“The simplest drinks are always the most maddening,” says Jeff “Beachbum” Berry of the Daiquiri, one of around 70 off-menu classics available at his tiki bar, Latitude 29, in New Orleans’ French Quarter. With just three ingredients—lime, sugar and rum—the Daiquiri was among a handful of classic drinks that Berry knew would demand perfection.
“When tiki people came in, they were going to order a Mai Tai and judge us on it,” says Berry, an author and historian who’s widely considered to be tiki’s leading authority. “And when cocktail people came in, they were gonna judge us on our Daiquiri.” It was the latter drink, he says, that took the longest to perfect: Berry and his team spent a full year and a half workshopping the famed Cuban sour.
The original Daiquiri recipe is credited to Jennings Cox, an American iron mine engineer who lived in Cuba in 1902 near the town of Daiquiri. Concerned that his visiting American guests, accustomed to gin, wouldn’t like the taste of rum, he reportedly mixed it with equal parts sugar and lime juice. Of course, this is just one of many theories regarding the drink’s invention, but Berry insists that this is the only one with a paper trail. (He also points out, however, that Cubans had been mixing sugar, lime and rum for well over 200 years. Cox, he says, was “the Daiquiri’s midwife,” so to speak.)
Ironically, Berry never thought of the Daiquiri as a particularly interesting drink—until he started to deconstruct it. Working with his bar manager, Brad Smith, he began the process of concentrating the drink by reducing dilution in its various parts.
“Sugar syrup gives the Daiquiri a glycerin-y, too-smooth mouth feel,” Berry explains. “There’s also water in sugar syrup [so] you’re cutting down on the flavor of the citrus and the rum.” Dissolving sugar into freshly squeezed lime juice, as opposed to adding syrup, gives the Daiquiri its desired snap. Berry also uses a custom sugar blend made up of four parts white sugar to one part turbinado or demerara sugars, which, he says, adds complexity and a subtle molasses-y note.
The next step was to select the right rum. As Berry began researching the drink, which was conceived pre-Prohibition, he found that the rum used was never today’s standard 80-proof white rum—“all industrially produced and lacking in flavor”—but rather an 89-proof rum, specifically Bacardi Carta Blanca. “Again, there’s less water in the bottle,” says Berry of the higher alcohol content. At Latitude 29, they alternate between two rums, offering customer’s a choice between Caña Brava (86 proof) and Bacardi 1909 Superior Limited Edition (89 proof). The latter is hard to find, but, according to Berry, it yields a drink that’s more in line with historical precedent.
Finally, there’s the issue of properly chilling the drink without over-diluting it. Berry and Smith found that using larger cubes—two inches by two inches—cracked with the back of the bar spoon delivered the desired effect. “The key is to take the large format ice and just barely break it apart to add the chill properly and dilute it just enough,” says Smith. “You could very easily overpower it with regular chip ice—and essentially create a simple syrup in the cocktail because you’re adding too much water.”
The resulting drink is strained into a coupe and garnished with a lime wheel. It’s about as perfect as the Daiquiri gets, in Berry’s view—it just took 18 months to get there.