On this episode of VinePair’s “Cocktail college,” host Tim McKirdy dives into the world of the Daiquiri, a drink that requires fine attention to detail and an understanding of its ingredients.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Daiquiri.
William Elliott’s Daiquiri Recipe
- 1 ounce Neisson Rhum Agricole Blanc
- 1 ounce Santa Teresa 1796
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- ½ ounce simple syrup (2:1 ratio of sugar to water)
- Add all ingredients to a Cobbler shaker with eight Kold Draft cubes.
- Shake until cold.
- Strain into a chilled coupe glass (but don’t fine-strain).
Check Out The Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” I’m your host Tim McKirdy, and I’m welcoming William Elliot to the studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
William Elliot: Thanks, Tim. Thanks for having me. It’s good to be here. It’s a nice day in New York.
T: It’s a wonderful day in New York today. People who recognize your name or people who know the bar that you’re mainly associated with or most famously, Mason Premiere, might be a little bit shocked today. If anything, they might have expected to see your name pop up in prior episodes, perhaps the Martini or the Sazerac. And I’d love to say that you guys at Maison make two of the finest versions of those two cocktails here in New York City, so you definitely could have been a guest for them. But the thing is, we do like to throw a spanner in the works here at “Cocktail College,” and we’re going to cover the Daiquiri. And that might be somewhat unexpected for some folks. But having had conversations with you previously, I know this is a drink that you care deeply about and that also has a great connection to Maison Premiere. So let’s kick it off by telling us all about that.
W: Yeah, that’s correct. The Daiquiri, for us and me specifically in the early days of Maison Premiere around 2012, it was one of the first drinks that crept up in our consciousness as far as a classic cocktail that had not yet really been reworked or really had a lot of love shown to it. I always feel like that was the tail end of the cocktail renaissance, if you can call it such, and drinks like the Old Fashioned, the Manhattan, and the Martini had already seen a lot of love. But more often than not, citrusy, refreshing, acid-driven drinks weren’t really seeing the light of day in a lot of cocktail bars. So a couple of close friends and I would debate or discuss what we saw in the ideal Daiquiri. I can’t even tell when I had my first excellent Daiquiri. I definitely had some balanced ones, but nothing that really struck you as being more significant than any other sour. I started to play around with different combinations of rum, back in the early 2010s at Smith & Cross it was a huge deal. I tried that, but it didn’t work. And I tried several other accommodations with varying degrees of success, tried different amounts of lime and sugar, and I’m sure we’ll get into the details.
T: What was it that drew you to that? Because in general, in trends, there tends to be the action and the reaction. And it stands to reason that the early days of the cocktail renaissance would be those boozy, stirred, spirit-forward drinks that you described there. This does seem like the natural reaction. But what was it that drew you to that at that time? Did you want to just be contrarian, or was it just something that appealed to you?
W: Well, it’s a fine line between trendsetting and being contrarian. I don’t like to think of myself as a contrarian. I just get bored in a paradigm or something. Stirred drinks, to me, struck a limited dynamic range of flavor and also compatibility with food. Also, just the excessive amount of liquor. The overarching ABV of these things.
T: It’s an important reminder too, because like I mentioned at the top, there is that great association with Maison with classics such as the Martini and the Sazerac and New Orleans and absinthe and oysters. These are the things you’re known for. But there’s always been this strong presence of juicier, lighter, refreshing drinks on the menu, and that stands to reason with your food offerings.
W: Absolutely. And Martinis will always be there. You can always come and get a Martini or a Sazerac. I always think of them as a meal unto themselves. And most cocktails bump in a food in a weird, awkward way. So they should either be the precursor or an aftermath. The exception being, if there is one, lighter and more acid-driven cocktails. I did enjoy springing the Daiquiri as a surprise to people who thought that they were going to get a very sophisticated, twenty-ingredient stirred drink. If we’re going to give somebody a cocktail or send a round of cocktails to a table, instead we would try a Daiquiri.
T: Amazing; less is more. And something that really stands out to me here is that the Daiquiri has now become, since that period that we’re talking about, this idea of the bartender test. You’re testing a bartender’s skill with this one drink. Whether it’s a job interview, or just bellying up to the bar and seeing what someone’s bartending chops are. But essentially, we’re talking three simple ingredients, so that stands to reason. How did that come about and why do you think this drink in particular?
