Why Your Daiquiri Isn’t the Same As Hemingway’s

The founder of Small Hand Foods investigates why the limes America’s bartenders used a century ago are at odds with the citrus we shake with today.

hemingway daiquiri cocktail

It started as a quest to perfect the Mai Tai.

I was tending bar at The Slanted Door, a Vietnamese restaurant in San Francisco, where my bar manager and I loved to argue about cocktail minutia. Like many bars in 2007, our version of the Mai Tai was a rum and juice mixture—pink, of course—lacking the characteristic marzipan flavor lent by orgeat, an almond syrup essential to the original recipe.

Traditionally, orgeat was made from whole almonds, but since the industrialization of food, this labor-intensive product was usurped by extract-flavored versions. After a bit of research and a load of testing, I began making a 19th century-inspired version with California-sourced ingredients. Eventually, my company Small Hand Foods was born, and five years later I’m cooking up batches of orgeat, grenadine, gum (plain, pineapple and raspberry versions) and tonic syrups to ship to bartenders and clients across the country. Perfecting pre-Prohibition era products has benefited my approach to bartending, allowing me to blend the wisdom of history and the efficiency of modern techniques.

For me, even the most basic of ingredients has the potential to become a well-researched science project, which is how I ended on a journey to understand the lime’s role in classic and modern drinks.

The lime is an essential building block of the daiquiris Hemingway drank, and the tonic 19th-century sailors consumed to thwart scurvy. But not all limes are created equal. The limes we find in grocery stores today are Persian limes, a.k.a. the Bearss lime, a variety developed by John T. Bearss in California in 1895. They were bred to be seedless, larger and thicker-skinned than Key limes—the more widely used variety at that time—so they would be hardier for transport and provide more juice per fruit. This Persian lime is a modern crossbreed named for the region where the lime was first grown.

Ironically, what we know to be Key limes were originally grown in Persia, but Spanish exploration in the 15th century prompted a global biological mash-up, and plants, animals and people were suddenly inserted into new regions around the world. When Columbus introduced the lime to the Americas, the fruit was christened according to its new, tropical locale. Until two hurricanes decimated Florida’s groves in 1926 and 1928, the Key breed ruled as America’s common lime. Subsequently, Bearss’s new variety swept the country.

This is a lot of history for one fact most pertinent to cocktail folk (and agro-history nerds): If you want to recreate a recipe published before 1928 that contains lime juice, the author based that recipe on Key limes.

Charles H. Baker Jr.—a late 19th- and early-20th century world traveler, bon vivant and writer—chronicled both lime varieties in his hilariously florid prose during a string of South American wanderings. While he doesn’t mention them by name, he does call for “small” or “large” limes, and sometimes “green” limes as well. We can assume which lime he meant based on the description as well as where in the world he happened to be. Baker’s Bumble Bee cocktail, a honey-sweetened rum sour, was published in the South American Gentleman’s Companion in 1951, and would have most likely been made with Key limes, according to regional availability.

When I learned of this history, I thought it must certainly impact modern cocktails based on early 20th-century recipes. If a drink calls for an ounce of lime juice, and we use Persian limes when the author intended us to use Key limes, the drink will surely be altered.

I set out to test this theory with as few ingredients as possible, so as not to detract from the limes. A daiquiri is the perfect subject: lime juice, simple syrup and rum. For this test, I mixed two daiquiris with the same proportions, one with each lime. The Key lime daiquiri resulted in an almost cloying drink. After a bit of research, I discovered Key limes are slightly more acidic than Persian limes, which one would assume requires a greater amount of sugar to balance potential mouth-puckering sourness. However, Key limes’ distinctive aroma is often perceived as sweet (in the same way aromatically “sweet” ingredients like vanilla, strawberries or bone-dry Austrian riesling might be perceived to taste sweeter regardless of actual sugar content), meaning a balanced drink using Key lime juice actually requires less sugar.

Once I understood the way each juice behaved in its respective daiquiri, I was able to adjust and make a balanced version of each. Due to the lower acidity of Persian limes and more subtle aromatic compounds, I prefer to increase the amounts of juice and sugar. My daiquiri specs are relatively dry and can be adjusted up or down depending upon what tastes good to you, but as Baker begs us, “Remember please, that a too-sweet daiquiri is like a lovely lady with too much perfume.”

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Jennifer Colliau has been a bartender and bar consultant for nearly two decades in the San Francisco and LA areas. She tended bar at the Slanted Door for eight years and is now managing The Long Now Salon. Jennifer is also the founder of Small Hand Foods, a company specializing in 19th-century style, hand-crafted bar syrups.

FROM AROUND THE WEB
  • Jamie Boudreau

    This article states in one paragraph that “key limes are more acidic” and then in an other, ” due to the higher acidity of persian limes…”. Clarification would make an otherwise good article, great.

    • Gent James

      Key limes have slightly greater total acid content vs. Persian but also even greater sugar content (on average). Another key difference is the presence of succinic acid in Persian (in addition to malic and citric) while Key limes do not.

    • Hey Jamie, good eyes. Of course, it should read “lower” acidity in the final paragraph. Thanks for the catch.

  • LeNell

    I’d also like to point out that depending on the season and how ripe the limes are will also affect the acidity/sweetness balance of your cocktails. We only used key limes in Mexico at our Casa Coctel bar; however, many times here in Alabama the key limes we find are much smaller and tarter.

  • Lmm3

    The only place I’m able to get key limes is at a Mexican market. I haven’t seen them in Whole Foods or Safeway.

  • Bobby Heugel

    Thanks for writing about these differences. It’s been a huge part of Alba and I’s bar program at The Pastry War. In our house margarita, we use a 50:50 blend of Persian and Key Lime. Together, they compliment one another – the Persians have more body in cocktails, and the Keys have a brighter quality. Anyway, I was excited to read this post. Thanks!

  • Jim Hayward

    The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale, which since 1956 has been serving recipes that date back to the 1930s, uses a blend of Key and Persian limes. Here’s the full story … http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/viewtopic.php?mode=viewtopic&topic=47293&forum=10&start=180

  • Tim Knittel

    Great article. Here’s a cocktail-nerd note: today’s key limes are not the same as 19th century key limes. Stella Parks did a great write-up on the evolution of key limes on Serious Eats:

    http://www.seriouseats.com/2016/05/are-key-limes-worth-the-price.html