[Editor's Note: This post is part of a five-part blog collection about the inspirations for island cocktails served on Isla Palenque. Read the introductory post "The Joys of Mixology" and visit the bottom of this post for all posts in the Island Cocktails series.]
The Margarita, the Daiquirí, and the Piña Colada – I’d consider them the “Holy Trinity” of Latin cocktails, and properly made, all are absolutely delicious. Sadly, these are more often than not experienced in their ruined, mass-marketed pre-mixed oversweetened frozen versions.
Another three classic Latin cocktails aren’t as widely-known as the above, but are indeed ubiquitous in their home countries, and worth trying: the Mojito, the Caipirinha, and the Pisco Sour. They’ve grown in popularity in North America over the past decade or two, but have yet to achieve true worldwide fame; usually still well-made, and yet to be tarnished by the likes of Applebees and Chili’s, these three rising classics of the Latin cocktail catalogue will get their due in Part II of this post.
You’ll be able to taste a Daiquirí at Isla Palenque’s restaurants like you have probably never tasted one before – with Cuban rum and the bite of freshly squeezed lime juice — and can likewise try a truly thoughtful Margarita or an original Piña Colada that will erase every crushed-ice disaster from your memory. We’ll also be serving variations on many of our classic Latin cocktails at Las Rocas, where we play around with tropical drink recipes a little more. But in case you’d like to make any of them yourself (which is often required if you want to taste the truly classic versions), recipes are included after my take on each drink below.
Oh, sweet Margarita, what has happened to you? You started as the epitome of sophistication: lively, unsullied, and full of insight. But now you are a frigid, cloying, over-sweet mess.
The invention of the Margarita, like many classic cocktails, remains in dispute: who wouldn’t want to be known for inventing one of the greatest cocktails of all time? But regardless of whose story you choose to believe, we do know that by 1950 the drink had taken its classic form, served straight up and usually with a salted rim.
Properly made, a Margarita is as simple as can be: a couple ounces of tequila and about half as much each of lime juice and triple sec. I don’t know what is it about that combination of ingredients, but something magical happens with this mix, and you end up with a drink that rightfully earns its place in the pantheon of godly drinks, alongside the Martini and Manhattan. There’s some flexibility with the ratios of the ingredients (though not the ingredients themselves: those are pretty sacred). If you’re like me and you really like the flavor of tequila, you can take the ratio of tequila up to about four or five parts. A salted rim is optional (the drink is excellent with or without); the cocktail also works when served straight up, on the rocks, or frozen, though “up” is the classic and original. But all too often the Margarita you receive in a typical bar or restaurant fails to provide this otherworldly flavor I describe. So what goes so wrong, so often, with such a simple recipe?
Getting it Wrong: Like the Martini, the Margarita is very unforgiving of poor ingredients; even if you stick to the classic recipe, the use of cheap ingredients will spoil a would-be spectacular Margarita. The three main culprits behind a defiled Margarita:
- Jose Cuervo. The tequila used in a Margarita, or in any drink that calls for it, should never be anything other than 100% agave. This means stay away from most of the mass-marketed brands. Yes, the good stuff costs $30 a bottle or more, but then, if you’re drinking to taste instead of to consume massive quantities of alcohol, you can probably afford it. My personal preference is Herradura Silver for a classic Margarita, or try Anejo or Reposado for more tequila flavor in the drink.
- Bottled lime juice. Fresh lime juice is just as critical as quality tequila, if not more so. No pre-made or refrigerated lime juice will ever do justice by this or any other mixed drink. On Isla Palenque, we simply reach into one of the lime trees behind our beachfront bar (at least figuratively) or hit up the island orchard whenever a recipe calls for fresh lime. Our tiny limes are tart and very refreshing; picking a perfectly-ripe lime is a great excuse to decide it’s time for a Margarita.
- De Kuypers triple sec. As with the tequila, cheap triple sec won’t do you any favors, either, although it won’t ruin a Margarita like cheap tequila will: stick with Cointreau if your local options are limited, though I also like (and usually buy for myself) the less expensive brands of Marie Brizzard’s and Luxardo.
Get it Right: Make a Margarita with Herradura, Cointreau, and some freshly squeezed lime and you’ve got a heavenly concoction. Use Jose Cuervo, De Kuypers triple sec, and bottled lime juice, and you’ll likely never want another, and certainly won’t see what all of my fuss is about.
But there’s a worse sin yet that can be committed against our darling Margarita: sweet and sour mix. Unfortunately, most times that you ask for a Margarita, it will be just this mix, combined with cheap tequila, probably frozen and blenderized. The result is essentially a 7-11 Slushee with some added grain alcohol. Frankly, if you’re going to use sweet and sour mix and freeze the whole thing, you might as well use cheap tequila, because you won’t taste it anyways. I don’t have anything against drinking a Slushee: in a tropical climate like Panama, they can be very refreshing. But please, don’t call it a Margarita: show the woman a little respect.
Recipe for a perfect classic Margarita:
- 2 ounces of 100% agave tequila (I prefer Herradura)
- 1 ounce of triple sec (I prefer Cointreau or Luxardo)
- 3/4 (+/-) ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice (ideally strained)
(Bartender’s Tip: You’ll need to adjust the ratio of lime and triple sec depending on how tart the limes are: after mixing the two you should have a nicely balanced sweet and sour flavor, with neither the lime nor the triple sec overpowering the other. If you really like tasting your tequila, you can also make the drink with about 3 ounces of tequila and as little as half the triple sec and lime juice called for above: play with it until you’ve got the ratio that works for your taste buds.)