W: Well, once upon a time in New York, there were only a handful of passionate bartenders throwing themselves at cocktails and thinking about it every day. And obviously, that number is exponential in the time since then. But in that time, you would go around to each other’s bars and poke and prod and figure out what they were up to. Some bars would impress you with one drink, but not so much with another. I think that most bars out there would want to be impressive with all their drinks. And we did. I’m not saying we got there right away, it was a process. But during that time, there was just a lot of across the bar debate with other notable members of the industry at that really kind of seminal time. So we would debate every detail like what style of rum. Is it even okay to entertain the idea of using Agricole? It was a real big deal back then. And then, of course, just getting out of what we call two and three quarter idioms. Just playing around with compressing sugar and all that stuff.
T: We can absolutely geek out about that today. What are you expecting from that incredibly well-executed Daiquiri? What are you looking for?
W: Well, obviously it’s hard to quantify flavor in language. I try all the time, and if you were to see some of the notes I take, it’s pretty far out there. We did a Ramos Gin Fizz panel the other day, unrelated at Maison Premiere, and somebody said, “Well, how much do you expect to taste the orange flower water?” I don’t know how to answer that, really, because I just want everything to taste better. Don’t we just want to amplify flavor? We want balance, but don’t we want to amplify flavor? And so to me, I wanted to taste a lot of boosted flavor from each of the three legs of the drink. So whatever rum you use, it needs to be expressive, it needs to be really excellent, producer-focused. We ended up going on a heavier simple syrup just to reduce the amount of water and therefore the dilution. And for lime, we bumped up lime all the way to a full ounce. So it’s this idea of compression and contraction to build the whole impact of the first sip.
T: And what you’re looking for, therefore, is balance, but each ingredient shining and being equally present.
W: At Maison Premiere, it’s a very specific style we ended up doing and it has its own personality. I don’t think that these are the only ways to enjoy classic cocktails. However, they are our way, and our way is big and bold in flavor. We don’t have a sprawling food menu, so we want you to be impacted by that first sip, whether it be a Jungle Bird or a Martini or a Daiquiri, whatever. We want it to be big and brash and bold. And so you have to curate your spirits appropriately and tweak your technique appropriately to achieve those things.
T: And that is really what this show is all about, going beyond the recipe. You mentioned there, too, there can be no one recipe. But there can’t be, especially when we’re using a base ingredient base spirit like rum. Rum has such a profound range of styles and profiles. So let’s start by looking at that rum. Tell me your journey with that and your considerations specifically for making Daiquiris.
W: I think that rum at Maison Premiere was an early secondary focus to absinthe. I would say the amount of rum available now is just over the top. It’s insane. There’s new amazing rum coming at you from every angle. When we opened, like I cited earlier, Smith and Cross was the most unctuous, over-the-top rum you could find. Around then, Rhum J.M. Came out in the U.S. market. But early on we adapted the idea that you needed to have families of rum style on the shelf and good representation of different styles. Whereas most bars at that time were strictly adhering to El Dorado three year or Plantation that was more neutral in character. Not to say that El Dorado doesn’t have flavor. But we were instantly drawn towards Rhum J.M., Rhum Neisson, Ed Hamilton’s rums, things like that. Those were the real forerunners in my mind of flavorful terroir, if not island-driven rum. As I mentioned earlier, I was endlessly going through every combination, splitting an ounce-and-a-half to half-an-ounce of this rum and all sorts of permutations of that. And then finally, I don’t know if we’re gonna have a big reveal, Tim, but we ended up on our house recipe. Is now the time? It’s a split base rum Daiquiri with Neisson Blanc, which is over 100 proof. And then Santa Teresa 1746. It’s so funny because when you look back at your earlier self, your less mature self, and I was just so obsessed with all these super flavorful, crazy rums and just so dismissive of some of these more mild aged, more neutral rums. They really needed each other to make the cocktail excel. It’s an even split, so one ounce, one ounce and then, interestingly enough, full ounce of lime as well. When you taste it together, they absolutely iron out each other’s deficiencies, but also lift each other’s strengths. And it’s really beautiful. A lot of times I’ll go into a bar and I’ll order a Daiquiri and I’ll get an Agricole Daiquiri and it’s good. It’s really good. But it’s not quite the luxury of having both of those things together.
T: And it’s great to be able to pull those two different components into one harmonious blend. So then we’re going onto one ounce of lime juice. Tell us everything you would like to about lime juice, or your theories towards any kind of practices. Obviously, fresh is best, but anything else.
