6,000 other U.S. troops landed at Playa Daiquiri – Daiquiri Beach – in 1898 to kickstart the Spanish-American War and help Cuba win its independence from Spain.
That same year, an American engineer overseeing U.S. iron mining interests here shook together Cuban rum, lime, sugar and ice, named the concoction after the nearest town, and invented a cocktail that endures nearly 120 years later.
The classic Cuban daiquiri – long defamed as a frozen, syrupy concoction poured from slushy machines – is making a rousing comeback in its original form: rum, lime, sugar and ice, shaken to an icy blend, said Robert Burr, rum historian and founder of the Miami Rum Renaissance Festival.
The cocktail of choice for John F. Kennedy and Ernest Hemingway, the daiquiri has intrigued drinkers for decades with its delicate balance of flavors and its exotic backstory, he said.
“There’s a magic proportion somewhere at the intersection of sweet and sour that just really excites the brain,” Burr said.
Now, with the rising popularity of craft cocktails, the daiquiri has become a surprising favorite at some of America’s trendiest bars. It’s the drink that mixologists and cocktail connoisseurs love to order to test a bartender's skill, said Josh Harris, owner of the Trick Dog bar in San Francisco and co-founder of The Bon Vivants, a cocktail and spirit consulting company.
“The daiquiri has gained immense popularity recently,” he said. “It’s coincided with a lot of the snowballing that’s happening in the cocktail community around knowledge, education, people digging into history.”
That thirst for cocktail history inspired people like Julio Cabrera, a former Cuban bartender who now lives in Miami and works as a cocktail consultant, to organize research trips to Cuba for U.S. cocktail specialists. His trips – part cultural exchange, part history trip – have been made easier by the recent warming of relations between Cuba and the U.S.,
On a recent trip, Cabrera brought 18 cocktail enthusiasts and bar owners from New York, San Francisco, New Orleans and Miami to Santiago and its environs to learn the story behind Cuba’s most historic cocktail.
“The daiquiri is very important to us,” he said. “It was the first classic cocktail created in Cuba. It’s what identifies Cuban [bartenders] all over the world.”
Like the drink itself, the daiquiri’s history is somewhat muddled by time and inconsistencies. The most widely accepted version of the drink’s origin is that one day in 1898 Jennings Cox, an American engineer and general manager of the Spanish-American Iron Company in Cuba, ran out of gin to offer guests and reached instead for what was readily available: white rum.
The concoction was well received, both by Cox and his employees, and he began directing bartenders in nearby Santiago to make the drink. People had long been mixing rum, lime and sugar – British sailors in the Caribbean had done so for decades before – but Cox was the first to name and institutionalize it, said Wayne Curtis, author of "And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails." One of Cox’s journal entries shows the handwritten recipe for a pitcher of daiquiris that includes Bacardi Carta Blanca, limes, sugar and crushed ice.
The daiquiri gained global prominence at El Floridita bar in Old Havana, where Ernest Hemingway was a common fixture. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
In 1909, Cox served one of his daiquiris to U.S. naval medical officer Lucius Johnson, who was so enamored with the drink that he brought the recipe back to the Army and Navy Club on Farragut Square in Washington, D.C., Curtis said. The drink was a hit and today officers still sip the cocktail in the Daiquiri Lounge on the club’s second floor, he said.
“Like many drinks, the story behind the daiquiri is more interesting than the ingredients in it,” Curtis said. “It’s a pretty basic drink, but has a lot of color and lore to it.”
Johnson may have properly introduced the daiquiri to the U.S., but it was Hemingway who gave it its global luster, Curtis said. The famed author, living in Cuba at the time, would spend afternoons at El Floridita bar in Old Havana, consuming copious amounts of daiquiris, made into a frappe with an electric blender by the bar’s owner, Constantino Ribalaigua. The drink spread throughout the world via Hemingway’s many stories and novels.
Today, a bronze statue of Hemingway sits at the far end of Floridita’s bar. The red-aproned cantineros, or bartenders, make the frozen daiquiris much the same way Ribalaigua did in the 1930s and ‘40s.
For Cubans, the daiquiri is more than a cocktail – it's a symbol of national identity and pride, said Yoandro Matos Parra, a bartender and sommelier in Santiago de Cuba. “This cocktail arose at a time when we were still a Spanish colony and was part of our independence, our roots,” he said.
Cabrera, the trip organizer, said he hopes to pass along that history and importance to the visiting U.S. bartenders. During the recent trip, the group took a bus ride from Santiago, up through the foothills of the Sierra Maestra, passing granite markers for key battles of the Spanish-American War. They turned off the highway and down a small two-lane road, stopping at a turnaround.
A farmer drives an ox-pulled cart near the town of Daiquiri, Cuba, birthplace of the famed Cuban cocktail. (Photo: Rick Jervis)
There, in the shade of a tamarind tree, the bartenders took turns shaking the basic ingredients of a daiquiri – Bacardi white rum, lime, sugar, ice. Toasts were offered to Cox, to Cubans, to Cuba. Oxen trudged by, pulling carts full of branches.
“The history of the daiquiri, to me, is very important,” said Jacques Bezuidenhout, co-owner of the Forgery and Wildhawk bars in San Francisco. “As bartenders, to go to the source and see it firsthand … It’s just an amazing experience.”