The time has come to break some eggs and make an omelette. This is long overdue. Had I started this with any sort of plan this would have been Drink: One, in my personal lexicon. That said, on day one, I was not ready to make this very simple drink. I had not learned the skills, more importantly, I did not have the wisdom and experience to appreciate the importance of creating balance in a glass. So, with a nod toward our never ending quest to understand things more clearly, won’t you join me now as we stand and make the Classic Daiquiri.
I have referenced this drink so many times over the last year and a half, usually when I am making some variation of this classic recipe. It is so simple, just three ingredients; rum, lime juice and sugar. No bitters to mask an off pour or to cover up a particularly tart lime. Nowhere to run to, baby, nowhere to hide. Just three chords and the truth, personified, or is that drinkified? If you make a mistake, it is apparent. The drink is still good, but it is not excellent and that’s a shame, because, when made properly, this simple little three ingredient cocktail is nothing short of heavenly.
Many moons ago, I had the pleasure of working closely with a French chef in Taos, New Mexico, of all places. We came together while filming episodes for a never to be seen television show and even though it all fell apart in the end, it was a wonderful time for me. I absolutely love watching masters work, no matter what the subject. The nature of our relationship meant that I had to really understand the process of what he was cooking, in order to better set up the shots and lay out the scenes for the technical side of the episodes. So, I spent a lot of time just observing in the kitchen, watching how the team worked together, looking for those little tricks of the trade that would make an interesting shot or side note. He was a natural teacher, which was why he was so good on camera. I learned a ton and a lot of it stayed with me over the years, but the thing that struck me most happened on a random afternoon, before we started work as he interviewed a prospective new line cook.
I don’t remember much about the guy other than he had some experience working in kitchens. They talked for a couple of minutes, nothing more than niceties, before the chef asked him to go in the kitchen and make an omelette. That was it, the whole audition. The chef just watched him work, took a bite and thanked him for his time. Omelettes are simple dishes. A couple of eggs, some butter and salt and pepper and a ton of skill to get it to turn out just right. The dish is easy, but it is all about understanding your ingredients and having good technique. It’s the same thing as our daiquiri, just a few ingredients and nowhere to hide. Whisk too long, things break down, not long enough and you’ll never get that light, creamy consistency. If the heat is wrong the butter scorches or the eggs stick. For such a simple dish, there are a lot of moving parts, a lot of places for something to go wrong. Watching a pro make an omelette told him everything he needed to know about his training, work habits and how he reacted to the pressure of being thrown in the middle of it. A true trial by carefully controlled fire.
The original daiquiri is the same sort of test and it is used the same way in establishing someones skill level behind the bar. Basic ingredients, but with some variation in styles and flavor that must be accommodated and a ton of technique to make it work. The composition of this one is subject for debate. Everyone agrees on the basic ingredients, though some will argue for a particular rum, lime or sugar style. The big fight comes over how to combine these three parts. I am doing it the way I learned it from Charles Schumann’s American Bar. Argue amongst yourselves as to why that is right or wrong.
Grab your tins and toss in 2 ounces of rum, for this version I chose Havana Club 3 Year; 3/4 of an ounce of fresh squeezed lime juice and 1/2 an ounce of 2:1 rich simple syrup. Add ice cubes and shake to the beat of Martha and the Vandellas singing “Nowhere to Run“. I did not wait for the tins to frost over, not wanting too much dilution in this one, but I did want it to be ice cold, so that’s a bit if a tight rope walk. When it felt right to me, I double strained into a chilled coupe, nothing fancy, just a nice unadorned classic shape, filled right to the wash line with no waste. A twist of lime for garnish and it was ready to serve.
I hated to take the time to photograph this one, I wanted to taste it immediately, but I get it, art before satisfaction. When I did get that sip it was oh so good. Not perfect, but so very good. I shook it just a bit too long and used the wrong ice, so I got too much dilution. Nearly perfect, but there is nowhere to hide if you are off even a little. That said, it was still amazing. Like usual, this one has a lot to do with the choices you make. That Havana Club light rum has a wonderful delicate flavor and it comes through here. My limes were a bit on the tart side, so I bumped the sugar a little bit. This drink works because it is all about balance, matching the sweet and the tart in a way that accentuates the character of the rum, rather than hiding it and then fine tuning the dilution to open things up while cooling them down. A truly wonderful drink, that you should make often. Seriously, it will teach you things.
After I made this one, patting myself on the back for getting it mostly right. I mean, in my first sip I knew what was slightly off and I knew why. That’s progress. A year ago, I would have just said, “Man, that’s a good drink,” and wandered off all pleased with myself. Today, I better understand the nuance of what is happening here on a chemical level and how I missed that perfect balance. So, naturally I decided to go again, but instead of doling out 2 more ounces of that impossible to get Cuban rum, I switched over to Ron Zacapa 23, a really lovely dark rum from Guatemala. Totally different profile from the Havana Club, really flavorful, sweeter on the palate. Of course, I did not know that, because I did not bother to taste it first and just used my formula to make a drink. It was also wonderful, but a little too sweet. I made it again dialing back the sugar to about 1/3 of an ounce and it was perfect.
That’s the thing with this one and with the omelette too. You have to know your ingredients to accentuate their strengths and then you have to hone your skills until you are able to do that consistently, even when the limes are less flavorful than usual or the store only has salted butter. That’s when it all comes together. Goethe used to say that the true master reveals himself when working within limitations. I have always liked that. I am no master and I am not likely to be, but I have enjoyed this journey and I look forward to learning more every day. Baby steps, right? Stay safe, stay hydrated and stay sane, my friends.