W: First of all, I should say that I did try just doing a two three quarter, three quarter or one-one three quarter in this case. While balanced, it still was getting slightly buried under the rum. I just wanted more acid and high-tone notes to it. I figured it out and the answer was to up the rum to a full ounce and then use a heavier simple syrup. To your question about lime, those were the days when people were testing the decay rate of lime hour by hour. I listened to those conversations and I’m sure I let them impact my thinking. But at the end of the day, I do feel like there’s a sweet spot where lime juice is juiced the day of — within eight hours of service or something — that is a safe time.
T: We have to be practical here. We’re running a business. You can’t be dialing into these things too much. The information is out there and the people are doing it.
W: Back then I was constantly behind the bar and we would have some sort of a VIP, whether industry or otherwise, and I wanted to make them a Daiquiri. I would get out my hand-pressed juicer and juice to order right there. I’d stop what I’m doing in service and order juice to order. I have made myself that Daiquiri a couple of times, and I don’t think I find it superior.
T: If this is a drink that you know so intimately, too, that you’ve made so often for yourself then it stands to reason that someone else is not going to notice that.
W: They’re not going to notice. And also just the uniqueness of our own rum split.
T: The simple syrup, so you’re saying we’re going on a heavier dose of simple here. What does that look like and how did you arrive there?
W: So I was just thinking a lot about mouthfeel and texture, and I find that I work a lot with two-to-one ratio of simple syrups, whether they be white sugar or Demerara. I wanted to use Demerara at some point, some part of my heart or soul wanted to use a better, less refined sugar. Unfortunately, it starts to bury the drink. I also tried working with cane syrup from Martinique, that’s actually the byproduct of the same thing. I will say that at our other restaurant, Savage, we did a slightly different Daiquiri with a slightly different rum split that used the cane syrup. It was more of a statement, and it wasn’t so much a palate. It wasn’t trying to shock your palate into this “the best Daiquiri I’ve ever had” zone. It was more about terroir and experiencing this whole notion. But it did not work for the Maison or what I wanted the Maison Daiquiri to be. So I ended up just going with two-to-one white simple syrup. Then again, a full ounce of lime. The second I shook that first one, I absolutely knew it.
Shaking Up The Daiquiri
T: Amazing, love at first sight. So one-one-one-half. That’s a crazy ratio right there, but one that I immediately want to go and try at home. You mentioned texture when it comes to the simple here. And of course, this is a shaken drink, and the shaking process itself is having a profound impact on texture. So tell us about that, about ice and shaking, and anything else there.
W: I would underscore that there’s lots of great Daiquiris out there at this point. I’m sure there’s many ways a cat is, as the saying goes. But I very, very, very much was an early adopter of cobbler shakers in New York. I only say it so confidently because I got a lot of funny looks and snarky comments for many years using cobbler shakers behind the bar. And of course, sometimes they have a bad reputation because there are three pieces and they stick together. The thing is, if you buy a good cobbler shaker by a notable producer or something, it is a tool engineered to be used every day for 50 years. So it’s fine, you’re going to be fine, you just have to learn how to use it. Without getting into all the ways of using a cobbler shaker, I love it for a Daiquiri because it really takes out a lot of the variables. If you think about it, a cobbler shaker has a small interior space. So you are able to automatically ice it the same way every time. The very notion of using a cobbler shaker, it’s a very controlled, similar fluid motion. And you’re not really tempted to deviate from it in a way that you might be with a Boston shaker. Also, Maison is a very small bar to be behind. I find that you have a smaller footprint as a bartender shaking with a cobbler shaker than you do with a Boston. Boston is almost full body motion. There are just some practical elements, and there are stylistic elements for why I prefer cobbler shakers. The biggest reason is that, and this is some sacred territory, I do not like fine strain Daiquiri. It is a rare exception to that thinking of keeping ice shards out of a drink. But when shaking, especially our Daiquiri which is still ironed out, is also still very, very grassy and vegetal. When you combine that with little shards of ice, it really takes you somewhere. It’s intangible and I don’t know how to say it beyond what I’m saying, but it is one of maybe two or three drinks in the classic canon that I am just fiercely, staunchly opposed to finding straining.
T: That’s excellent.
W: And the cobbler has those perfect holes at the top, which allow perfect sized shards. So that’s the story.
T: As someone who has never spent any time behind the bar professionally, but spends a lot of time in front of it both professionally and otherwise, I think the cobbler also just sounds better when it’s being shaken.
