The problem with blended frozen drinks, many pros say, is that they often read as one-note, and overly sweet. Bartenders have gotten around this issue by incorporating everything from Chartreuse to fernet into the mix, but there’s an even simpler solution that’s likely already in your kitchen. Whole coffee beans are a secret weapon: Dropping just a couple of them into a blender provides a barely detectable bitter backbone that cuts through sweetness while providing complex flavor.
At Manolito, a Cuban bar in New Orleans, a primary draw is the Daiquiris, including the Jazz Daiquiri, a frozen take made in the style of Havana’s El Floridita. What sets the drink apart is the five coffee beans buzzed with the cocktail in the blender, which “adds a chocolate note without oversweetening the drink,” says co-owner Konrad Kantor.
The technique of adding accent flavors in the blender comes courtesy of the bar’s namesake, the late Manuel “Manolito” Carbajo Aguiar, who was a cantinero (an honorific used for bartenders in Cuba) at El Floridita.
“When we were developing the program, one thing that I had noticed was the cantinero’s attention to, and appreciation of, texture in blended drinks,” recalls Nick Detrich, co-owner of Manolito. While visiting Floridita, he observed Aguiar adding green grapefruit segments to the blender while making a Papa Doble.
“There was a lovely pop of flavor whenever you sipped a piece of grapefruit pulp,” he remembers. Today, that technique carries over to a number of Manolito standards: mint leaves added to the Daiquiri Menta, a halved strawberry for the Strawberry Daiquiri and coffee beans for the Jazz Daiquiri, “to add in that bittersweet coffee bite in some sips” as well as a texture reminiscent of ground cacao nibs.
The challenge, Kantor says, is making sure the coffee doesn’t overpower the drink. After a series of intense R&D sessions, they found that “four was not enough,” while six “tastes like chewing on coffee beans.” For the roast, Manolito favors Pilon coffee, sourced in Cuba and roasted in Miami, but notes that “cheap, run-of-the-mill Colombian dark-roasted coffee beans” work well too for adding bold, chocolatey flavor. “Just nothing too burned,” he warns.
The coffee bean tradition is also used at a pair of Miami bars, courtesy of the late bartender John Lermayer. He developed the technique when he opened The Regent Cocktail Club in 2012, recalls Julio Cabrera, who was part of the opening team, overseeing rum and Cuban cocktails, and is now proprietor of Café La Trova.
Initially, Lermayer used it in a frozen Piña Colada riff called the Cuban Colada, with two coffee beans included in the blender. “He said ... It’s amazing how two coffee beans in a blender can change the whole thing. It creates some weirdness, and complexity,” Cabrera says. Though coffee is certainly a popular flavor in Cuba, Cabrera, a certified Cuban cantinero, explains that the technique is not part of the Cuban canon; Lermayer seems to have created it on his own.
Inspired, Cabrera developed two more blended drinks that incorporated coffee beans at Regent. One of those was a frozen banana Daiquiri, which he brought to Café La Trova.
Lermayer, meanwhile, brought the Cuban Colada to Miami’s Sweet Liberty, where the cocktail was transformed into the bar’s house Piña Colada, which still includes two coffee beans thrown directly in the blender.
“It adds a subtle, but not overpowering background coffee note,” explains Naren Young, who now runs Sweet Liberty. “It adds depth and complexity.” The other key ingredient, a quarter-ounce of Pedro Ximénez sherry floated on top of the drink, echoes the coffee flavor.
By adding a mere two coffee beans, Lermayer “created something more interesting than just a Piña Colada,” says Young. “It’s a stroke of genius.”