The Daiquiri Is the Ultimate Summer Cocktail
A three-ingredient classic with a couple of small additions.
The last time I was in Las Vegas, I walked by a place with a gigantic sign that just said DAIQUIRIS, which was what they claimed to be selling.
As I recall, almost every drink on the menu was served blended over crushed ice in a gigantic tube-like structure that served as glassware. Virtually of the drinks were some bright crayon-box color — red, blue, orange, etc. I’m not sure what was in those drinks. They might even have been good, or at least refreshing in the dry Vegas heat. But whatever they were, they weren’t Daiquiris.
Many Americans still associate the word Daiquiri with sweet, juicy, tropical-seeming concoctions that are vaguely embarrassing to consume except when you’re on vacation. But a true, classic Daiquiri contains just three ingredients: rum, lime, and sugar. It’s not blue or red or purple. You don’t need a blender to make one, and it’s served in a small coupe, not a 24-ounce tube.
And while a Daiquiri should be delicious and easy to drink, it’s not an over the top vacation indulgence. Instead, made well, it’s an elegant, refreshing treat that works well in any season but is especially suited to warm-weather drinking. You can certainly drink them in cold weather, but there’s an argument to be made that the Daiquiri is the ultimate summer cocktail.
Making a classic Daiquiri well isn’t too difficult, it’s not quite easy either. Indeed, many bartenders think of it as the essential test of a bartender’s skills. In the same way that you can learn a lot about a chef by how he or she makes an omelet, you can learn a lot about a bartender by the way they make a Daiquiri. That’s true of home bartenders as well. Like the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, the Daiquiri is one of the drinks that everyone interested in cocktails should learn and master.
So as we head into summer, we’re going to look at how to make an excellent Daiquiri, and how to make the drink your own. And since this is a holiday weekend — happy Memorial Day! — this edition will be available to all subscribers.
The Drink and the Drink Maker
With just three ingredients, you might think there are not a whole lot of choices to be made. But there are, and each one makes a subtle yet important difference. Those choices define the drink, and they also define the drink maker.
A Daiquiri is an intensely personal drink, and while it’s a bit of a stretch to say that bartenders are the sun of their Daiquiris, it’s not entirely wrong either. The first Death & Co. book, for example, includes a two-page spread listing different Daiquiris from a selections of the bar’s early bartenders (most of whom have now left to start their own outstanding bars). When top-notch bartenders talk about Daiquiris, you will frequently hear them say that a good Daiquiri is the mark of a good bartender, and the true test of a drink-maker’s skill. With such a simple, three-part structure, there are few opportunities for cheating or fudging. The results are perfectly transparent; either the drink was made well, or it wasn’t. But you can take it in different directions and still end up with a delicious drink.
So today I’m going to teach you my preferred Daiquiri, which admittedly relies on a couple of small but not-quite-according-to-Hoyle tricks. But keep in mind that you should feel free — and even encouraged — to experiment with your own version. Just so long as it isn’t blue and served in a tube.
A Study in Balance
A Daiquiri is a study in balance. It should be sweet but not too sweet, tart but not too sour, strong but not boozy. It should be easy to drink, but complex enough that you want to savor every sip. A Daiquiri should come across as both effortlessly casual and exquisitely upscale, like Daniel Craig in a tailored polo shirt.
The basic structure of a Daiquiri should look familiar to readers of this newsletter. It’s really just a rum sour. So it looks quite similar to a Gimlet or even to the Thanksgiving Sour we looked at oh so many months ago. Peruse recipes online and you’ll usually see some variation of the following spec:
¾ ounce syrup
¾ ounce lime juice
2 ounces rum
Some recipes call for different lime and syrup proportions. Occasionally you’ll see a recipe call for shaking the drink with some sort of sugar rather than with a pre-made syrup. But the underlying structure is really pretty straightforward. It’s yet another a three-piece band of a cocktail, with the boozy, fruity-sweet rum balanced between the sour and sweet of lime and sugar. But while pretty much any rum/lime/sugar combo in roughly these proportions will taste at least okay — rum, sugar, and juice is usually pretty good! — careful ingredient selection can make a big difference.
