Daiquiri: A Short History of the Iconic Cuban Cocktail
When you imagine a daiquiri, what does it look like?
I bet that it looks something like the slushy half-frozen, watered-down drinks that tropically-inspired chain restaurants (you know the ones) have on the menu. Sometimes flavored with decidedly not tropical fruits, like strawberries.
I never really gave the daiquiri much thought. I am not much of a drinker. But when I started perusing vintage and antique Cuban cocktail recipe books, this one from 1915’s Manual del Cantinero by John B. Escalante caught my eye.
It had flavors and liquors that I did not expect. I know that strawberry was unlikely to have been part of the recipe this far back. But for a book that was published shortly after the time when the daiquiri was supposedly invented, I expected something along the lines of just rum, lime juice, and sugar. After all, that is more or less what some people today call a traditional or classic daiquiri.
Instead, this recipe called for grenadine, which is not that uncommon, and most interestingly, it called for Curaçao.
The Curaçao surprised me, so I delved further into Cuban cocktail books from the first half of the 20th century. I wanted to see what other variations of the daiquiri looked like.
To my surprise, recipes called “daiquiri” varied widely with the only constants being rum, lime juice, and sugar. But recipes for daiquiri with just those ingredients are in the minority.
For example, the 1948 booklet titled Ron Daiquiri Coctelera, printed by the Ron Daiquiri company, has four different recipes for daiquiri. The first one calls for rum, lime juice, and either sugar (not simple syrup yet) or grenadine as a sweetener.
The three other recipes call for ingredients like Curaçao, orange juice, grapefruit juice, and Maraschino in addition to rum, lemon juice, and sugar.1
This booklet is in English and does differentiate between lemon and lime. Other books don’t. I talk a little bit about lime vs. lemon at the end of this post.
Three of the recipes call for the mixes to be shaken with ice and strained. The other one, the “Florida Style” daiquiri, named after the bar La Florida, instructs to shake in an electric shaker with crushed ice.
Many of the same variations are present in an earlier book from 1939, and another published by the bar La Florida in 1934. Those books includes multiple daiquiri recipes, two of which call for blending in an electric shaker, or “electrically,” with finely shaved or crushed ice.2
Both of those are called “Florida Style,” which means that this style of daiquiri mixed or blended was crushed ice was the particular style of the bar La Florida.
It appears then, that by the early to mid 1930s the daiquiri had taken its frozen form at least some of the time. But only some of the time; it appears to still have been mostly a shaken and strained cocktail well into the 1950s at least.
The 1959 Manual de Cocteleria has two recipes for daiquiri. One of them is a Banana Daiquiri, which calls for lime juice, rum, and banana (no sugar!). The other one calls for rum, sugar, lime juice, and Maraschino.3
All those ingredients were likely added and experimented with as time went by, with the original daiquiri, that is the very first one ever made, really being just rum, sugar, and lime juice.
A story in another 1948 book, told by someone who claimed to have been present when it was invented, says that the drink was born out of necessity and scarcity.
The story goes that a mine worker named Cox in the eastern part of Cuba, in El Cobre more specifically, was asked to make a drink for a visitor (the man telling the story). But the dining hall did not have Vermouth. All they had was rum, sugar, and lime juice.
So Cox put those ingredients together, shook it with ice until very cold, strained it, and served it to the guest. And so the Daiquiri was born.4
Origin stories are always difficult to prove, but that is more or less the generally accepted origin of the iconic Cuban drink. The variations that came throughout the years are examples of how recipes often take on a life of their own. They evolve. That is why it is so difficult to say when or if something is or isn’t “authentic” or “traditional”. In fact, I’d argue that very little of what we consider authentic in the realm of food and drink actually is.
The daiquiri, like several other drinks from the Caribbean, has been changed. It has been watered down and altered almost beyond recognition to cater to a different audience. But it is worth noting that at no point during its existence, except maybe that very first time at the El Cobre mines, has there been an agreement on a single recipe that is THE daiquiri recipe.
The recipe I made came from the earliest printed recipe I could find. It was published in 1915 in El Manual del Cantinero.5
I am not usually into cocktails like this, I fully admit I am a frozen drink person, but this one was really good. Probably because it is so sweet, which I am definitely into. If there had been Vermouth in that dining hall, this would have been a wholly different story!
- juice of one lime
- 1 tbsp granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp Granadine sryup
- 1 tbsp Curaçao
- 50 ml light rum I used Bacardí
- Place several ice cubes in a cocktail shaker.
- Add all the ingredients and shake until very cold. Strain into a cocktail glass or champagne coupe and serve.
There is so much to break down in this recipe, from the history of Curaçao to the history of Grenadine to Bacardi Rum to limes vs. lemons!
I’ll leave the grenadine out for now but I do want to talk briefly about the others.
I used Bacardí because, although no longer made in Cuba since shortly after the revolution of 1959, it is still made and available. It didn’t occur to me to use anything else.
The Curaçao was a bit tricky though. The Curaçao I had at home was the blue kind, which is more or less the most widely available one. In its natural state, Curaçao is clear; the color is added for the aesthetics. The blue combined with the grenadine, give this particular mix a lovely reddish-purple hue, but I wasn’t sure when Curaçao became blue.
From what I could find online, which was not much, it likely did not happen until after this recipe was published. But since the color imparts no flavor, I figured it would not matter that it was not clear.
And, finally, a note on limes. When Cubans, and indeed most Latin Americans, say “limón,” which is lemon in English, they mean the green citrus that Americans call limes. The American lemon, the yellow one, is incredibly scarce in Latin America and rarely called for in recipes. That one we call limes, or yellow lemons.
There is a complicated history behind this. It’s centered around what types of citrus grew better than others in the Americas. In the end, it was the green sort that took over. So, when a Latin American person says limón, they mean the green kind. This causes all sorts of confusion when we say lemon to mean American lime.
1. Ron Daiquiri Coctelera: Cocktail Book, Compañia Ron Daiquiri S.A., Habana, Cuba, 1948, 6.
2. Cuna Del Daiquiri Cocktail: La Habana, Cuba (La Habana: Talleres de Artes Graficas, 1939), 25-26. Bar La Florida Cocktails, Habana, Cuba, 1934.
3. Manual de Cocteleria (La Habana: Editorial Excelsior, 1959), recipes 8 and 35.
4. Hilario Alonzo Sanchez, El Arte del Cantinero: Los Vinos y Licores (La Habana: Imprenta Fernandez y Cia, 1948), 264-275.
5. John B. Escalante, Manual del Cantinero (Habana: Imprenta Moderna, 1915), 13.