To serve “up”, shake all ingredients, very vigorously, in a cocktail shaker with slightly more crushed ice as liquid ingredients and pour (either strained or unstrained, depending on your preference) into a cocktail glass. To serve on the rocks (my personal preference for this drink), shake ingredients languorously and strain over ice into a rocks glass. To serve frozen, blend for about 20 seconds with slightly more ice than you have liquid ingredients. Salt the rim of your glass if you like, but it’s optional: if you do decide to salt, go easy with it.
The Daiquirí has suffered the same fate as the Margarita – all too often served as just a frozen sweet-and-sour mix with some rum. With a similar recipe to the Margarita (just replace the tequila with rum and the triple sec with simple syrup) it seems too simple a drink to be so frequently botched, when proper ratios and high-quality ingredients are all that’s required for the Daiquirí to become a truly refreshing tropical cocktail, one that hearkens back to its classic historical roots.
It’s hard to imagine people weren’t drinking some version of the Daiquirí for hundreds of years, especially in the Caribbean where the rum trade flourished for so long. The Daiquirí proper probably originated in Cuba (there is a beach there with the same name) around the turn of the last century. It’s an incredibly simple recipe – rum, lime, and sugar – and like the Margarita, it works well whether served straight up, on the rocks, or frozen. Unlike the Margarita, it’s not terribly sensitive and will forgive the use of cheap rum as well as adjustments and additions to the ingredients list: for example, replacing about half of the simple syrup with either crème de cacao or maraschino liqueur results in two subtle variations that are both very delicious (and in my mind better than the original Daiquirí). So in a way, the Daiquirí is almost as much a “class” of drinks as it is a drink in and of itself: it opens itself up to variation and interpretation in a way that most cocktails don’t.
The classic Daiquirí uses white rum, and for good reason: a really dark or aged rum will drastically change the character of the drink. When you start playing with both the rum and substitutions for the simple syrup, you begin to leave the realm of the Daiquirí and enter the territory of other cocktails (replace the sugar with a couple ounces of Coke, for example, and you’ve got a classic Cuba Libre). It’s fun to do; but then again, sometimes the simplicity of the original is indeed the best.
Recipe for a perfect classic Daiquirí:
- 2 ounces of white rum (when in Panama, where I can buy Cuban goods, I prefer Havana Club anejo blanco)
- 1 ounce of simple syrup (I make my own – it’s easy – or you can buy it)
- 3/4 (+/-) ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice (ideally strained)
(Apply my Bartender’s Tip for the classic Margarita to this Daiquirí recipe to achieve your preferred potency and a balanced sweet-and-sour flavor.)
To serve “up”, shake all ingredients, very vigorously, in a cocktail shaker with an equal amount of crushed ice and pour, either strained or unstrained, into a cocktail glass. To serve on the rocks, shake ingredients languorously and pour, strained, over ice into a rocks glass. To serve frozen, blend with slightly more ice than you have liquid ingredients, for roughly 20 seconds.
The last of what I’d consider the “Holy Trinity” of classic Latin cocktails, the Piña Colada distinguishes itself from the previous two in a couple of ways (though, sadly, it has endured similar abuse over the decades). For starters, the origin of the Piña Colada is quite widely accepted: it was invented in 1954 by Ramón Marrero in Puerto Rico. (Others have attempted to claim inventor status for earlier versions that didn’t include the essential ingredient of coconut cream, but we are only talking about this classic cocktail as we know it today.) And unlike the Margarita or the Daiquirí, the Piña Colada pretty much has to be served frozen. Finally, while included in our “Holy Trinity” of classic Latin cocktails due to its ubiquity and provenance, the Piña Colada could also be considered a classic Tiki cocktail.
Properly made, the Piña Colada, like the two cocktails above, is a simple “trio cocktail”, consisting of rum, pineapple juice, and coconut cream. While the ingredients are simple, however, preparation might not be. Like any cocktail recipe that calls for fruit juice, you really need to use fresh juice if you want your cocktail to taste right; the canned or bottled stuff just won’t cut it. And while juicing a pineapple isn’t nearly as easy as squeezing a lime or orange, doing so will pay great dividends once you sip the end result.
Recipe for a perfect Piña Colada:
- 2 ounces of white rum (Bacardi is Puerto Rican, so why not?)
- 1 ounce of coconut cream
- 3 ounces of fresh pineapple juice
(¡Cuidado! Be careful to note that the recipe calls for “coconut cream” (which is very sweet) and not “coconut milk” (which is pure vegetable fat); mistaking one for the other will radically alter the drink. Also, a note on pineapple juice: it can be hard, especially outside of a tropical locale, to get really ripe, sweet pineapple; if you find your fresh pineapple juice to be too tart or simply not flavorful enough to balance the coconut cream, ignore my previous admonishments about using only fresh juice and try putting in a little pineapple syrup as well. I won’t hold it against you ; )
Put all ingredients in a blender with an equal amount of ice and blend for approximately 20 seconds. Pour into a highball glass or tall daiquirí glass; garnish with a chunk of pineapple on the rim. Alternatively, place all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and stir together until the coconut cream is well mixed in; put as much crushed ice as liquid ingredients into the shaker and shake very, very vigorously for at least 20 seconds; pour unstrained into a daiquirí glass and garnish.
A full list of posts in the Island Cocktails series:
- The Joys of Mixology: Classic Cocktails on Isla Palenque
- Classic Latin Cocktails: Part I (The Holy Trinity), Part II
- Vintage Cocktails for the Tropics
- The Tiki Drink