W: 100 percent. I always say that if you buy a good cobbler, you can hear Yukiwa cobblers shaking from down the street on Bedford Avenue. You can hear them from upstairs. I’ve watched other bartenders who have trained with us go on to other bars and continue to use some of our techniques and such. And you can tell when you’re in another bar and you hear another Maison Premiere bartender’s shaking. It’s very unique to the cobbler and to the style of shake that we employ. If you ever play tennis or ping pong or racket sports, it’s almost like the motion of a backhand where your dominant hand is just guiding the cobbler shaker and your other hand is leading it in a backhanded slap. And so you get this click of the ice.
T: It’s the click, like “wait, is the guy’s watch hammering on the thing by accident?” Thank you very much for describing that, because when you mentioned your style of shaking earlier for a minute, I was going to ask you to and I’m like, No, that’s unfair via an audio medium. But I think you did a very good job of explaining that.
W: I’m happy to. I will give one further tip for anybody out there who is interested in taking a cobbler shaker home and practicing and trying to get more proficient with it. The trick that we use in Maison Premier is to take a bottle cap, like a beer bottle cap, and put it in the shaker and try to get that click with just that one bottle cap in the shaker. It will really force you to focus clean energy, and it’ll really just shape your motion of how you shake it.
T: Are you using cold draft cubes for this and a specific number?
W: If I had to guess a number, I would say eight. But it fills the same wash line every time. Sometimes, you have cubes in various states of decay. I force all of our bartenders against their will to use tongs for icing anything even for their shaker. Because it chooses you to consciously pick good ice and not decay, falling apart ice cube. The luxury is we have cold draft machines and they’re amazing. But the downside is that sometimes some of the cubes are really bad. So you do have to get nerdy and specific in that way.
T: But it’s around eight and it’s to a certain wash line. That clicking sound then, is that just a product of that mass of ice, essentially moving as one, even though they are separate?
W: That is good. And that is why I say you can decrease the variables with a cobbler shaker because you can really just get those eight cubes to travel together. You can continually hit and chip on the side at the base of the tin, you’re not colliding it or smashing it. Great observation.
T: Today’s episode is a real addition for the nerds here today. Some of the things that you’re bringing up, avoiding the fine strain, etc. One thing that runs through everything is this intention and you’re doing everything with a reason. That’s the foundation of any good cocktail or any good cocktail bar.
W: Couldn’t agree more. Everything needs intention. I love Japanese bartending for that reason.
T: Moving on slightly, what about riffs? There’s one most notable riff, the Hemingway Daiquiri. Is that something you think too much about, care too much for? I personally don’t think it’s the best iteration of this drink.
W: You ask if I’ve thought too much about it. I did, once upon a time, think too much about it. Yes, that’s correct. I think it’s important to try to ponder what the drink was after in the first place. What did that drink want to be when that drink was invented?
T: It was that brief story there, what was the background for that?
W: Obviously, it is related to Hemingway and theoretically had to do with the fact that he was diabetic. It was reduced sugar Daiquiri, basically Daiquiri light. The idea being that maraschino was going to be the only sweetener in the drink and it would reduce the sugar. And that it would be with the grapefruit juice, of course. We have played around and retooled that recipe. For me, I land on something that reminds me every time I taste it, it does make me feel like Hemingway. There is a kind of vulgarity to it. We actually finished the drink with a tiny teaspoon of some really crazy Ed Hamilton Rum. That first sip is a little rough. Underneath it is a really nicely balanced grapefruit Daiquiri. Is it a drink I would order all the time? No, not really. But it makes me feel in touch with what a good Hemingway is. Think about Death in the Afternoon, that’s Champagne and absinthe. This guy was a beast. So there’s only so much you can do given the rulebook that he gave us to work with. I just try to make the best out of it using great ingredients and then just let it be what it wants to be.
T: Maybe he was just f*cking with everyone. Maybe that was just his aim.
W: I think so.
T: What about any other riffs that you might have at Maison Premiere that you’ve ever developed or serve a lot? Can you tell us any?
