Travels October 2005

The Old Man and the Daiquiri

A pilgrimage through Hemingway's Havana

Hemingway was also partial to mojitos, and evidence of this is on display at La Bodeguita del Medio, a small, often raucous bar on a narrow side street. Called the Pleasant Storage Room when it opened, in 1942, it morphed from a shop selling dried beans into a hipster hangout. If Cubans had ever been inclined to sport foam trucker hats and soul patches, this is where you would have found them. The bar attracted celebrities such as Pablo Neruda and Errol Flynn, and a photo on the wall shows a not very iconic Che Guevara sitting in a booth. A framed epigram handwritten by Hemingway hangs behind the bar, like a coat of arms in a British pub: "My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita."

El Floridita is near Havana's central park. It features a long bar that curves around to a cul-de-sac. This is where Hemingway liked to position himself, and where he put Thomas Hudson in Islands in the Stream: "He took his seat on a tall bar stool at the extreme left of the bar. His back was against the wall toward the street and his left was covered by the wall behind the bar." Hemingway was said to have consumed sixteen double daiquiris here at one sitting.

El Floridita claims to be the "cradle of the daiquiri." For years it was run by the bar artist Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, and the daiquiri was his David. A form of the drink—a concoction of rum, lime juice, sugar, and ice—had been around since the late nineteenth century, but Constantino perfected it. He made it in a cocktail shaker with mechanically chipped ice, creating an ideally balanced drink—at once sweet and tart, its smooth texture complicated by small ice crystals that melted the moment they touched the lips. "The drink is shaken by throwing it from one shaker and catching it in another, the liquid forming a half-circle in the air," Basil Woon wrote in When It's Cocktail Time in Cuba (1928). "It's worth a visit to Havana merely to watch Constantino operate."

The daiquiri's transformation from a classic shaker cocktail ordered by grizzled men to a Slurpee favored by society girls began with the invention of the electric blender. Shortly after its introduction at a 1937 restaurant show in Chicago, the Waring blender (financially backed by the bandleader Fred Waring, of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians) revolutionized bar drinks. As early as 1939 the cocktail writer Charles Baker was referring to the "new style" of blender daiquiri. ("We do not even know Mr. Waring, but we like his music and his Blender," Baker wrote.) Soon egg whites were added to make daiquiris even smoother and frothier; they could be served in an ice-cream cone. A great many fruits were then incorporated. The daiquiri became a dessert that got you drunk.

I believe that Hemingway would not have approved of a sherbet daiquiri. He liked his daiquiris made with two shots of rum, lime juice, ice, and no sugar. Constantino devised special daiquiris for him, including one with a touch of grapefruit juice and some drops of maraschino liqueur. You can still order these custom versions at El Floridita. The daiquiris there are now prepared in a blender—disappointing, but the only way the bar can keep up with demand, since tour buses pull up every half hour or so to discharge their clamorous cruise-ship cargo in search of Papa's haunts.

Hemingway's barstool in the cul-de-sac had long been chained off to honor the author's memory. Then, a few years ago, a hulking, life-size bronze statue of the writer was installed. It is every bit as creepy as a Seward Johnson sculpture, and a bronze book and a ceremonial daiquiri even sit on the bar in front of it.

With my paperback of Islands in the Stream, I settled in one afternoon two stools down from Hemingway. As it turned out, he made for a disagreeable drinking companion. An endless parade of tourists lined up to have their photos taken leaning on him, toasting the lens with their daiquiris, while their companions elbowed me in the back as they angled their cameras.

Still, tippling at El Floridita pleased me. The daiquiri, blended though it was, had a cool, alabaster, ship-at-thirty-knots translucence and a welcome tartness. I was further pleased to find that it actually melted as I drank it; I have always been mystified by the Styrofoam-like mass of flavorless ice that I end up with after drinking one of the industrial daiquiris of strip-mall America.

"He had drunk double frozen daiquiris," I read as I sipped. They were the kind that made Thomas Hudson feel "the way downhill glacier skiing feels running through powder snow and, after the sixth and eighth … like downhill glacier skiing when you are running unroped."

I have never been downhill glacier skiing, roped or unroped. But I was starting to understand how Thomas Hudson felt.

Wayne Curtis is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in 10 Cocktails, to be published next year.
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Wayne Curtis is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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