The Old Man and the Daiquiri

A pilgrimage through Hemingway's Havana

Ernest Hemingway's house just outside Havana is called Finca Vigía. You aren't allowed inside. It's in parlous condition, and it's filled with small, pilferable items, such as unopened letters and a rubber stamp that reads "I never answer letters, Ernest Hemingway." You are, however, permitted to stroll around the outside and crane your neck through open windows and doors, from which you can see the interior much as the author left it in 1960. If you crane too far, a security guard will approach and give you a sharp look. You can smooth things over by discreetly slipping her a couple of dollars, in return for which she will walk your camera through the house and take pictures of hard-to-see items. Most visitors want a photograph of the Picasso drawing of a bull, which hangs on a bedroom wall. I directed the guard to Hemingway's tabletop bar in the living room, for a close-up of sun-faded liquor bottles.

I was in Havana researching a book about the history of rum, and at Finca Vigía I found myself amid a reverent crowd. Beginning in 1932, Hemingway lived in Cuba off and on for nearly three decades and through three wives, and devout tourists, mostly European and Canadian, trek like pilgrims along the Stations of the Papa, making obeisance where the great man lived, worked, and, mostly, drank.

The digital photograph the guard returned to me confirmed that Hemingway's tastes in liquor were catholic. The bar was stocked with Campari and Gordon's gin, among other libations. (Hemingway was also fond of tequila. On his fishing boat, now housed in an open shed behind the house, he had a small bar built atop the bridge to avoid the inconvenience of having to descend a ladder between drinks. He called tequila "the steering liquor.")

His home bar also held a bottle of Bacardi rum. Hemingway liked Cuban rum in general and frozen daiquiris—which provoked him into a small rhapsody—in particular. "This frozen daiquiri," he wrote in Islands in the Stream, "so well beaten as it is, looks like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots."

The daiquiri as we know it is a sort of alcoholic sherbet, often extruded from vast, Dairy Queen—like dispensers. It is associated with sundresses and strawberries, linked more to ice-cream headaches than hangovers. One wonders: How did the manliest of bare-fisted fighting men fall in with such a beverage?

Seeking the answer to a simple question can give a pilgrim great stamina. So it was with my quest.

I began my stay in Havana as Hemingway did, in a room on the fifth floor of the Ambos Mundos Hotel, a flamingo-colored pile in the heart of the old city. Hemingway's early stays in Havana allowed him to escape outbreaks of guests at his Key West home, which made it impossible to get any writing done. His favored hotel room, where he was a frequent visitor until he moved into his house, in 1939, is now a shrine, with a red rope in front of the bed to keep tourists from stealing the bedclothes, and his typewriter housed in a Plexiglas reliquary. Hemingway would write or review drafts from about 8:00 A.M. until 2:00 P.M., and spend the rest of the day watching jai alai or cockfights, or drinking in Havana's bars.

Bars catering to Americans were abundant. Hemingway had arrived on the island during the waning days of the Volstead Act, the law that ushered in Prohibition and in effect served as an economic-development program for Cuba's rum and saloon industries. Ferries and cruise lines brought thirsty Americans to Cuba throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, and aviation technology was marshaled to meet demand. The first scheduled international flight from the United States took off just ten months after Prohibition began, connecting Key West and Havana by means of an eleven-seat sea plane.

Old Havana is a sort of museum of forgotten drinks. Well-groomed waiters wearing short-waisted jackets take orders at outdoor cafés for cocktails such as El Presidente and the Mary Pickford, the latter a fine blend of rum, pineapple juice, maraschino, and grenadine. Those who have recently been introduced to the mojito may be surprised to learn that it's not new; it has been popular in Cuba for decades.

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.