For centuries, the body of water that bisects Florida from Cuba known as the Florida Straits has nourished a wellspring of myths. One of them is about a drink we have all heard of yet almost nobody knows—the Daiquiri. No, it’s not some frozen concoction of shaved ice and flavored rum as you might believe. And no, you can’t find this drink at Daiquiri Decks studded along the coast of Florida. And finally, strawberries have nothing to do with this sacred remedy.
The Daiquiri, named for a town nestled into a cove 14 miles east of Santiago, Cuba, is two ounces of rum, citrus, and sugar. It’s been a thread of solidarity among watermen, writers, anglers, army-men, and almost anyone that’s spent time in Havana or Key West. But in the 120 years since the drink took shape, it seems that myth after myth accumulated until the quiet power of the Daiquiri was lost.
See: it began when the colonists pushed across the Atlantic into the West Indies, and once Spain reached Cuba, sugar and citrus followed in the 16th century. By 1898, the Cuban brand of rum as perfected by Ferdinand Bacardi spread across the Island, and then, throughout the century-long war for Cuban independence, soldiers were known to carry a mix of rum and citrus. They called it canchanchara—part cure and part courage. Another origin story points to when a captain of the Cuban rebel army went to sniff out a defunct iron mine along the southeastern coast with an American engineer near Daiquiri. Allegedly, the American had lemon, rum, and sugar on hand, and so in a nod to the canchanchara, the two mixed what they could find, and in its wake, another origin myth flowered.
The third came at the backend of the 19th century in the form of an explosion.
In January 1898, the USS Maine listed into the Havana Harbor at the outset of the Spanish-American War. For more than a month, the ship quietly sat an anchor, swaying with the trade winds that traversed the mere 90 miles between Havana and Key West. And then on a cool night in February, a mine tore the ship’s hull in two and claimed 260 officer’s lives.
By April, Spain declared war on America. And by June, a waypoint on the arc of the war formed in Daiquiri when American troops invaded the beach. Onshore and in the shadow of victory, William Rufus Shafter cupped a glass composed of 2/3 rum and 1/3 citrus juice. He liked it, but he told his hosts that the drink needed ice.
As soldiers returned to America, the first iteration of the Daiquiri followed, and the Army and Navy Club in D.C. was the first place it appeared formally in 1909. They even named the bar after the drink.
But in Havana, Emilio Gonzalez, a bartender at the Plaza Hotel, was taking three centuries of heritage and reintroducing it to Cuba’s capital. The same was taking place in Santiago, more than 500 miles away. Lime, rum, and sugar became lines on a map that inextricably tied Cuba and America together just as the water that undergirded the countries did. But for decades after, the drink was only found in a few corners of the world and remained relatively unknown.
Just one block south of Gonzalez along Avenida Belgica though, that would all change with another bartender named Constantino Ribalaigua in a place they’d later call the cradle of the Daiquiri or “la cuna del Daiquiri.”
The bar named La Floridita opened in 1817, and a 101 years later, Ribalaigua put pen to paper on the place, and soon with the recipes that made their way to Havana, he added ice and cherry juice to the Daiquiri and put his mark on the drink. But when, Ernest Hemingway ambled his way into the bar in the 1930s, he took Ribalaigua’s drink with him, and its popularity took shape.
Hemingway, who then lived in room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos between 1932 and 1939, wended his way through the streets each day as the heat spiked. He liked to be up early—the words coming easier then—and by midday, he found himself in the company of Ribalaigua drinking what they’d deem the “Papa Doble.” Papa Hemingway didn’t like the sugar nor the cherry juice, but he did care for the rum, so Ribalaigua would double down on the base, eliminate the sugar, and keep the citrus.
That was one myth tied to Hemingway, Cuba, and this drink that turned out to be true.
And on the trips that Hemingway made across the Florida Straits in his beloved boat, the Pilar, there must have been daiquiris. I’m sure after billfish were raised to the transom of the Pilar, drinks were shaken, poured, and imbibed somewhere between the two places he called home. The water between the sister cities would later form the covalent bond for his novels such as To Have and Have Not, and much of it must have come together while he watched the marlin teasers tear through the water. He put the pieces together in his head for what would become his masterpiece The Old Man and the Sea out there.
Across the mahogany bar at La Floridita, between a cantinero and an author, the contemporary Daiquiri was galvanized. Hemingway would take the drink with him to Key West, and in the century since, it’s become a litmus test for bartenders everywhere and a companion to many of us who came of age in the subtropical latitudes. It’s become a register of a complicated colonial history; of neighboring countries that have been at times in step and out of touch at others. But maybe more meaningfully, it’s become a compass for migration through Europe, the Caribbean, and America. It’s a drink that sustains how vital these places and our histories are, because in just three ounces, the drink nods to the soldiers whom garnered Cuba its independence with canchanchara fastened in their saddles, to the cantineros who helped inscribe Havana in the canon of literature with writers like Hemingway or Graham Greene, and ultimately a nod to the countless things down here that seem so simple yet become increasingly complex the closer you get.
But maybe most importantly, the drink applies to a wide range of tastes and people and place. On a wind-strewn porch in Old Town Key West, it nourishes you as the day runs out. Along a balcony overlooking the glow of Santiago and the Sierra Maestra mountains at its edges, it does this, too. And on the bow of a boat on the St. Johns, it seems almost magical, because there are few things as refreshing or rewarding as a Daiquiri––especially when the sun hangs high and the heat casts its spell over the State.