A small, voyeuristic part of me loves Bourbon Street: the crowds, the heat, the stink, the insanity of an avenue whose name is synonymous with a nonstop party. I like to sit and watch the stream of people go by, “go cups” in hand: the bachelorette parties, the conventioneers sprung from their meeting rooms, the honeymooners, the long-timers who’ve followed their pleasures down whatever hole eventually leads to performing interpretive dance to Guns N’ Roses’ “Patience” while dressed as Darth Vader.
They’ve converged in the right city. Relaxed local laws mean those plastic “go cups” allow people to carry their libations with them in public, and New Orleans is one of the few locations that still does “drive-through daiquiris” — though government meddlers, with their party-pooping dislike of fatal car accidents, now stipulate that these daiquiri containers must be sealed.
No such restrictions exist for stumblers down Bourbon Street, where every other storefront seems to sell a variation of “daiquiri,” a face-punch of a slushy that is either the nadir of the daiquiri or its most honest zenith. The New Orleans daiquiri is not “craft.” It is there to get you loopy, fast. These daiquiris come not from the hands of skilled bartenders, but glopped from a spigot from a bank of slush-swirling machines, in such flavors as Jungle Juice and Banana Banshee.
These “daiquiris” bear scant resemblance to their clean, crisp ancestors from the island nation across the Gulf of Mexico. Invented by an American engineer, Jennings Cox, around the turn of the 20th century in a Cuban mining town that gave the drink its name, the original daiquiri made use of three ingredients the engineers had on hand: citrus, sugar and Bacardi rum. Cuban bars now usually make blended daiquiris, and in New Orleans, that frozen quality has become the only definitive element of the local “daiquiris,” sweet, boozy frozen drinks. Many are not even made with rum, but with grain alcohol. A single serving contains 33 grams of sugar.
After talking to Cuban-born bartender Julio Cabrera — who has helped to spread the legend of the elegant Cuban cantinero style of bartending and will soon do more at La Trova, his new project in Miami — I suspect the New Orleans daiquiri is a cousin the Cuban daiquiri would disown.
Many non-Cuban bartenders would, too. The classic daiquiri, after all, is a subject of some reverence in the industry. Juan Coronado, national brand ambassador for Bacardi rums, regularly tests potential employees with the drink. “Each time I hire people . . . I observe how they make a daiquiri — the amount of ingredients, their flair, their ovation to that magnificent cocktail.” The cocktail was invented with Bacardi rum, he says, “a rum that is dry, that neither dominates or disappears in a cocktail. . . . The daiquiri is not a sweet nor a sour cocktail. It is just a perfect marriage of those three ingredients.”
None of which, for the record, is sodium benzoate or high-fructose corn syrup, each of which add that certain je ne sais quoi to the slushy-machine daiquiris that lurk around New Orleans, sucked down by tourists and locals alike.
One of the glories of the city, though, is that you can try one of these neon monsters one day, then wake up full of regret and venture out for daiquiris that hit a classier note. The city offers a full spectrum.
New Orleans is always a boozy environment, but the pickings are especially rich during Tales of the Cocktail, which draws spirit brands, bartenders and brand ambassadors from around the world. The week coincides with “National Daiquiri Day” in July, and I had been planning to check out Bacardi’s celebration of every rum-marketer’s favorite faux-liday. But my determination was short-lived. The daiquiri riffs being served were free and delicious, but the crowd was proportional. My vision of sipping an icy daiq to the elegant sway of Ibrahim Ferrer gave way to one of death by stampeding brand reps.
I fled with friends to Manolito, Nick Detrich and Chris Hannah’s new Cuban-themed restaurant-bar nearby. Trim as a guayabera, the tiny two-level bar is a refuge from the heat and crowds of the French Quarter: dim, cool and quiet. I ordered the Daiquiri Para Julio, a drink named for Cabrera, who has been taking groups of bartenders to Cuba for years. This daiquiri, Detrich explained later, follows Cabrera’s preferred spec: a shaken drink using good white rum (Plantation 3 Stars, in this case), lime and sugar — not simple syrup.
In fact, there’s no simple syrup in any of Manolito’s drinks. You won’t see simple syrup in Cuban bars, Cabrera says, and its absence in his daiquiri spec is not mere allegiance to tradition; he says the drink is better that way. When you add simple syrup, he explains, you’re adding water to the drink. Since you’ll also be adding water when you shake the daiquiri with ice — or when you blend it with ice, which is what you’ll usually get in Cuba — it’s all too easy to end up with an overdiluted drink.