Of the three ingredients, the easiest to determine is the lime juice. Use fresh-squeezed juice, ideally less than a day old, strained through a fine-mesh strainer or cheesecloth then briefly chilled. The ideal time to make your juice is about four to six hours in advance. But as long as you are using juice that was extracted on the same day you made the drink, you will be fine. And in a pinch, you can get away with using juice that’s a day or two old, so long as it’s been strained and stored chilled; it won’t be quite as lively, but it won’t ruin the drink.
The second ingredient to look at is rum. Rum is possibly the most varied of the major base spirit categories. It’s dark. It’s light. It’s sweet. It’s rich. It’s fruity. It’s citrusy. It’s spicy. It’s vegetal and funky. Rum is whatever you want, or need, it to be.
Which means that unlike rye or gin where you can get away with owning a single bottle and still make quite good cocktails, rum drinks — especially in the tiki tradition — simply require a somewhat larger selection. If you want to understand the varieties of rum, I recommend Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove, which divides rum into a bunch of different categories based on the process by which they were made and aged. It’s the single best attempt to organize and categorize rum I’ve ever seen. But even still, his system is quite complex, and I have to refer back to it on a regular basis.
The good news, however, is that even though there isn’t a single rum to recommend for most rum cocktails, there is a rum that is the overwhelming favorite for Daiquiris: Flor de Cana 4 Extra Seco.
In the Death & Co. book’s Daiquiri spread, this was the most commonly picked rum. A recipe from NoMad Bar in New York City using this bottle also won Punch’s shootout of Daiquiri recipes. To my taste, it’s easily the best bottle of rum for this particular drink — and even better, it’s quite inexpensive, at around $15-20 a bottle.
Extra Seco basically means extra dry, and indeed this is amongst the driest of the major light rums. It is sharp and almost gin-like in its flavor profile, yet it still retains a characteristic hint of fruity sweetness. But the dryness lifts that fruity sweetness, integrating it with the tartness of the lime and brightening the entire drink, giving it a summer-y pop. Too many just-OK Daiquiris lack that sharp, distinctive brightness.
Finally, there’s the sugar. Although you will certainly see lots of rums employed in Daiquiri recipes, this is probably the most heatedly debated ingredient. In particular, there’s a big gap between folks who prefer a 1:1 simple syrup or a 2:1 rich simple syrup or cane syrup.
The 1:1 makes for a more classic construction, but I strongly prefer a 2:1 syrup here — not because it’s sweeter, but because it’s thicker. A thicker syrup gives the drink a slightly fuller body, and a more distinct mouthfeel. (The texture of a drink is in many ways just as important as the flavor.) To make 2:1 rich simple syrup, all you need to do is use a blender to combine two parts sugar by weight to 1 part water by weight. If you don’t have a scale or a blender, you can measure by volume and use a whisk to blend the sugar and water together.
However, you do have to adjust for the added sweetness of the 2:1 syrup by making the drink a little bit more tart. So instead of equal parts syrup and juice, as many recipes call for, you need to slightly increase the amount of lime juice relative to the syrup — so 1 ounce of lime juice and ¾ ounce of rich simple syrup.
This leaves you with a drink that is not too far from Pietro Collina’s winning Daiquiri from the Punch competition — but with a slightly different sugar syrup. It’s a good rendition of the drink, and if you stopped there, you’d have a very solid Daiquiri.
However, I like to make two more small additions. Like I said, this isn’t quite according to Hoyle, but I promise the end result won’t be red.
Salt and Absinthe
In last week’s newsletter on batched and frozen Martinis, I suggested you make a saline or salt solution by heating and dissolving 1 part salt to four parts water. Then keep this in a dropper bottle. Just a couple ounces will last you months.
