Pod Tiki: Hawaiian Blues

While Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic were awash in the fecundity of their newfound Tiki culture, capitalizing on faux exotic escapism and mystical prestidigitation, the gods were stirring over Waikiki. There, on a Pacific island, the traditional flavors of Hawaii began co-mingling with the newfound favor for tropical indulgence. Coconuts and pineapples danced with asian spices, Caribbean rums, Russian vodka, and British juniper. While Havana writhed in revolution America’s wealthy elite found a new playground in 1950’s pre-statehood O’ahu. They also found something else, or someone, rather.  With respect to Don and Vic there was another man who could be credited with promulgating the era of Polynesian Pop. Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Harry Yee. 

The Tiki torch flame of innovation was not lost on the South Pacific islands whose origins this newly described culture was often attributed. Harry Yee’s 30 years at the Hawaiian Village Hotel was spent creating some of the most popular concoctions in tropical cocktalia, the most famous of which is - the Blue Hawaii. 

Diving in to my research of Tiki and tropical drinks I’ve run across the obvious big ones, your Mai Tai, your Zombie, your Daiquiri. Complex, flavorful, rich in both profile and history. Others fall into the fruity “Boat Drinks” category, while others seem too simple to compel an entire article. In fact, that is why I initially chose the Blue Hawaii as our next recipe. I thought it would be an easy palate cleanse before diving into the burdensome and controversial Zombie. Yet, upon a cursory dive I quickly found the story of Harry Yee and the often confused Blue Hawaiian cocktail. Upon mixing up a few of these at the house for my fiance and I, (yeah, that happened since the last article), I also discovered a quaint and delicious unexpected depth in these two drinks.    

"Those days when tourists came in, they said, 'Give me a Hawaiian drink.' We didn't have any Hawaiian drinks. There were no such things as exotic drinks. Or tropical drinks from Hawaii." Harry Yee needed to invent the Hawaiian cocktail. He got a little help from venerable Dutch distillery Bols. You see, Bols wasn’t getting much love their Blue Curacao variant and approached Yee for some of that much needed island intrigue. Yee was no stranger to Tiki ingenuity. After all, he was the first to appropriate Hawaii’s orchid as a garnish. Yee is purported to be the first to use paper umbrellas, a defining staple in tropical drink accoutrement. The man wasn’t afraid to experiment either, see the Tropical Itch cocktail which came with a bamboo back scratcher towering out of a hurricane glass.  

The Blue Hawaii suffered many iterations while Yee attempted to find that perfect balance of tropical easy-to-sip but oomph-packing enough to compete with boozy Tiki drinks; all while visually invoking the spirit of the Hawaiian islands. He did not disappoint. 

The Blue Hawaii’s name didn’t come from the Elvis movie as many would be inclined to believe. Instead it’s said to take its namesake from the titular Leo Robin song composed for Bing Crosby’s 1937 film, Waikiki Wedding. The marrying of Harry Yee’s expertise, local flair, and time honored spirits make this cocktail a bit of a Waikiki wedding itself. 

So, on that note - let’s make a drink!  


Harry Yee’s original Blue Hawaii recipe calls first for the proper tropical barware. For this we reach for a hurricane glass. If you don’t have one on hand a stemmed beer glass would work or even a pilsner. The idea is we want something tall and clear. No matter how cool your ceramic mermaid tiki mug is (and I know, I have one), to make this drink without being able to admire the seafoam turquoise splendor would be like making love to a beautiful woman with a blindfold on. 

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Per Harry’s style we’re going to fill that glass with crushed ice and pour in 3 oz fresh pineapple juice. That’s not neon yellow Dole from a can. Grab yourself a pineapple, cut the rind off - making sure you get all those little thorny brown dimples out, and blend it to a liquid. A lot of grocers now actually sell fresh pre-cut pineapple. Save yourself the chopping and grab that. 

Add 1 oz sweet & sour mix. There are various recipes for making your own mix, and believe how I shutter at the notion of using any kind of pre-mix at all, but since it’s only 1 oz just grab whichever high end organic stuff you can find. Larger liquor stores usually carry decent mixes. I would shy away from grocery store stuff. 

½ oz Blue Curacao. Bols is pretty good and affordable, but not on every shelf. It won’t kill the drink to use the more widely pervasive Dekuyper. 

The mixing of spirits to tease out new flavors is no stranger to tiki drinks, but so far we’ve only encountered the demon rum being implemented. This is the first cocktail in our journey through the barony of belligerence that not only prominently features curacao, usually an accompaniment, but blends vodka with rum. Yee doesn’t specify a brand but I always go for my bottle of Reyka Icelandic vodka. It has a warm small batch craft flavor. Minimal burn with hints of humidity and sweet vegetation, along with a pleasant price tag, makes this the perfect vodka for mixing or highlighting a martini. On the other hand, our Polynesian progenitor does have a preference on rum. Light Puerto Rican. “It’s a better taste.” Says Yee. Hear Yee, Hear Yee!

Stir gently - like everything is done in Hawaii. Garnish with a pineapple slice and orchid flower. Aloha…  The result is an oceanic blend of sultry south Pacific pacification complicit in dreams of island-pineapple-love-sweet-citrus-sugar-cane-hula-girl in a glass. Rumor has it Yee checked the accuracy of his concoction by holding it up towards the beach. If it matched the color of the Pacific Ocean, it was mixed right. 

Fresh pineapple truly brings out the essence of this cocktail. The sweet & sour has time to shine behind a vodka/rum partnership that’s been bringing wahine's and hoale’s together for decades. Thank you Mr. Yee. 

It sure has been nice to finally cover a cocktail with one distinct agreed upon origin. But alas, you know there has to be a thousand recipe variants because I apparently have chosen a topic of abject opinion to write about. Well, like the saying goes, we all have one of those, right? So, here’s my recipe. 