Much futzing, of course, occurs in bars, and Bacardi’s global advocacy director, Jacob Briars, says that’s part of the daiquiri’s appeal. “There’s a very small window for how to make a daiquiri well, but within that window, room for almost endless tinkering,” he told a crowd at one of the seminars at Tales. You can tweak everything from the kind of limes to the kind of sugar and what form and strength that sweetener comes in; many bartenders opt to make a 2-to-1 sugar-to-water syrup to cut down on dilution. (The accompanying recipes include a mint-enhanced version, and French Scotty Marshall’s coconut-syrup boosted Coki Beach, with which he won the U.S. segment of the Bacardi Legacy cocktail competition this year.)
The daiquiri has become “almost a universal language using rum, lime and sugar, long understood across the Americas and now beyond,” Detrich says. “Everyone can love and understand it.”
On this front, the original daiquiri might actually have something in common with its down-market cousins: A whole lot of locals and tourists seem to find the New Orleans slushy-machine daiquiris pretty appealing. And I’m not going to call them “inauthentic”; the New Orleans daiq is its own thing, part of its own local tradition.
But I didn’t really want to drink a whole one.
Instead, on my last day in the city, I took the St. Charles Streetcar almost to the end of the line, to one of the outlets of New Orleans Original Daiquiris. There I sampled a piña colada and a Bellini “daiquiri” (talk about drink confusion).
Then I left, and, honoring the tradition of making the best of what’s on hand, I got some ice from a Shell station, then sat on a bench to get the limes and sugar packets and a flask of rum I’d been toting in my purse. I used a resealed “go cup” for my own purposes: to gently shake up my own little daiquiri.
It was nowhere near as good as the one I’d had at Manolito, or the one at Cure earlier in the week, or the ones I’ve had at many a cocktail bar around the country. But I felt calm in the knowledge that it contained no yellow dye No. 5. And I toasted a city that’s doing so much — to preserve the daiquiri, and to confuse people about just what the heck it is.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Use a good, Cuban-style white rum such as Havana Club or Bacardi Carta Blanca. Demerara sugar adds a nice depth to the rich simple syrup called for here, but if you don’t have that kind of sugar on hand, you can substitute regular rich simple syrup (with a 2:1 ratio of sugar to water).
For a more minty drink, you can also boost the flavor with added mint leaves or a barspoon of crème de menthe.
MAKE AHEAD: The Demerara syrup can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
From Spirits columnist M. Carrie Allan.
6 to 8 mint leaves
2 ounces white rum (see headnote)
1 ounce fresh lime juice
½ ounce rich Demerara syrup (see headnote and NOTE)
Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
Fill two-thirds of a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the mint leaves (to taste), rum, lime juice and Demerara syrup. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds, then double-strain into the chilled glass.
NOTE: To make the rich Demerara syrup, combine 2 cups of Demerara or turbinado sugar and 1 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a brief boil; once the sugar has dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat. Cool completely before using or storing in the refrigerator.
MAKE AHEAD: The toasted coconut syrup can be refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.
We found St. Elizabeth’s Allspice Dram at Ace Beverage and at Batch 13, both in the District.
From French Scotty Marshall, a brand specialist for St-Germain, and bartender at Chaplin’s in the District.
1¼ ounces Bacardi Añejo Cuatro rum
1 ounce toasted coconut syrup (see NOTE)
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¼ ounce St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
Ground cinnamon, for garnish
Chill a cocktail (martini) glass.
Fill a cocktail shaker two-thirds with ice. Add the rum, toasted coconut syrup, lime juice and allspice dram. Seal and shake vigorously for 15 seconds. Double strain into the cocktail glass, and garnish with a sprinkle of cinnamon.
NOTE: To make the toasted coconut syrup, toast 3 cups unsweetened coconut flakes in a pan over low heat, stirring occasionally until they are golden brown. Add 3 cups of water and increase the heat to high; once the mixture comes to a boil, turn off the heat, and allow the flakes to steep for 25 minutes. Strain out the solids, then add 2 cups of cane sugar (such as turbinado or Demerara). Stir to combine, reheating if necessary until the sugar has dissolved. Store in the fridge.
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