Not only does this come in handy for making big batch Martinis, it also makes a big difference in a Daiquiri, as well as a lot of other drinks, especially those that use citrus juice.
Salt is perhaps the single most important ingredient in cooking. It’s a flavor enhancer that makes food taste both better and more like itself. The same is true for cocktails. Top notch bartenders know this, and often include small amounts of salt — sometimes not mentioned on the menu — to lift the flavor of a drink. Salt is less common in homemade cocktails, and outside of salt rims for Margaritas, you won’t see too many recipes call for salting your cocktails. But just as home cooks need to learn to properly salt their food, home bartenders need to learn to properly salt their drinks. So my Daiquiris always get three drops of 20 percent saline solution.
The second addition I make will also be familiar to regular readers: a single drop of Pernod or absinthe.
As with saline, I keep a small eye-dropper bottle of Pernod around to make drinks like the Corpse Reviver #2. But if you don’t have an eye dropper you can also use an old bitters dasher bottle. Either way, the point is to add a trace amount of absinthe or similar anise-y booze to round out the flavor. The impact is subtle, but it gives the drink a cooling, herbaceous, almost grassy note that goes really well with rum. Just be careful not to do overdo it. A single drop is all you need, and much more can quickly overwhelm the drink.
Salt and absinthe are obviously not traditional parts of the Daiquiri formula, and certain purists might disagree with my inclusion here. But I use them because they enhance the drink’s essential characteristics — brightening and integrating the sweet, sour, and gently fruity flavor combo. These additions don’t change the Daiquiri into a different thing; they make it more of itself. They make a Daiquiri more Daiquiri-like.
So here’s the final recipe, as I make it:
1 drop Pernod or absinthe
3 drops 20% saline/salt solution
¾ ounce rich (2:1) simple syrup
1 ounce fresh lime juice, strained and chilled
2 ounces Flor de Cana 4 Extra Seco rum
Combine all ingredients in a shaker.
Add ice, then shake until thoroughly chilled.
Strain into a coupe. No garnish.
Note: When shaking this drink, you really need to go at it. This isn’t a count-to-three and pour situation; a Daiquiri should be quite cold and quite frothy. Shake vigorously with large ice for around 10 seconds until the exterior of your shaker is chilled.
Make It Your Own!
My Daiquiri is dry, salty, and a little bit sharp, which may or may not tell you something about me. But yours doesn’t have to taste that way.
If you want to modify and personalize your Daiquiri, start with the rum: Although I prefer the Flor de Cana 4, there are plenty of other good options out there.
I’m a fan of Cana Brava white rum and Plantation 3 Stars, both of which are very solid light rums that work well in light, summer-y versions of the drink. But you can make a Daiquiri with dark or golden rums as well: Scarlet Ibis, which was specifically formulated for use in cocktails, is a bartender favorite, and Appleton Estate Signature is a widely available, inexpensive golden rum from Jamaica that also works well in mixed drinks. For something darker and richer, I’m also a fan of the El Dorado line of aged demerara rums.
Have a bunch of bottles of rum on hand? Try blending multiple rums (while sticking to the same total amount of rum) for different flavor effects. You can get an effect that’s similar to the drop of absinthe, for example, by incorporating a little bit of grassy, funky rhum agricole. We’ll look at a number of different rum blends as we go through some tiki drinks over the rest of the summer.
You can also play with the sweetener. If you want a lighter drink, try a 1:1 simple syrup. There are folks who swear by syrups made from organic cane sugar. And tiki legend Jeff “Beachbum” Berry makes his Daiquiris with a custom blend of refined sugars — no syrup needed.
The point is that even though it only has three ingredients, there are a whole lot of ways to make a really great Daiquiri. But you do have to put some thought into it. Learning to work within the strictures imposed by those ingredients is a great way to learn a lot of the fundamentals — balance, ingredient selection, texture — that are valuable for making practically any cocktail. And if nothing else, you should learn to make Daiquiris because they’re delicious and refreshing treats that will improve your holiday weekend.
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