Ok, we don’t all have access to fresh pineapple all year round. Most of us though can acquire those little cans of Dole. My version keeps with the original but because canned pineapple juice is thicker and sweeter we have to adjust a little. While nothing beats fresh this recipe will still manage to infect your spirit with a little liquid aloha. In a hurricane glass filled with crushed ice pour 2 oz canned Dole pineapple juice, 1 oz of fresh lemon juice (helps cut the sweetness of the pineapple), 1 oz Blue Curacao, ¾ oz Reyka vodka, and ¾ oz Bacardi Superior light PR rum. Stir and drift away. 

To bolster that experience find a nice Hawaiian music playlist or some Exotica by Martin Denny. Fruity cocktails like this pair nicely with a mild to medium bodied cigar. I recommend the KBF by Principle Cigars or whatever your favorite Connecticut wrapper stick. 

Alright so I guess I’ll see ya’ll next ti- , Wait Wait Wait!   What’s that you say? This isn’t the drink you thought you were making? Coconut, you say? Frozen? Well, you have mistaken this original Harry Yee Blue Hawaii for the similarly, very confusingly named, Blue Hawaiian

Tiki culture is no stranger to re-appropriation. In fact, it’s kind of built on it. The Blue Hawaiian cocktail not only borrows its name from the original Harry Yee drink, but its flavor profile from another very famous tropical libation. For the Blue Hawaiian is very much Pina Colada adjacent. There’s not much available in the way of origin story for this drink but it pops up regularly amid the litany of tikidom. Beachbum Berry’s Blue Hawaii subs out the sweet & sour for lemon juice and adds coconut cream essentially transforming it to a Blue Hawaiian. I know, very confusing, but stay with me. I get the impression this is one of those cocktails that evolved naturally over time due to a false necessity. Basically, there’s no need for this drink, but here it is. 

¾ oz Light Puerto Rico rum. ¾ oz Vodka. ¾ oz Blue Curacao. 2 oz fresh pineapple puree. ¾ oz coconut cream, and ½ oz fresh lemon juice. Blend with 1 cup ice and pour into a large cocktail glass or snifter. Again, anything clear enough to admire the color. 

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The result is a smooth creamy seaweed colored frozen concoction. The spumescent headiness leaves a dripping froth down the glass with each sip. It’s reminiscent of sea foam washed up by the tide and left on the beach. Pineapple puree combined with the creamy coconut is offset by sour lemon and the bright citrus notes of curacao. Rich and frothy, this cocktail definitely has all the makings of a tropical try hard. Honestly, I’m not a fan. It’s a little too rich and frothy. Too creamy for my liking. 

I prefer my tiki or tropical cocktails a little more fruity and tart or spirit forward. This is for sure a drink created solely for the look and to appeal to as mass an audience as possible. Sure, it’s delicious. Who doesn’t like pineapple and coconut? But there’s little in the way of character or personality within this drink. Although, it fits perfectly within the hands and hearts of pasty overweight tourists rolling around drunk on the lido deck of a cruise ship while their kids shit up the pool. Plus, who wants cream in a tropical drink? “Hmm, it’s a lovely humid day in the Caribbean. You know what would be great right now in this heat? Some heavy cream!” ...Gross. 

Thus, if you’re in the mood for some Hawaiian blues I would sololy recommend the original Harry Yee Blue Hawaii. It’ll add a little tropical tide to your weekend patio escapism without the incapacitating effect of some proofier Tiki drinks. Just remember, as Mr. Yee said, to always “serve with aloha!” 




Pod Tiki: The Daiquiri

“My Daiquiri in El Floridita.” It wasn’t the burly man’s American aplomb that took Constantino aback. Havana had been no stranger to yanquee tourism since prohibition. Some likened La Habana to a Paris of the Caribbean. No, it wasn’t that about the stranger. It wasn’t even his curious Spanish, obviously learned in Spain and not the Caribbean. He walked with a stride betraying an earned confidence bordering on arrogance. Like a grousing old man who pretends to be angry then playfully gives a wink. Constantino, head cantinero at El Floridita, Havana, Cuba circa 1930’s, has the man careening through the front door heading straight for the men’s room. As the relieved looking man strode out and past the bar he became instantly entranced by the flashy bartender holding a bottle aloft and pouring a high long stream of shimmering rum. “What’s that, there?” The man was intrigued. So, Constantino made Ernest Hemingway one of his soon to be legendary Floridita Daiquiris. With an indiscriminate lean towards the bar Hemingway mused, “Not bad. Make me one with no sugar, double rum.” With a contagious nod of approval the Papa Doble was born and the now pervasive Daiquiri caught the intemperate glare of posterity. A glare that continues to see into even these our modern days. This is the story of the Daiquiri.  


Rum, sugar, lime juice. It’s improbable that any one person could really be credited with first combining those three ingredients so prevalent in the age of exploration. It certainly goes back further than Constantino in the 1930’s. British Navy Grog rations had been mixed with lime since the late 18th century, and suspicions connecting citrus and scurvy had been documented as far back as Vasco de Gama. When he found the actual Indies, (take that Columbus.) The Taino people of the West Indies are said to have aided infamous plunderer Sir Francis Drake’s ill crew with an elixir of rum, sugar, mint and lime juice, (see my previous Mojito article.) But alas, for our purposes we are dialing in once again on Cuba. Specifically the small mining town of Daiquiri near Santiago de Cuba somewhere in the late 1890’s and one Jennings Cox.


