“I think of the daiquiri as a bread vs. cake argument,” Dave Arnold told students at the annual Tales of the Cocktail drinks conference in New Orleans this July, comparing the drink to more baroque cocktails. “Cakes are delicious, and you can spend a whole lifetime working on cakes, but bread? With just four ingredients, you can get all different kinds of bread. How many ingredients in a daiquiri?”
“Three!” several audience members called out, stepping into Arnold’s trap. (Pro tip for professors and corporate trainers: Lecture engagement goes way up when the day’s learning starts with a steady drip of cocktails.)
“No!” Arnold said. “Four! Four ingredients! Water is an ingredient in the daiquiri. We’re going to get deep into that.”
And into it they got, the cocktail apprentices at Tales circling the room to pass out pours of different daiquiri recipes for analysis.
The session was “The Daiquiri Effect: How Perfecting One Cocktail Will Make You a Better Bartender,” and Arnold, one of the brains behind New York’s much-missed bar Existing Conditions and author of the James Beard-winning cocktail science book “Liquid Intelligence,” had assembled a special ops team to serve up some daiquiri smarts: Julio Cabrera, founder of the Cuban Cafe La Trova in Miami; Shannon Mustipher, cocktail consultant and author of “Tiki: Modern Tropical Cocktails”; and Garret Richard, bar manager at Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn and co-author of “Tropical Standard: Cocktail Techniques and Reinvented Recipes.”
Drinks have to be made in advance for sessions at Tales, but for a drink like the daiquiri — which should be made a la minute, served freshly frothy from the shake — that just wouldn’t do. Everyone got a milk frother to zhuzh up their pours. The frothers had arrived without batteries, Arnold noted, joking that if the TV remotes in attendees’ hotel rooms weren’t working, it was because the team had gone room to room to steal the batteries. “When the drinks come out, freshen them with the frother,” Arnold explained. “Taste it so you can understand what aeration does to a drink and have a real apples-to-apples comparison.”
More than once, I was reminded of the moment in “Jurassic Park” when Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum at his most oleaginous) explains the so-called butterfly effect to Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), using a drop of water and seductive hand-fondling to demonstrate how minute variations create unpredictable results. A different rum or form of sugar may not change the weather patterns in Central Park, but mastery is partially about understanding the likely impact of such variations on the final cocktail.
It’s one reason that many insiders use the daiquiri to test out an unknown bartender. “The simpler a drink is, and the less ingredients a drink has, the more difficult it is to make,” Cabrera said. “It’s all dependent on the quality of the ingredients, the quality of the rum. … Where is the lime from? What kind of sugar, how long you shake, how hard you shake, what kind of ice you’re using. Everything is dependent on the hands of the bartender.”
The session delved briefly into the history of the daiquiri but focused on crafting a good one. On the question of whether using sugar or simple syrup was preferable, there was a strong lean toward using sugar as is, without the additional dilution added by simple syrup. Cabrera’s bar uses sugar for the drink and said that simple syrup is never used in Cuba. Mustipher noted that the granularity of the sugar, which is not always completely dissolved by the shake, “adds this little texture and effervescence to the final drink.” At Sunken Harbor, where Richard too uses sugar, they use a milk frother to dissolve the sugar before the drink is shaken with ice.
Then there’s the right balance of lime to sugar. And how can other fruits complement and alter the flavors and acidity of the lime, as they do so beautifully in Mustipher’s daiquiri riff, the Parasol? They touched on acid correction (a technique Arnold detailed at length in “Liquid Intelligence”), which allows drink makers to use acid powders to bring other juices up to the acidity of lime.
Of course, at the heart of a daiquiri is rum, traditionally a light, Cuban-style rum, but Richard challenged people to think about how that element impacts the others. “Imagine this is now a 110-proof rum. Maybe you need more water. Maybe it’s a pot-still Jamaican rum and you want that richness,” he said. “There is kind of a moving target with this cocktail, and we’re sort of isolating the variables of the water, the sugar and the lime.”
In the audience was Ben Schaffer, Richard’s co-author on “Tropical Standard” and editor of the Rum Reader, which has explored the daiquiri both in print and glass via ongoing events. Later I asked him about people’s obsession with the daiquiri.
“Even when you screw it up a bit, it’s still pretty good,” Schaffer said. “On the other hand, because there’s so few ingredients, if you like it a certain way and someone makes them a different way, you notice. I’ve heard people criticize New York bartenders as being too lime-heavy whereas other people feel that daiquiris are too sweet in some parts.”
Some rums are sweetened, too — not always transparent in the industry, and it can be hard to know what you’ll find in an unfamiliar bottle. And a sweeter rum may change the spec you prefer. “A lot of people like rums that have been sweetened after distillation,” Schaffer said. “But I want to choose how much sugar rather than having it already in there.”
To make the classic, he said, “you’re looking for a lightly aged or unaged rum that is clear so you get that beautiful yellow-green daiquiri color. … Great aged rum daiquiris are delicious,” but it’s not the classic form of the drink.
Making a true old-style Havana daiquiri is virtually impossible anyway, Mustipher told me, because rum production methods have changed so much since the drink’s heyday, in 1920s Cuba. But you’re always looking for the spec that will make the particular rum shine, and “the more rums you experience, the more informed you are regarding what suits you.” Developing the bar program at Glady’s Caribbean in Brooklyn, Mustipher tasted more than 200 rums. Knowing your rums will help you control that butterfly effect. Arnold encouraged bartenders in the audience to broaden their group of trusted tasters: “Just because one person thinks something is balanced doesn’t mean someone else will. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong; it means that people are different.”
It’s a different scenario for those mixing drinks at home, who may be trying to please an audience of only one. But there, too, lie big questions: Are you the same daiquiri drinker you were yesterday, or the same as you’ll be tomorrow, or the same as you’ll be if Jeff Goldblum fondles your arm in proximity to an ailing triceratops? Best try out another spec. As Richard and Schaffer wrote in “Tropical Standard,” introducing a tempting roster of daiquiri variations, “The simple, beautiful Daiquiri is a world unto itself. You might explore it for the rest of your life.”