Cuba’s cocktails chart the country’s ambivalent relationship with its neighbour to the north, America. This is most obviously demonstrated by the Cuba Libre – a blend of Cuban rum and Coca-Cola with lime – but it’s the Daiquiri that most associates with the capital, Havana.
In the year when American visitors are finally allowed to fly directly to Cuba, there is no better time to look closer at this legendary drink.
The history of Cuban rum
The Cuban writer Fernando G. Campoamor wrote: "There never has been and never will be rum as good as ours."
This isn’t strictly true: in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Cuban rum had a terrible reputation. The Spanish didn’t want alcohol producers in their colonies to compete with brandy and wine from the mother country so whilst the Jamaicans and Barbadians were perfecting rum distillation and learning how wood ageing mellowed their product, production in the Spanish empire remained primitive and strictly for local consumption.
Things changed in 1862 with the arrival Spanish immigrant, Don Facundo Bacardí. At Santiago in the south of the island he made a lighter and smoother style of rum using technology from the cognac industry. Spain had relaxed its protectionist laws and Bacardi took full advantage of the the opportunity to exploit the export and home markets. By this time, Havana was one of the richest cities in the Americas.
But Cuba was politically unstable, most of Spain’s other American colonies had become independent following a series of wars in the early nineteenth century, and Cubans of all backgrounds were itching for freedom including a certain Emilio Bacardi, son of Don Facundo. There were a series of uprisings against Spanish rule culminating in the involvement of America in a short war of 1898.
The birth of the Daiquiri
The Spanish lost and free Cuba, or at least an American-dominated Cuba, prospered. According to Cuban writers Carlos Eire: “Havana had a large and expanding middle class. Over one million Europeans migrated to Cuba between 1900 and 1950.”
Americans too poured into the country, including a mining engineer named Jennings Cox. The legend goes that he was entertaining some guests and having run out of gin, the standard American tipple, resorted to the Bacardi mixed with lime juice, sugar, water and ice. He named his invention, the Daiquiri, after a nearby town.
Invention is perhaps a bit too strong a word for his concoction. The Royal Navy were drinking Grog, a mixture of rum, lime juice, water and sugar, as early as 1740. All over the Caribbean there are similar drinks based on mixing something sweet, something sour, some water and, most importantly, rum.
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The Daiquiri may have been named by an American, but it was in Havana at a bar called La Florida (later called La Floridita) where it was perfected. There the barman Constantino Ribalaigua came up with the the classic version where the ingredients are shaken with ice and the strained into a cold glass.
Hemingway became a regular. Ribalaigua prepared a special Daiquiri without sugar because Papa was diabetic. It also handily had much more alcohol in it.
The next step in the Daiquiri’s evolution came with the invention of the blender. This meant that ice and fruit could be smashed up quickly. The credit for the frozen Daiquiri goes to Emilio Gonzalez at Plaza Hotel.
The Daiquiri in film and literature
During Prohibition, Havana became a playground for Americans: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ava Gardner and Frank Sinatra were regular visitors. This glitzy era was epitomized by the art deco splendour of the Hotel Nacional which opened in 1930.
Much of the trade in vice and entertainment was in the hands of the Mafia in collusion with the Batista regime. One of the best evocations of this febrile time is in the Godfather Part II when Michael Corleone visits the city for a mob summit at the Nacional on the eve of the Revolution. At a café Alfredo, Michael’s brother and betrayer, asks: “How do you say Banana Daiquiri in Spanish?” Michael replies “Banana Daiquiri.”
The film not only recreates Havana in all its sleazy glory but also shows how the Daiquiri had strayed from its simple beginnings. From the drink of the jet set it would decline further until it meant something that came out of a machine flavoured with syrup like a Slush Puppie for adults. Bubblegum Daiquri anyone?
The Daiquiri today
Following Castro’s seizure of power in 1959, Havana too declined. The Bacardi company who had supported the revolution soon found themselves leaving for Puerto Rico when their business was nationalised. One of the grandest cities in Latin America was left to decay.
There has been some restoration since visitors returned in the 1990s. And this year more and more tourists will soon once again be lapping up the Daiquiris in the bars of Havana.
The frozen variety has all but pushed out the original, even at La Floridita. If you want something non-frozen ask for a Daiquiri Naturale. Other good places to drink include the Churchill bar at the Hotel Nacional and, for a younger crowd, Bolabana in Miramar.
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