As to be expected by this point there are multiple origins thrown around regarding this cocktail’s legend, but we’re going to settle in on the one I have prominently found. Jennings Cox was a mining engineer leading a team in Cuba at the behest of President Roosevelt in 1896. A story relayed by Cox’s granddaughter claims that; upon running out of gin while entertaining one evening, and not wanting the serve the primitive rum spirit to his guests straight-up, Jennings Cox combined lime juice, cane sugar and crushed ice. Being thoroughly enjoyed by all, the cocktail was dubbed Daiquiri after the town they were mining. In all likelihood Cox had seen local miners mixing these ingredients into their weekly rations of Bacardi Carte Blanc since his arrival. But, you know what they say about he who writes the history. 


And yes, we’re back at Bacardi. The charcoal filtered oak barrel aged pre-revolutionary spirit of Facundo Bacardi would have looked and tasted much different than the ubiquitous crystalline bachelorette party fuel we find today. Bacardi would have been the prevalent rum in Cuba before the subsequently government owned Havana Club forced the largest family owned distillery in the world off the island. (A title Bacardi still holds as of 2019.) 


Bacardi’s popularity was soaring way before Cox would be exploiting the mines of Daiquiri. At some point the 6 year old King Alfonso XIII of Spain had fallen ill with fever. Because remember for all you aspiring time travelers out there this is a time when people died of diarrhea and a fever. Exhausting all the medical knowledge of the day the king’s keepers began administering the royal child small servings of Bacardi rum till he essentially - passed out. Once again the “medicinal” attributes of rum worked there magic and it came to pass that upon awakening from his healing slumber, (aka alcohol doping a small boy) the callow king’s fever broke and Bacardi was credited with saving the life of His Majesty. 


The Daiquiri had already found its way across the Florida Straits by the early 1930’s when Constantino Ribalaigua Vert pivoted from head bartender to owner of El Floridita. Originally opened in 1817 as La Pina de Plata the famous bar remains perched on the corner of Calles Obispo y Monserrate offering a cool and boozy reprieve to the insufferably hot Caribbean afternoons. Personally, I kinda like the original name. I would totally drink at The Silver Pineapple.     


Today the famous bar inside is decorated in a deep vermillion red, the same color as the bartender’s vintage vests. The sizable murals of a uniformed Fidel have been replaced by mirrors and behind the bar a large stormy sepia portrait of a sailing vessel arriving in Havana harbor looks out over the room. A band plays inside, another Cuban jazz rendition of Boy From Ipanema. And there he is nonchalantly casting aspersions over the bar from his spot in the far left corner. In all his bronzified glory. The lifesize statue of Hemingway. I drank a lot of daiquiris with Hem over the course of my stay in Havana. And true, El Floridita has become a bit of a tourist trap, but the essence of the legendary author looms ethereal as I sat beside that statue sharing his view of the bar that claims the title; La Cuna Del Daiquiri - The Cradle Of The Daiquiri. 


The daiquiri seems pretty straight forward, right?. It’s simple, marrying the very basic of cocktail ingredients. But nary another cocktail, I believe, encompasses as many veritable variations. The cuban Floridita version, the “classic”, myriad slight twists and sidestreet variations to those, and yes - even the frozen-fruit-dad’s cabana shirt on lido deck-boat-drink version has a place in the legendary pantheon of the daiquiri. In fact, this is the first drink we’ve encountered in which I prefer a deviation over either the original cocktail or the Floridita. 


Today we’re going to start with the Jennings Cox recipe, which is accepted as the standard, and two Floridita recipes. There are way too many variations of this cocktail to try and discuss them all. And after the night my girl and I spent consuming a legion of daiquiris attempting to perfect the recipes, I don’t think our livers can handle any more “sampling”. For research purposes only, of course. (He types while currently sipping a research daiquiri.) 


Well, that’s enough banter out of me and we’ve got a lot to cover so - Let’s make a drink! 


When I say we tasted several daiquiris in prep for this article I am not exaggerating in the least. My girl and I exhausted our palates and our sobriety attempting to solidify the best versions of our three daiquiris. As with attempting to codify anything in the world of classic cocktails there are usually 2-3 recipes that claim to be the “original”. That being said, it’s pretty agreed upon that the classic daiquiri cocktail recipe reads as follows: 2 oz light rum, 1 oz fresh lime juice, ½ oz simple syrup. 


This as seen in most bars will be shaken with crushed ice and strained into a coupe. Of course Cuban rum is preferred. Havana Club 3 Anos if you can get it. But, since politics make for strange drinking buddies I have some other suggestions. Defaulting to Bacardi my seem inherent. Eh... Current day Bacardi works great for mojitos and Cuba libres but lacks the necessary depth to stand out in a cocktail that’s as rum forward as the daiquiri. Despite Cox’s desire to make his rum more palatable we have to remember he was serving in a time when rum was still regarded as the plebeian spirit of the third world working class. His contemporaries would have been more accustomed to crisp flowery gin, the wheaty burn of Tennessee sour mash, or French Brandy. We should be accentuating the rum flavor in our daiquiri, not trying to cover it up. For that reason I reach for El Dorado 3yr White Demerara Rum. We’re not going to go into the history of Demerara Rums here but hailing from Guyana, using only sugar cane grown along the Demerara river, and being aged 2 yrs longer than most white rums on the market, El Dorado has been taking this category by storm since they burst on the scene back in 1992. I can’t speak highly enough of this rum and any cocktail calling for a light Puerto Rican rum can be bolstered by using El Dorado 3yr instead.


