A good daiquiri deserves the right rum

Ernest Hemingway's daiquiri contains a little grapefruit juice and replaces the sugar with maraschino liqueur.
Ernest Hemingway's daiquiri contains a little grapefruit juice and replaces the sugar with maraschino liqueur. (Deb Lindsey for The Washington Post; glassware from Crate and Barrel)
By Jason Wilson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 1:46 PM

In the unrelenting deluge of fancy new cocktails to sample, I often forget about important things. Like, for instance, I completely forgot how good a daiquiri can be. By some strange turn of events, I went almost a whole year without thinking about daiquiris. Then, suddenly, during one particularly gross, sweaty midsummer-evening trudge home, it struck me: You know what would be pretty awesome right about now? A daiquiri.

Now, when I say daiquiri, I mean a simple, elegant, shaken daiquiri with three ingredients - rum, lime juice, sugar - served straight up. If the word "daiquiri" makes you think of a frozen blender slushie sort of thing that involves bananas or strawberries, that's cool. But you and I are probably not going to be, like, BFFs or anything.

A daiquiri, a real daiquiri, is one of the essential cocktails. David Embury, in his 1948 classic "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," listed it as one of the six basic cocktails to be mastered, along with the martini, Manhattan, old-fashioned, sidecar and Jack Rose. "It is, in my opinion," Embury wrote, "a vastly superior cocktail to the Manhattan." Well, let's not talk crazy now, Mr. Embury, but I certainly understand the effusive praise.

Just as with the Manhattan or the martini or the old-fashioned, there is endless debate about the proper way to work with just a few ingredients: Do you use sugar or simple syrup? Or do you substitute falernum or orgeat as a sweetener? Which rum do you call for? Here's a daiquiri formulation I enjoy: 2 ounces of white rhum agricole, 1/2 ounce of lime juice and a teaspoon of sugar. This is shaken and strained into a chilled cocktail glass. "No decoration should be used in the daiquiri," says Embury. I concur.

Given how straightforward a daiquiri is, why is it so hard to find a good one? Embury had a terse answer for this, as well: "The use of inferior rums and the use of improper proportions."

In the 1940s and 1950s, excellent rums were much easier to obtain than other spirits, which had been rationed during World War II. Embury could get his hands on good Cuban rums such as Havana Club and pre-Fidel Bacardi. (The latter was significantly different from the Bacardi made years later in Puerto Rico, particularly since Bacardi decided to turn its white rum into a sort of rum-impersonating-a-vodka in the 1970s.)

The daiquiri's origins, of course, lie in Cuba, where the drink was named for a beach near Santiago of the same name; the drink was created by group of American mining engineers around 1900. By 1909, a Navy medical officer, Adm. Lucius W. Johnson, brought the drink back to the Army and Navy Club in Washington. Half a century later, the daiquiri became the drink of another Navy man, John F. Kennedy, which has always made his extension of the Cuban trade embargo confounding to me.

Of course, when talk of Cuba and drinking pops up, one name usually isn't too far behind: Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the most famous daiquiri drinker. Hemingway's daiquiri, made at El Floridita in Havana, includes a little grapefruit juice and replaces the sugar with maraschino liqueur. It was made in a blender with crushed ice, too, meaning Hemingway may be indirectly responsible for the scourge of frozen daiquiris. (El Floridita's bartender actually strained out the ice. I've included his recipe sans blender and crushed ice.)

I find the basic daiquiri to be the perfect cocktail to test out most new rums: white rums, rhum agricoles, gold rums, pretty much any rum except especially long-aged ones. That's exactly what I've been doing the past couple weeks. While the drink works really well with a lightly aged rum such as Appleton VX from Jamaica, Plantation Grande Reserve five-year-old from Barbados or Chairman's Reserve from St. Lucia (all about $20), I've been on a quest to find a daiquiri-perfect white rum, which I find works best.

While white rhum agricoles (made from pure sugarcane juice) from Martinique, such as Neisson, Rhum J.M. Blanc or Rhum Clement, are great (all about $30-$35), a current daiquiri favorite is white Rhum Barbancourt, from Haiti. I also find that Mount Gay Eclipse Silver from Barbados and El Dorado three-year-old from Guyana, both molasses-based white rums, do the job.

Then there's an exciting new rum, called Banks 5-Island Rum, that debuted in Washington last week at a launch event at the Passenger.

Banks is a blend of 20 or more rums from Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados and Guyana; it even contains a bit of Batavia arrack, a wild rum from the island of Java that's made with fermented red rice in a recipe that dates to the 17th century. Those rums are blended and aged in the Netherlands. But after the aging, Banks is then charcoal-filtered in a process that removes the color of the barrel, returning the spirit to clear. (El Dorado undergoes a similar charcoal filtering.) The result is complex: It's viscous yet light, fruity yet with a smoky, funky edge, and with an elegant finish. At $28, Banks is a touch pricier than most rums, but worth it.

It passed one important test: It made a daiquiri I won't soon forget.


Papa Doble

Follow Wilson on Twitter at www.twitter.com/boozecolumnist. His book, "Boozehound," is to be published in September by Ten Speed Press.

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