In Search of the Ultimate Hemingway Daiquiri

We asked 11 of America’s best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Hemingway Daiquiri—and then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

“It’s definitely a showcase for a bartender’s strengths,” said Jane Danger as she and a panel of judges sat down for a blind tasting of Hemingway Daiquiris. “It’s an interesting balancing game.”

That was a diplomatic way of saying things tend to go fast and loose with this drink. The cocktail has a world-famous name—two world-famous names, actually—and a renowned place of origin, El Floridita in Havana. But the recipe is, to a certain extent, up for grabs. We know there is rum, lime juice, grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur involved, but the proportions vary considerably. The choice of grapefruit (pink, Ruby Red or the once common, and now rare, white) and rum can further alter the cocktail. And simple syrup skips in and out of the drink like a house guest with odd hours.

In short, in contrast to many of the past cocktails that have been the subject of the Ultimate cocktail tastings at PUNCH, there’s no classic spec, making it tricky to pinpoint what exactly an “ultimate” Hemingway Daiquiri might be. Judge Paul McGee, of Chicago’s Lost Lake, looked for a brightness in the first sip. PUNCH editor Chloe Frechette sought to taste each component in the glass, while also seeking what she called “that tart kick” she expected from the drink. Danger, formerly of Mother of Pearl in New York’s East Village (and now the national mixologist for Pernod Ricard), wanted a balanced drink, noting that, with this particular array of ingredients, things can get “weird” pretty easily.

None of the 11 recipes, submitted by bartenders across the United States, adhered to the 1930s original, an unworkable mixture that called for a teaspoon each of grapefruit juice and maraschino liqueur, with no further sweetener. By the 1940s, the recipe evolved to include more grapefruit, but even less maraschino (six drops, according to Hemingway’s friend and biographer A.E. Hotchner). It was also blended and often served as a double, known as the Papa Doble. That might have been fine for the sugar-averse Hemingway, but strikes the modern palate as undrinkable. Most contemporary recipes for the Hemingway Daiquiri up the grapefruit and maraschino quotient and add some simple syrup to round out the drink. Thus, in a very real way, nearly every Hemingway Daiquiri served today is a marked variation of the original drink. Faithfulness is not the key to success here.

Despite all these fluctuations and intangibles, the drink, after spending decades languishing in the shadows, became a darling of the early years of the cocktail revival—partly because it was obscure and seemed in need of saving; and because it contained maraschino liqueur, an ingredient then just recently rediscovered. Since then, its popularity has decreased, but the drink remains firmly in the repertoire of the modern cocktail bartender.

How a bartender chooses to make it is entirely up to them, as the submitted drinks illustrated. Rum choices varied. Quite a few contestants called for a blend of different bottlings, and more than one asked for rhum agricole. Some used rum brands that are themselves already blends of various rums, offering yet another spirit option. “With rum being more of a thing now, you have a lot of blends in a bottle,” noted McGee.

Most recipes called for a bit of simple syrup or cane syrup. One formula included bitters, while another outlier was served on the rocks—something none of the panelists had ever encountered.

All the judges wanted the rum to stand up for itself—Hemingway or not, the drink is a Daiquiri, after all. And, as has been the tendency in other recent tastings, the panel wanted the maraschino to be tamed and toned down. At least half of the competing cocktails were greeted with moans about “too much maraschino.” (Danger noted that, during her days at Little Branch, the maraschino was blended with simple syrup to cut down on the pronounced cherry-almond flavor.) And just as many were thought to be too sweet; Hemingway would not have been happy.

The winning cocktail came, somewhat unexpectedly, from Fort Defiance in Brooklyn, not a bar known for the drink. Owner St. John Frizell used two ounces of Denizen Aged White Rum, three-quarters of an ounce of lime juice, a half-ounce of grapefruit juice, a quarter-ounce of Luxardo maraschino and three-eights of an ounce of 1:1 simple syrup. Perhaps a key to Frizell’s victory was his habit of including a small piece of grapefruit peel in the mixing tin when shaking, the so-called “regal shake.” The judges found the drink tart, bright and light-bodied, with just a hint of vanilla lurking in the background.

Second place went to a very different, but almost equally enjoyed specimen from Jelani Johnson of Clover Club in Brooklyn. The selection of Owney’s Original Rum, a local Brooklyn product which Johnson helps distill, led to a drink that was noticeably creamy, with a big vanilla note. The rest of the blend asked for three-quarters of an ounce of lime juice, a half-ounce grapefruit juice, half an ounce of rich cane syrup (2:1), and a quarter-ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur. The panelists noted that it was not quite what you’d expect when ordering a Hemingway Daiquiri, but they couldn’t deny its appeal.

Coming in third was Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego, whose recipe included a two-ounce shot of a rum blend comprising Caña Brava three-year-old and rhum agricole.

Otherwise, the measurements in Castro’s recipe nearly mirrored those of the other two winning drinks: three-quarters of an ounce lime juice, a half-ounce grapefruit juice, half an ounce of simple syrup and a quarter-ounce Luxardo maraschino liqueur. This suggested that, while the formula for a classic Hemingway Daiquiri may be somewhat indeterminate, there is a by-now accepted sweet spot out there. Just not too sweet, please.

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