Pretty simple on this one. Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with crushed ice, pour in the rum, lime juice and simple syrup. Shake vigorously until the shaker feels too cold to hold then strain into a coupe or martini glass. Only notes on this one would be to make sure you use crushed ice in the shaker. It gives the liquid more surface area of ice to bounce off of and aids in dissolving the drink correctly. And of course I don't have to tell you by now you sweet-sweet libation loving fools to always ALWAYS use fresh squeezed lime juice. I recommend making your own simple syrup, too. Get some raw cane sugar and boil up a 1:1 sugar-water mix. In the Pod Tiki household we do one cup of each and keep it in a mason jar in the fridge. Even without the preservatives it should last over a month, but honestly I couldn’t tell you for sure since we usually burn through it post haste. 


Constantino’s El Floridita Daiquiri keeps with the basic ingredients with the addition of Maraschino Liqueur. Also, the way I’ve seen it made there raw cane sugar is used rather than syrup. I generally am not a big fan of syrup if it can be avoided. Unfortunately, in many our tiki drinks it cannot. But alas, here it can. So use the raw sugar. The other defining characteristic of the Cuban daiquiri is that it’s served frozen. 


The blender had recently come into fashion in bars, especially in the tropical prohibition era Havana, and Constantino couldn’t wait to put it into action. He tried many recipes and I believe had four distinct variations on the menu. Even at its inception this contentious cocktail couldn’t be ensconced in just one version. Much like Dirty Dancing 2 Havana Nights, nobody puts daiquiri in a corner. 


After extensive digging through vintage cocktail books and an arduous evening of trial and error, (for research purposes only I implore you to remember), I have settled on the recipe that tastes most like El Floridita Daiquiri I had in Havana. 1 ½ oz El Dorado 3yr Demerara white rum, ¾ oz of lime juice, 1 tsp Luxardo Maraschino liqueur, 1 tsp cane sugar. 


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Now, the Cubans don’t generally like their drinks as sweet as we do here in the U.S. of A, so if this seems a little dull just replace the cane sugar with 1 tsp of that simple syrup. Place all that in a blender with about 1 cup of ice and go to town. Conventional blenders work fine but as a pro tip from a non-pro, get your hands on a Nutri-Bullet 900. It mixes consistent and the various size mixing cups lend themselves easily to our more Dionysian business. Post pour the drink should melt rapidly eventually resembling a glacier of debaucherous deliciousness floating motionless in an opaque coral colored sea. 


The Maraschino should be present but not in front of the rum. The canvas of this drink should see the flavors swimming in harmony like a well crafted Bob Ross scene. Purportedly upon enjoying seventeen of these delectable deviants in one sitting Hemingway is quoted as saying, “It was moderately terrific and made me feel a friend to all mankind.” Awe, Hem. He liked his double the rum and no sugar. Which leads us to our next version.


The Papa Doble is aptly named after the author who made his home in Cuba and visited El Floridita frequently. Because Hem liked the bitter-sour over sweet Constantino replaced the sugar with grapefruit juice. Born is the Papa Doble Daiquiri. 3oz Light Rum, ¾ oz lime juice, 2 oz grapefruit juice, 1 tsp Luxardo Maraschino liqueur. If you want to get really traditional forgo measuring your lime and grapefruit for simply squeezing 1 half of a lime and 1 half of a grapefruit. That’s how they do it at El Floridita, but as mentioned before, the size of our fruit in the U.S. generally leaves something to be desired. 


This drink is… well, my notes for this recipe just has the word “whoa” written beside it if that tells you anything. And yes, it’s said that Hemingway first encountered the daiquiri because he stopped in El Floridita to use the bathroom. I’m not buying it since his room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel was a mere few blocks away and it’s no secret the man had a penchant for tippling. I’m just saying. This drink packs an expected rum forward kick with crisp but warm citrus notes thanks to the lime and heavy bitter grapefruit pour. It’s actually quite pleasant if you’re the type who has burned out their palate on spicy-bitter-bullfighting-Africa-artillery-cosmic-yee-haw their whole life and needs the equivalent of a pack of lit firecrackers in their mouth just to feel alive. Look, it’s fine, but I have an admission. In Havana my girlfriend actually ordered the Papa Doble while I stuck to Constantino’s original recipe. Which brings us to the final of our main recipes, the Hemingway Special. 


The Hemingway Special is a Papa Doble made so regular people can drink it safely. The prolific writer once bragged in a letter about consuming seventeen! Daiquiris in one sitting stopping only to, “use the can”. By the way, the bathroom at El Floridita seems to play a prominent role in the Hemingway’s mythos. I can proudly say I’ve pissed in the same spot as Hem himself. But seriously, seventeen daiquiris? If these were Papa Dobles that is quite a feat. It also explains why it was said by the end of his life you could see his distended liver through his shirt. It’s said that he would sit in his corner in his white guayabera shirt and blue shorts reading, writing, and entertaining guests sometimes multiple times a day.  *Drink Responsibly and in Moderation.* 


The Henminway Special as it was labeled on El Floridita’s menu back then encompasses the spirit of the old man while maintaining reasonable drinkability. We’re going to use 2 oz light rum, 1⁄2 oz lime juice, ½ oz simple syrup, 1 oz grapefruit juice, 1 tsp Maraschino liqueur. You can blend that with 1 cup ice, or strain and serve. Cocktail glass for frozen, coupe for strained. This version is a perfect meld of tart lime and bitter grapefruit with a hint of the maraschino cherry depth and that sweet rum and sugar. A great cocktail and of the three, my favorite. 


The daiquiri is a perfect example of how splendid simplicity can be. At its core the three ingredients is all you need. Rum, lime, sugar. Even if you’re not into classic craft cocktails, if you’re not that asshole at parties who scoffs at the host’s booze selection or makeshift drink station, (by the way - fuck that guy) or if you’re hosting and want to impress with a simple yet elegant fresh cocktail… the daiquiri is the way to go. Nice and sweet-tart-tipsy. Refreshing refinement that can be teased up and played with to match your flavor profile.  


