The Daiquiri is the History of American Empire in a CocktailRoundup
tags: imperialism, American Empire, Cuba, alcohol, Spanish-American War, cocktails, Caribbean history
Ian Seavey is a history PhD candidate at Texas A&M University. He tweets @HurricaneSeavey.
Rum, lime, and sugar. On their own, each of these ingredients have marked important developments throughout human history. When shaken together, they create a refreshing, translucent elixir enjoyed by Ernest Hemingway, John F. Kennedy, Facundo Bacardi, and Fidel Castro. While people have crudely mixed rum with lime and sugar since European colonization, the daiquiri rose to prominence as a direct result of the American imperial project in the Caribbean during the burgeoning classic cocktail age from 1860 to 1920. More so than the Cuba Libre (rum, Coca-Cola, and lime), the daiquiri has endured as a cultural touchstone, connecting people downing the frozen variety on Bourbon Street in New Orleans with those sipping a classic one in Havana.
Delicate yet bold, we find the first mention of the daiquiri printed in Hugo Ensslin’s iconic 1916 tome, Recipes for Mixed Drinks. Ensslin, a German immigrant and New York bartender, initially referred to the drink as the Cuban cocktail, but subsequent editions called it the daiquiri. While Ensslin was correct about the daiquiri originating in Cuba, its origins are more muddled. Since there is no such thing as a cocktail archive, the colorful and often fictitious tales about the drink’s creation have mostly survived through oral histories and recipe books.
The most widely accepted story claims that Jennings Cox, an American engineer, created the drink around 1898, after the American invasion of Cuba during the War of 1898. Cox managed mines around the town of Daiquirí and with the workday complete, he invited a friend over for a drink to escape the scorching heat. Cox combined the local Cuban rum (most likely Bacardi), with lime, sugar, and ice in a cocktail shaker and gave it a forceful shake. His guest was enthralled with the drink and asked what it was called. Surprised, Cox admitted the potion had not yet been named but thought it resembled something close to a rum sour. His guest scoffed at the underwhelming tone of “rum sour” and instead suggested calling it a “daiquiri” for the town where they worked. Thus, the daiquiri was born.
Alternative accounts profess that Cox’s guest was actually Facundo Bacardi, the patriarch and creator of Bacardi rum. Bacardi began distilling rum in his hometown of Santiago de Cuba in 1862. Seeking a clearer and more drinkable rum, he discovered a new way to filter the spirit through charcoal. This process revolutionized a stagnant industry of whom pirates, paupers, and slaves were thought to be the primary consumers. Bacardi’s light rum became the standard for Cuban rum—versatile enough to sip neat while also working well in a mixed drink.
During the Spanish-American War, American soldiers quickly developed a taste for Bacardi rum and subsequently daiquiris. As with many other histories of US empire, the military was responsible for transplanting parts of local culture, in this case drink, back to the mainland. It took about 10 years for the daiquiri to catch on in the United States, but by 1909, the Army Navy Club in downtown Washington, DC, had been renamed the Daiquiri Lounge. This solidified the daiquiri as a proper American cocktail despite relying on distinctly Cuban ingredients.
A decade later, after the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act outlawed the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors, thirsty Americans turned toward their Caribbean empire to find a legal drink. With Prohibition virtually unenforceable in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, the colonies saw a wave of new tourism, bringing with it economic and environmental exploitation. Absentee American sugar companies bought up land and often abused local populations in those islands to produce sugar, rum, and other commodities cheaply.