A Brief History Of The Daiquiri And How It Came To America
Exiting the Farragut North metro station onto K Street in downtown Washington, DC, I crossed Farragut Square towards the corner of 17th and I streets. Although the sweltering sun was daunting, I remained focused. My destination was the private, members only Army and Navy Club at 901 Seventeenth Street, NW, and my purpose was to seek the truth. I found it too. Here it is: No summer in the Greater Washington Metro area can really be counted complete without at least a sip of an original style daiquiri cocktail.
Although a native Cuban concoction, the daiquiri has a unique connection to the nation’s capital. Specifically, it has a special connection to the Army and Navy Club. For it was one of the Club’s members, Rear Admiral Lucius W. Johnson (1882-1968), who brought this cocktail to the Club, and from there helped it spread around the country.
According to legend, an American engineer named Jennings Stockton Cox, Jr., invented the daiquiri in Cuba in the summer of 1896 (some accounts have 1898). Other characters crop up in other versions, but throughout Cox is featured as the protagonist, so to speak. He was in Cuba managing the properties of both the Spanish-American Iron Company and the Pennsylvania Steel Company. Expecting to entertain some American visitors one day, Cox discovered that he had run out of gin and so had to resort to the heady local rum, made by a family firm called Bacardi (then mostly unknown outside of Cuba).
Jennings Cox cut the rum with fresh limejuice, and then added cane sugar to modify the acid, and used ice to chill it all down. From this simple mix, a magical synthesis occurs, creating a flavorful elixir that, when made with a harmonious balance between the strong, sweet, and sour elements, is truly greater than the sum of its parts. As Cox lived near the iron minds, in a small southeastern coastal village called Daiquiri, about 15 miles east of Santiago de Cuba, he named his concoction after the coastal village.
What is known for certain, however, is that the USS Minnesota, commanded by Captain Charles H. Harlow paid a visit to Guantanamo, Cuba, ten years after the Spanish-American War, in 1909. Captain Harlow toured the old battlegrounds, accompanied by the ship’s young medical officer, Lieutenant Lucius W. Johnson. They were entertained at Daiquiri by none other than Jennings Cox, and were served his cocktail. Delighted and enchanted, LT Johnson copied down Cox’s recipe and bought large quantities of the local Bacardi rum.
When he finally returned to the United States with recipe and rum supplies in hand, Johnson introduced the drink to the Army and Navy Club, which promptly adopted it as the official house drink. The bar there was renamed the Daiquiri Lounge. Johnson then set about as an avid advocate of the drink, slowly spreading its familiarity and popularity around the nation. There is a brass plaque in the Daiquiri Lounge of the Army and Navy Club that commemorates Johnson’s admirable advocacy work. During Prohibition, thirsty Americans -- like Earnest Hemingway -- knew to order a daiquiri when they visited Havana expressly because Rear Admiral Johnson promoted his beverage of choice.
Admiral Johnson is something of a storied Naval officer. I am also assured by serious folks that Adm. Johnson was better known for his pioneering use of Mobile Surgical Hospitals during World War II, and his role as Officer-in-Charge of Construction for later became known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, than for his cocktail advocacy work. Certainly I’d have promoted him to admiral on the strength of the daiquiri alone, but that’s just me.
There are several “classic” recipes for the daiquiri, and many widely accepted variations. Of late, I prefer my version of the recipe developed by barman Pietro Collina of the NoMad Bar in NYC (entrance at 10 W 28th St., just east of Broadway).