Ah, but we’re not done. As I mentioned at the top this is a cocktail with many variants and personal play-with-its. And, one of these offshoots is actually my favorite. I have fallen hard for Plantation 3 Star aged silver rum. Plantation does an incontestable job of masterfully blending rums from Jamaica, Barbados, and Trinidad to bring us a superb rum that’s simultaneously full bodied enough for tiki drinks and light enough for beachy cocktails. I could rant on forever about this ambrosia of the Carib and maybe a future series on my favorite brands is in order. As much as I love it, I wouldn’t recommend Plantation 3 for mojitos or cocktails using other heavy flavors, as the Jamiacan in it lends a rich funky character that kinda jumps ahead. But for a rum forward daiquiri it lends itself perfectly to the other flavors. Those of which are Henminway inspired. Here is my personal favorite Daiquiri recipe. 2 oz Plantation 3 Star, ½ oz lime juice, ½ oz grapefruit juice, 1 tsp Maraschino liqueur, 1 tsp simple syrup. Shake with crushed ice and strain into a short coupe. Bam!  


I would also like to give an honorable mention to what I call the Jamaiquiri. Sub out the light rum for Myers or another dark Jamaican rum. Even still, don’t be afraid of the dreaded fruit daiquiri. With fresh fruit and good rum they can be quite pleasant, after all. Maybe we’ll tackle that in our “boat drink” series. But hey, the original is pretty damn good by its lonesome with nary a twist or tweek into cocktail nerddom. There’s the Daiquiri my friends. A classic - nay! - a legend all the way. Salute!

Pod Tiki: The Mojito

A quaint Cuban cafe, Old’s Havana, on Calle Ocho. Beyond an open facade the white noise of an early evening squall slaps at the sidewalks of Little Havana, Miami. Four squat and dark haired middle aged men sardined in the corner play some Latin Jazz. Warble-crooning and easy-plucking at the vinyl strings. Behind the bar a tall young man sporting a white button-down lines collins glasses up about ten across. In each glass he methodically, and with flippant precision, javelines in mint sprigs, then handily into each one scoops two bar spoons of sugar… and waited.

 

The orders came in legion. Two of them were ours. I watched the bartender brandish a large wooden muddler. Squoosh-splish...The sound of fresh lime juice pressing vigorously into mint and sugar rivaled the tropical shower outside. Each glass got its cummupense. Pour the white rum, a brand I didn’t recognize, into a sugar frothed pallid green slush. Filled with ice every promethean cocktail received a sugar cane stalk and was topped off with sparkling water. I poked my straw deep into the mint and remnants of undissolved sugar. My daughter lifted her glass for a cheers and we each took that metanoial sip. That began in earnest my foray, nay, my expedition into the mojito. 


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My “research” has since taken me to a plethora of bars and restaurants to find a comparable mojito. Including Havana, Cuba, the birthplace of this convivial cocktail. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. To me anyway, the story of the mojito is the story of Cuban rum. 


It was the year of our Lord 1862 in Santiago de Cuba when an immigrant of Spanish/French decent opened his distillery. Don Fecundo Bacardi set out to create the best new rum in the Caribbean. His charcoal filtration technique lead to the clear clean style of distilling now referred to as the Cuban style. Its fruity-earthy-crisp-tobacco’ish profile incontestably marries flavors of the Cuban terroir with the smooth easy drinking sensibilities of the burgeoning American tourist boom. (We’ll get there.) The idolic tower distillery in Havana still bears an iconic fruit bat effigy aloft its mighty spire. The impending revolution and Bacardi’s strong political leanings forced him, and consequently his rum, to abandon his native island for less turbulent seas. But not before lending itself to the creation of some of the world’s most popular cocktails. 


Today Havana Club dominates the mojito, but at it’s very root the progenatorial rum would’ve been Bacardi. We’ll compare the two later for our purposes. 


Of course like every single cocktail I’ve researched thus far there is an origin, and an origin. The way back claims the infamous pirate Sir Francis Drake may have initially combined the ingredients we know as the Mojito today as a remedy. Legend has it while somewhere off the coast of Cuba around 1586 Drake’s men found themselves too ill to sail. After consulting the local Taino people the primaveral plunderer concocted a remedy for his sailors consisting of mint - to soothe the tummy, lime - to prevent scurvy, sugar - for flavor, and chuchuhuasi tree bark soaked in rum - said to have certain, ahem - “medicinal” properties. This was what some claim to be the world’s very first cocktail, named after the Spanish moniker for Francis Drake, El Draque - The Dragon. 


Centuries later came the Americans. Yes, we find ourselves back at prohibition. You may be surprised to learn that the ratification of the eighteenth amendment didn’t suddenly turn the whole of the United States into repentant teetotaling puritans. Rather, it was more like the entire country was made to sign a nationwide “prom promise” while millions of fingers crossed behind backs from sea to shining sea. Thirsty American tourists flocked like a murder of booze-mad crows from the eastern seaboard of Estados Unidos to Havana, Cuba. 


The infatuation with our rum-soaked cigar-smoked offshore neighbor didn’t burn out post prohibition. An influx of tourist and mob money made Havana light up like a floating Vegas. Dirty money never sparkled and glistened so bright. Sinatra sang, Hemingway wrote, Ava Gardner rubbed elbows with Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt while in 1946 the Hotel Nacional hosted one of the largest known gatherings of crime bosses in mob history. 


