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In Search of the Ultimate Daiquiri

We asked 20 of today's top bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Daiquiri—then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best. Robert Simonson on the search for the perfect take on the classic, and what we learned about the drink along the way.

The Daiquiri is such an agreeable cocktail. From a consumer point of view, that is. Nobody in an uptight frame of mind orders a Daiquiri, and no one expects to be left more stressed after they consume one. 

From where the bartender sits, however, there are few drinks more hotly debated. The cocktail is a simple proposition on paper: rum, lime, sugar. But perfectly aligning that triangle of flavors takes great skill. It is, therefore, a drink worthy of competition. So, on a recent Friday afternoon, the Punch staff decided to pit several versions of the rum sour, crafted by bartenders from Seattle to Boston, against each other.

Joining Punch were three visiting bartender critics—Joaquín Simó of Pouring Ribbons in Manhattan, Lynnette Marrero of Llama Inn in Brooklyn, and St. John Frizell of Fort Defiance, also in Brooklyn. Together, we blind-tasted 20 specimens in search of the best representation of the classic cocktail.

Among classics, the Daiquiri is arguably the sour held in highest estimation in cocktail circles. A child of Cuba (it takes its name from a beach near a coastal mining town), it took the tropical triptych of rum, lime juice and sugar and brought it to its apex. Credit, perversely enough, typically goes to an American mining engineer named Jennings Cox, who worked in Santiago de Cuba near the dawn of the 20th century and liked to entertain with pitchers of rum sours. Some local bartenders eventually helped to finesse the concoction.

The Daiquiri might well have remained a local quaff had Prohibition not sent boat- and planeloads of thirsty and curious Yankees across the water during the 1920s. Soon, it was the “best-known drink in Cuba,” according to writer Basil Woon in 1928. Another writer, Cuba-loving novelist Ernest Hemingway, did more than his fare share of publicity for the cocktail. By 1960, JFK was toasting Daiquiris to celebrate his election as President.

The cocktail spent much of the late-20th century in bars—and customers’ minds—as a frozen drink. But the version that has returned to the fore in cocktail bars in recent years is, thanks to pure-thinking young bartenders, served (for the most part) simply and sans slush.

On its face, the drink is simple enough, but it can split in infinite directions. Is the sugar raw or employed by way of syrup? Is that syrup 2:1 or 1:1? Is it made from turbinado, demerara or superfine cane sugar? Then of course, there’s the lime.

Marrero started by asking for a taste of the lime juice on its own to understand the baseline tartness of the citrus, something that can vary widely based on origin, season, type and ripeness. And this is to say nothing of the rum profile or the ratios of each ingredient.

“It’s the omelet of cocktails,” said Simó. “If you can’t make an omelet, you don’t know how to cook. Same thing with a Daiquiri.”

Best Daiquiri Recipe

In a blind tasting, the panel sampled 20 Daiquiris from today’s top bartenders.

But what, beyond balance, makes a great Daiquiri? For Simó, it is textural complexity—a heft to the body that jostles with the citrus. Marrero, meanwhile, is after the earthiness and subtle funk that both rum and cane syrup add to the drink to speak clearly. Then, of course, there’s the all-important thirst-quenching aspect of the Daiquiri. According to Frizell, the drink must have a right-from-the-bar vigor to it—something to “wash the dust out of your mouth.”

Few would argue that one’s rum choice isn’t, despite the other variables, the most important choice. While the panel was sympathetic toward using aged rums in a Daiquiri—particularly in the winter—in the end, it leaned toward white rums as producing the most traditional Daiquiri profile. Similarly, rhum agricoles—which turned up in a number of the entries—were not dismissed outright as poor choices for the drink. But neither were such rums, which are often grassy and herbaceous, fully embraced; they tended to be more volatile and bullied the other ingredients, making the drink harder to balance.

Not surprisingly, very few Daiquiris that strayed from the straight and narrow won the glad eye of the panel. Those, for example, that included the addition of bitters or crushed ice were considered unwelcome or just plain odd.

In fact, the cocktail with the highest score could hardly have been more traditional. Submitted by Pietro Collina of The NoMad Bar, it contained two ounces of Flor de Caña 4-Year Extra Dry rum, one ounce of lime juice and three-quarters of an ounce of rich cane syrup (2:1). It was the one drink that, during the first round of tasting, was immediately embraced by the entire panel as full-flavored and perfectly balanced.

“There’s enough happening here that you can keep thinking about it,” said Frizell, adding that such brainwork wouldn’t get in the way of his drinking it with due haste.

Coming in second was Frizell’s own entry. Made of two ounces of Denizen rum, and three-quarters of an ounce each of lime juice and simple syrup (1:1), every taster found a surprising depth of fruit flavor from the rum, which ranged from citrus to stone fruit. (“It’s like that perfect piece of grapefruit that you spoon out and pop into your mouth,” said Marrero.)

The number three cocktail came from Alex Day, of Proprietors LLC, which owns several bars, including Death & Co. and The Walker Inn. Day managed to sneak a quarter ounce of Neisson Blanc Rhum Agricole in the mix and still please the judges. This was balanced out by one-and-three-quarter ounces of Diplomático White Rum, one ounce of lime juice and three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup (1:1).

Simó summed up the drink—and, by extension, the ideal Daiquiri—perfectly: “It’s speaking clearly,” he said, “but not loudly.”

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