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Tropical drinks are a hot topic at Tales of the Cocktail

click to enlarge Chris Hannah of Arnaud's French 75 created a New Orleans-inspired piña colada to present at Tales of the Cocktail. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER
  • Photo by Cheryl Gerber
  • Chris Hannah of Arnaud's French 75 created a New Orleans-inspired piña colada to present at Tales of the Cocktail.

Long before tropical cocktails devolved into today's girly drinks and alcopops, they were the first choice of sophisticated boozers around the world. Ernest Hemingway was known to enjoy daiquiris, but his looked and tasted nothing like the machine-churned Slurpee-style mixes popular today. Now, more than a century after exotic drinks from tropical locales first became popular, a craft cocktail renaissance shows that even connoisseurs have a sweet spot.

  "People are rediscovering the complexity of these drinks — a really finely calibrated balance between strong and light, fruity and dry," says Jeff "Beachbum" Berry, author of five books on vintage tiki drinks. "A well-made tiki punch is like a novel, or a symphony." Mixologists are resurrecting original recipes, dispensing with umbrella-topped nonsense and cultivating fresh — and refreshing — new versions. Tropical drinks will be a hot topic at Tales of the Cocktail, where there is much to learn about the daiquiri, the Mai Tai and the pina colada.

  Not that icy concoctions — even in neon colors — don't have appeal in New Orleans' sweltering summer heat, but daiquiris once were downright classy. The first daiquiri was created on June 20, 1898, by American mining engineer Jennings Cox in the mining town of Daiquiri, Cuba. All he used was rum, lime juice and sugar, shaken with crushed ice.

  "It was a very hot day, so he wanted something refreshing, light and crisp," says David Cid, a brand ambassador for Bacardi, which will host a daiquiri tasting room at Tales of the Cocktail. "It was named almost a year later at Hotel Venus in Santiago, Cuba, in honor of the mining town."

  A decade later, the USS Minnesota arrived in what is now known as Guantanamo Bay, where Admiral Lucius Johnson had his first daiquiri. He loved the drink and brought the recipe back to the United States, where it rose to fame as a beverage that "signified social status," Cid says. Later, a daiquiri bar exclusively for military personnel opened in Washington, D.C.

  Between 1898 and 1900, the daiquiri was altered to include natural grenadine and less sugar. Cid says Hemingway preferred his sweetened only with maraschino liqueur and grapefruit juice, no sugar at all — a version known as the Papa Doble.

  It wasn't until the rise of the pina colada in the 1960s and '70s that the term daiquiri began to stray from its roots, and it become a generic reference to frozen drinks of almost any flavor.

  The classic tiki drink, the Mai Tai, suffered less confusion but has many recipes. In the 1950s, New Orleans native Don the Beachcomber, born Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt, and rival tiki mixologist Victor "Trader Vic" Bergeron waged their own cold drink war over bragging rights to the original Mai Tai. As a teenager, Don left New Orleans for a tropical adventure on his bootlegging grandfather's yacht. He collected knowledge about tiki drinks and cuisine along the way and eventually landed in California. It was there that he claims he created the Mai Tai in 1933.

  Trader Vic crafted an entirely different drink a decade later, and he unknowingly gave it the same name after serving it to a Tahitian couple who dubbed it "mai tai" (meaning "the best"). In the esoteric world of tiki lore, the battle for the true Mai Tai has raged ever since.

click to enlarge Trader Vic's Mai Tai combines Caribbean rums, juices and sweet syrups. - PHOTO BY JONPAUL BALAK
  • Photo by Jonpaul Balak
  • Trader Vic's Mai Tai combines Caribbean rums, juices and sweet syrups.

  In its early days, the Mai Tai was the quintessential exotic drink, combining Caribbean rum with multiple juices and syrups. "It was Hawaii in a glass, kind of a liquid vacation," Berry says. "Whoever could claim they had invented the Mai Tai would get a lot more business and publicity." Today, the most common version is closer to Trader Vic's recipe, Berry says, and it also is the one he prefers. He'll discuss both versions and the Mai Tai rivalry at a seminar at Tales of the Cocktail.

  Around the same time Trader Vic invented his version of the Mai Tai, the pina colada was born in Puerto Rico. Tales of its creation vary, but bartender Chris Hannah at Arnaud's French 75 offers this account: "Ramon Marrero created it at the Beachcomber Bar inside the Caribe Hilton, San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1954." The original recipe called for an ounce and a half of light rum, three ounces of cream of coconut and six ounces of pineapple juice blended with ice, he says.

  At Tales, Hannah represents New Orleans in the Bacardi-sponsored pina colada competition. His version adds Cool Brew coffee concentrate and condensed milk and incorporates a few other variations to add New Orleans flavor. The pina colada is not essentially a tiki drink because of how few ingredients it uses, Berry says (real tikis have as many as 14), but Hannah's rendition will "tiki-fy the pina colada" by pushing it to nine ingredients.

  If you like pina coladas, you can probably thank Rupert Holmes, creator of the late '70s pop hit "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)." The tune about an unconventional rekindling of love helped popularize the cocktail. The corny hit also may have brought about the onset of the tropical drink dark ages, Berry says, referring to the period from the 1980s through roughly 2005 when tropical drinks spiraled into sugary abomination.

  Hannah seeks to bring out the culinary best in this creamy beverage, but he doesn't hesitate to give Holmes a nod for the part he played. "If one takes the time to listen to the entire song, one will find Rupert's melody as deliciously refreshing as a properly blended pina colada," Hannah opines. "When it comes to enjoying the pina colada, we should thank both Ramon Marrerro and Rupert Holmes."

The original hand-shaken daiquiri

Courtesy of David Cid

(normally a batch recipe)

3 parts rum

1 part lime

1 part simple syrup (or 1/2 part of sugar)

Shake with crushed iced until tin is chilled. Strain over a glass of fresh crushed ice and serve.

Don the Beachcomber's Mai Tai Swizzle

circa 1933, courtesy of Jeff Berry

1 oz. grapefruit juice

3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

1/2 oz. Cointreau

1/4 oz. falernum

1 1/2 oz. Myers's Plantation Rum

1 oz. Cuban rum

6 drops Pernod

dash Angostura bitters

Shake well with crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Garnish with four mint sprigs.

Trader Vic's Mai Tai

original recipe circa 1944, courtesy of Jeff Berry

1 oz. fresh lime juice

1/2 oz. orange Curacao

1/4 oz. orgeat syrup

1/4 oz. sugar syrup

1 oz. dark Jamaican rum

1 oz. amber Martinique rum

Shake well with plenty of crushed ice. Pour unstrained into a double old-fashioned glass. Sink the spent lime shell into drink. Garnish with a mint sprig.

Pina Cafe Au-Lada

courtesy of Chris Hannah

1 oz. Bacardi Superior

1 oz. Bacardi Gold

1 oz. fresh pineapple juice

1 oz. Coco Lopez (flavored with Cool Brew)

1 oz. CC's Coffee-flavored sweetened condensed milk

2 oz. So Delicous Coconut creamer

6 oz. ice

2 whole cocoa nibs

1 cinnamon stick

Pour first seven ingredients into a blender and blend until smooth. With a proper microplane, grate the nibbs over the pina colada as well as some cinnamon to garnish.


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