Amid the glamourous uproar local people still needed normal folk stuff, like a bodega to eat and pick up sundries. In 1942 Angel Martinez opened a little place on the middle of Calle Empedrado in Habana Vieja. Serving dinner and drinks throughout the late 40’s Casa Martinez grew as a hotbed of burgeoning hipster culture. Poets, writers, musicians, and yes - even a few pre-revolutionaries with names like Castro and Guevara came to hang out at the little bar in the middle. Or as it was christened in 1950 - La Bodeguita Del Medio


Bodeguita holds popular claim to inventing the Mojito. Barely a one room wooden barroom, walls covered twice over with handwritten signatures from decades of patrons. Tourists hover around the bar while locals popping by for a quick mojito on their way home spill out of the open facade onto la calle. An all too seasoned bartender with buzzed peppered hair barely cracks a stoic smile at my girlfriend as they mock-dance with the bar between them; arms steepled over rows of small collins glasses. We named him the Cuban Papa. 


The mojito at Bodeguita is pale green and might taste a bit flat to someone used to soda water. In Havana they use sparkling water instead of soda. Yes, there is a difference. Soda water or seltzer is artificially carbonated. The bubbles are larger and more abundant. Whereas sparkling water’s bubbles are naturally occurring from the natural spring where the water is collected. Simply put, smaller softer bubbles. I prefer sparkling water over club soda in my mojitos. Another difference one might find in a Cuban mojito is the mint springs. A strain known as Yerba Buena, they’re way bigger and more verdant than any of the lame limp mint twiglets found in my local Kroger. Keep in mind that pretty much everything in Cuba is grown in Cuba. The mint and lime juice are both farm to table, or farm to glass in this case. 


In Bodeguita the glasses are lined in a similar way as described earlier along the small bartop. El Cuban Papa, wielding a muddler the size of a small baton, preps and attacks the mint-sugar-lime in each consecutive glass with a fervor that sends drops of sugary citrus raining down upon the bar. He eyeballs a decent helping of Havana Club 3 anos, fills the glass with ice and tops off with local bubbly water. The result is a perfectly balanced masterpiece of cocktailia. Not too sweet, prevalent mint, hints of citrus accentuated by the bodily light aged rum. It’s refreshing and easy to go down, (especially at the bargain price of $5 a drink). The rum palate holds its own against any hipster-old-fashioned-pinky-out-thumb-up-your-ass bourbon classist. And, this is the basis for the way I make mojitos. 


Okay, let’s make a drink. I find this recipe works best in a 10-12 oz collins glass. Grab yourself a wooden muddler, bar spoon, and small cubed ice. We’ll need fresh lime juice. Cuban barkeeps will say half a lime to equal ¾ oz. Since the lime selection in the U.S. can vary from hormone induced monolithic green giants to something more like a little green testicle, it’s a safe bet to simply juice your limes ahead of time to assure proper portion control. For the best mint I would look for the live herbs some of your better groceries are carrying now. They come as a little plant ready to be cut right from the source. The other option is to befriend a local bar manager who will get you some of the nice fresh mint from a restaurant supply store. I’m no drink snob, but soggy broken prepackaged mini mint won’t render the flavor we’re looking for in a mojito. My preference on sparkling water is Pellegrino. I find Topo Chico and Perrier too carbonated. Now just grab yourself a bag of raw cane sugar, usually found in the baking aisle, and we’re good to go! 


Oh, dear heavens. Lest I’ve forgotten the most important part. Rum! If you can get your hands on some Havana Club 3 Anos that’s the obvious choice. This drink was invented with Cuban rum and nothing else is quite like it. The 3 year is a pallid off-white color due to the aging in oak barrels and offers a fruity tepid-sweet taste with notes of creamy oak and soft humidity. For something a little sweeter a light Demerara rum fills this drink out nicely. The added earthy/fruity notes are not quite like a Cuban in flavor but they add a complexity that offers a similar body and feel. I use El Dorado if I’m going that route. Cruzan makes a decent cost efficient light rum and Plantation 3 Star will add a hint of funk. I personally am a mojito purest, so I go with Bacardi. It might not be from Cuba anymore, and hard core rum snobs will battle me on this, but a good Puerto Rican rum is not that different from the Cuban. Especially when it’s from the company that invented Cuban rum. I’ve taken my stand and I’ll die on this hill alone if necessary. Fruity and sweet with a little woody spice Bacardi light rum is perfect for mojitos. 


(Sidenote: Havana Club PR light rum is available in the US and supposed to be a comparable replacement for Cuban rum, designed for Cuban cocktails. I haven’t tried it but I have noticed the more pallid tinted color, so maybe there’s complexity there worth a taste.)


Here we go! Fold a good size mint sprig into a collins glass. I go for three tiers of leaves. There’s a lot of flavor in the entire sprig so don’t go picking the leaves off and discarding all that minty goodness in the stem.


Add 2 bar spoons of raw cane sugar and ¾ oz lime juice. Now it’s time to muddle. Wait wait wait… Slow down, tiger. Veteran bartenders make it look sexy with all the pomp and circumstance but all we’re really trying to do is bruise the mint to release the flavor and pull the lime and sugar off the proverbial wall of the high school dance and get them all friendly. Too much muddling could result in shredding and you’ll end up with a mouthful of the tiniest salad. 


Eyeball in about an ounce of sparkling water. We just want enough to dissolve the sugar by quickly stirring with the bar spoon. Pour in 1½ oz of rum, no need to restir. Fill to the very top with cubed ice and top off to the rim with sparkling water. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig, giving it a few slaps in the palm of your hand to release the aroma. This is one cocktail that’s acceptable to drink with a straw. For one, for the nature of there being leafs essentially floating around in it, and two, you want to drink this cocktail from the bottom; the province of all that sugar and mint. 


Now, there seems to be some controversy on whether or not the recipe stops here. Recently in Havana and amid the craft cocktail resurgence stateside some establishments have begun adding a dash of Angostura bittesr atop the finished mojito. Honestly, I like it both ways. In fact I will usually have two a sitting and make one each way. The bitters fall slowly through the drink giving a duality to the profile like one of those two-scents-in-one layered candles. 


Mojitos in Havana are the OG. You can count on a more mild yet rum forward experience. Humid and tropical like the place and people of Cuba. In Miami you’ll find just as good of mojitos albeit catering more towards the sweeter more limey taste. Down in Key West there’s a stand selling street side mojitos that are more like rum on ice with a lime twist. (Couldn’t even finish mine.) Here in Nashville we are not wanting for upscale bars. A few of the best I’ve had in town come from Flamingos and Earnest Bar and Hideaway, with a tip of the hat to my boy Matt at Primings who made me a pretty damn good mojito while I sat in the lounge being antisocial doing the research for this article. 


This herbaceous mint tart citrus sweet cane libation is probably my favorite cocktail of all time. It’s perfect with any flavor cigar. You can substitute pineapple or coconut rum if so inclined. It’s a great drink to experiment and even better as the original. Sugar and mint could be adjusted to taste. It’s simple and refreshing, perfect for poolside chilling or late night salsa dancing. Muddle muddle splash pour fizz, the Mojito.


There’s a sign hanging in Bodeguita Del Medio, supposedly signed by Earnest Hemingway, which reads - “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” There’s some suspect around this being authentic. Some claim the man didn’t even like mojitos! I find it hard to believe Hemingway, who loved Cuba and its people and culture so much, didn’t stop in to the little bar in the middle of calle Empedrado on his way back to his room at the Ambos Mundos hotel for a quick tipple. 


There is one quote Hemingway did say for sure, “If you want to know a cities culture, spend a night in it’s bars.”

Pod Tiki: The Mai Tai

Tiki is not a thatched hut bar at the beach. It’s not cheap wicker citronella torches lining your neighbor's backyard barbeque. And it’s certainly not hipsters in floral button downs drinking a pineapple infused craft beer. No, Tiki is scary. The tiki bar is deep jungle samba, cool trade winds caressing fan palms. It’s droll gnarly totems and thanks to the genius of Don Beach it’s curious elixirs whose true origins and recipes remain disputed to this day.  

Tiki, in Maori legend, was the first man. Adam. Along with his lady Morikoriko, who seduced him after he found her in a pond, they had a baby girl who created the clouds and.... Look, creation myths are convoluted by nature. Let’s just skip ahead a few millennia to the 1930’s when a man styling himself Don Beach opened the first genre defining Tiki Bar - Don The Beachcomber in California. The refractory period between world wars gave rise to an influx of Polynesian Pop Hollywood films while young soldiers returned stateside with stories of far off tropical paradises, and quite possibly the most telling catalyst for tiki fever … a seething post prohibition rum habit. Don used his travels through Polynesia and a not so minute bit of ingenuity to invent the Tiki Bar as we know it.  

  Tiki swept the nation and eventually the world. Then, like a lot of hot-fast cultural fads Tiki simmered and fizzled into an old timey cliche. Until recently. The modern boom-boom! in retroism and classic cocktails has seen an unyielding rise in neo-escapism Dionysian debaucherous class. Where kitsch is cool and sweet molasses is preferred over the wincing burn of Kentucky’s finest there you will find dim lighting, transcendent music, prodigious palms, rattan furniture and the most recognizable of all tiki bar culture, the tiki mug. And in that mug you will find that the most quintessential of all tiki drinks. The Adam. The Mai Tai. 

My own foray into rum began with a homemade concoction of light rum, pineapple juice, and lime. So when I discovered the Mai Tai early into my exploration of vacation cocktails I was instantly hooked. So adorn those floral button-downs and flip-flops, put on your drinking cap and stock your rum cabinet ‘cuz the Mai Tai ain’t no tropical frou-frou drink.  

It was around 1933 that Don Beach mixed a funky dark Jamaican rum and a light Cuban rum with lime juice, bitters, pernod, grapefruit juice, falernum, and cointreau laying ancestral claim to the cocktail’s origin. But another totem on the proverbial Tiki pole says otherwise. Victor Bergeron, better known by his famous monaker, Trader Vic, takes umbrage with this alleged tale of the tai. Vic contends it was a decade later in 1944 at his bar in Oakland that he took a bottle of 17yr old Jamiacan rum off the shelf to pour for some friends. Inspired to compliment the flavor of the rum Vic added some lime juice, a bit of curacao, a dash of rock candy syrup and the one ingredient that separates a true Mai Tai from some bastardized boat drink - Orgeat Syrup. Legend has it Vic served the libation up to his friends visiting from Tahiti who exclaimed. “Mai tai roa ae!”. Tahitian for “the best”.  

Whichever version you choose to believe there is no disputing that the Mai Tai we know and love today is derivative of the Trader Vic Recipe while borrowing heavily from Don The Beachcomber’s penchant for creating a medley of rum flavors in a single cocktail. For our purposes we’re going to shake together the two progenitorial recipes and stir in some widely accepted evolutionary standards. 

*** 

Demon rum. That most scandalous of colonial era, pirate inducing, history-shaping, tiki drink base spirit. We’re going to start with a Jamiacan rum, since both precursory recipes use it. Now there are a lot of variations in rums of this region but most Jamaican rums have a defining characteristic taste profile. I’ve heard it described as the Jamaican rum funk, and that’s really the best way I can relay it. It’s the ambient scent and flavor of the air in Jamaica. A rich earthy sweetness whose vapors coat the roof of the mouth and retro-hale a piquant spice. If you’ve ever tasted true jerk seasoning or smoked a high-grade Caribbean marijuana it kind of has that deep bit of soul that can only be described as - the funk

Most recipes from this era will call for J. Wray & Nephew brand rum. It’s the rum I found most frequently in Montego Bay and Ocho Rios, respectively. Stateside it’s pretty easy to find the gold rum variant with some mild searching. Although, for this our modern recipe I prefer Myers Original Dark. Its rich molasses palate not only accentuates the Jamaican funk but helps the overall rum flavor prevail throughout the drink. 

As where Trader Vic’s recipe only calls for the Jamaican rum I’m going to use the Beachcomber technique of two rums. Don Beach was innovative in the art of mixing different rums to bring out tertiary flavors. It can prove a bit tough here in the U.S. to acquire light Cuban rum, (thanks Trump.)  If you’re a traditionalist, (which, due to its inherent mysteries, is in itself futile anytime Tiki drinks are in question), honestly Bacardi Silver is a pretty safe bet. I’ve seen recipes using a Demerara Rum, which is actually my preferred style for light rums. I use El Dorado in that regard. The extra sweetness of Demerara sugar rum compliments the Jamiacan funk perfectly. But alas, for my recipe I use the widely agreed upon Barbados Rum for my secondary. Barbados is said to be the birthplace of rum and Mt. Gay Eclipse does a superb job of capturing the tropical fruit and bright spiciness we associate with the Caribbean.  You may have noticed none of the classic recipes call for pineapple juice even though it’s a prominent flavor and a lot of knock-off tai recipes you’ll find on Etsy or whatever will use it. What you’re actually tasting is the mixture of Jamaican and Barbados rums, along with the Curacao, bringing out the natural essence of fruit notes and tricking your palate into tasting a pineappely flavor. Go ahead and use that little tidbit to ingratiate yourself at your next hipster cocktail party. 

Dry Orange Curacao is a crucial ingredient for getting your Mai Tai to taste right. I use Pierre Ferrand, but Bols is decent for a better price. Sure, there are lots of orange liqueurs that all have their place in cocktalia. Triple sec may be great for margaritas but the aged brandy base of dry curacao adds a bit of class distinction tastily separating our libertine libation from a premade cruiseship mix. ………………… Excuse me, I just threw up in my mouth a little thinking about premade drink mixes.

Please, please please please pleeeaaassse, use fresh lime juice whenever you’re making cocktails. I enjoy joking about cocktail snobbery, (there’s Coors Light in my fridge right now), but in all seriousness you’re doing your taste buds and your overall tiki experience a grave misjustice if you use bottled lime juice. If you’re into making drinks at home, and if you’re reading this I’m going to suppose you’ve gotten drunk alone a few times “trying to perfect that new recipe”, just buy a bag of limes and a hand held juicer to keep around. 

If there was a shoulder for whom fell the carrying of the Mai Tai that burdensome task would fall on Orgeat. A french almond syrup now commonly found in coffee shops; Orgeat syrup is what takes the flavor profile of the Mai Tai up to that next level of body and fullness. It fills out the drink and gives it that “what is that?” sensation. WARNING: For heaven’s sake man, do not use an almond liqueur. Believe me, this cocktail is nary in need of any more booze and you will indeed screw up the flavor with some dark nutty sweet amaretto. Remember that time you thought it would be a good idea to put extra peppers in your chili because you like it hot, then you had to shame eat it in front of your girlfriend pretending it’s fine and you don’t know what she’s talking about with I messed it up and she can’t eat it because it’s - ahem, just keep the Orgeat almond to a hint of flavor.  

Finally I like to keep with the Vic version and add a little rock candy syrup. Rock candy is an inverted simple syrup. Rather than 1 part sugar to 2 parts water it’s 2 parts sugar to 1 part water. 

Okay. so let’s make a drink. Traditionally you want a double rocks glass, but for this occasion use a tiki mug if you’ve got one. Go ahead and throw it in the freezer while you mix the drink. You’re going to want a cocktail shaker, crushed or semi crushed ice, (use a lewis bag and mallet or just drop a bag of ice on the floor a few times.) Throw some ice cubes in the shaker and add, 1oz Jamaican rum, 1oz Barbados rum, ¾ oz dry curacao, ¾ oz lime juice, ½ oz orgeat, and ¼-½ oz rock candy syrup. Shake vigorously till the shaker gets too cold to hold. This will froth up the liquid and give the drink some visual body to match the flavor profile. Fill your now frosted glass with the crushed ice and slowly pour the drink in. Garnish with a verdant mint sprig (slap in your palm to awake the aroma) and wha-la! You’ve made a Mai Tai. Go ahead, no one will fault you for throwing a paper umbrella in there. 

A Mai Tai can whisk you away in one sip. There’s a lot of rum in there so be careful, but let your mind go and forget about the way of the world for a decent 20-30 minute cocktail. The scintillating silky swag of the Mai Tai pairs well with some sliced fruit, a mild cigar, the scent of a beautiful wahini and transcendental sounds of Exotica by Martin Denny. 

Okay, so you’re not a classic Tiki drink snob. You want a cocktail to transport your mind to a tropical south pacific island but also appeal to the mass modern flavor profile. I got your ticket. I call it the Kai Tai. Named after my buddy Kyle because after throwing this version of a Mai Tai together for a pool day a few years ago he refuses to drink anything else at my house. There’s a time and a place for this version and it still packs a punch but lacks the rum forward approach of the classic. Following the same basic ritual it’s 1oz light demerara rum, ¾ oz curacao, ¾ oz lime juice, ½ oz orgeat, and 2 oz pineapple juice. This version definitely wants to be shaken with utmost veheme to really froth up that juice. Oh, yeah. Froth it up good baby, because the kicker for the Kai Tai is to gently pour over the head of the drink ¾ oz of dark Jamaican rum as a floater. 

And there you have it, folks. Salute!

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