W: I do encourage people to walk through our rum selection as a template. Order a Daiquiri with a certain kind of rum and get to know rum that way. So that’s one thing. An actual menu riff that we had in 2015 or 2016 was called California Condor. People still order it today, it’s a cult classic. It does involve Ed Hamilton’s rum, Jamaican black pot still, a full ounce of fresh pineapple juice that froths up and gives it a head that looks like an egg white drink. It’s a tricky drink. I am either hyper manipulative to drinks or very non-manipulative, hands-off. This is the former, not the latter. This has a lot of little tricks and secrets in it. It has a little bit of saline in it, mole bitters by Bittermens. It has hopped grapefruit bitters by Bittermens. I don’t stock tons and tons of bitters to use at my whimsy. I really just believe in the basic Angostura orange, and it should be simple in that regard. But this is one of those kinds of tricky drinks. It also has Santa Teresa, which is really great at evening things out. Then if you take a dasher, a nice dasher with a dashtop, there’s a fluid motion over the drink where you can lace the drink with a straight line of bitters. So it has these stripes. If somebody was coming into Maison and they wanted to experience rum, that’s a great way to do it.
T: That’s further evidence as well that no one should pigeonhole you as a straight-up whiskey, gin, and absinthe stirred classics bar. That’s an adventurous drink right there.
W: Absolutely. And I’ll tell you a secret, since you mentioned whiskey. Anyone from any of my teams over the years could tell you, it’s probably my least personally ordered spirit. It’s because all these things like rum and Clairin from Haiti and mezcal get me excited because they taste like they come from somewhere. Unfortunately, whiskey doesn’t play that card.
T: I hear you there. So any final thoughts on the Daiquiri for today for us?
W: Well, there is an adage that it should be gone in three sips. I don’t know who came up with that, but I am a big fan in drinking a Daiquiri quickly and not nursing it. The reason isn’t consumptiveness. It’s that a Daiquiri does decay really quickly. If somebody was in the dining in and it’s a VIP, we will go to the table and shake it. In a way, I don’t like that. I know that sounds crazy for a bar that does tableside performances. I don’t like the whole shaking tableside thing, it can be corny if you’re not doing it right. Thankfully, our bartenders do it right. But most of all, it’s so important to get that first sip hot off the shaker — or cold off the shaker.
Getting to Know William Elliot
T: Fantastic. Well, Will, it’s been so wonderful discussing the Daiquiri with you. One thing that I’m taking away is all of those little idiosyncrasies and tweaks. I’m sure so many people are going to be listening to that and wanting to go out there and making that for themselves using that technique. So thank you for sharing that with us.
W: It’s great to discuss it with you, Tim.
T: As always, we’re going to finish the show with our five stock questions. How do you feel?
W: I feel strong and alive.
T: You chugged a matcha latte earlier.
W: Tim, how’s my aura?
T: It’s glowing as green as that latte that you came in with. So I think we’re in a good place to begin. Question number one: What style or category of spirit typically enjoys the most real estate on your back bar or bars?
W: Well, absinthe is a go-to for a lot of people. It wasn’t necessarily a go-to when we first opened, but a lot’s changed. And I think people have started to be more educated about absinthe, to be more curious about it and try it. Secondly, I would definitely say rum. We’ve always maintained a really, really robust rum section. Now more than ever, it’s just exploding. I have to tuck away bottles onto shelves that no one can even see because we have too much rum. A personal area of interest of mine has always been herbal mountain spirits, obviously chartreuse. We have about as much of those categories as is available in the U.S. Rum, though, is by volume the largest on the shelf.
T: Question number two: What ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal?
W: Oh, good one. Okay, well, I’m going to start with tool and just go for the obvious that I’ve already spoken a lot about, which is a cobbler shaker. I think they’re just superior, delivering superior drinks. That’s my opinion. As far as an ingredient goes, I am a huge fan of aged gin, actually. And I think there are a lot of classics out there that get a really nice reworking from using something with a little barrel-age. And I use that a little bit synonymously with Old Tom, making old Tom-era drinks with Old Tom is very important.
T: And so more in that Old Tom in terms of aged and slightly sweet, or how do you feel? Because I feel like there’s something of a proliferation of barrel-aged or barrel-rested gins, and the spectrum runs very broad, too. You have some that look like they’ve just kissed the wood and others where I’m like, this is almost a young whiskey that we’re drinking here.
W: Yeah, and I prefer retaining some semblance of gin profile and not over barreling it. I guess I would just say that drinks like a Tom Collins is such a game-changer when you don’t use London dry gin. And it’s kind of crazy to me how many great bars still use just London dry. And you’re asking me about whether I mean sweeter or barrel? I think it’s a balance of both. I won’t lie. I think my go-to for years at Maison was Ransom. Their Old Tom gin was excellent. There’s also a great one called Liberator Old Tom Gin.
T: Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot here in America.
W: 100 percent, 100 percent. But it definitely shifts the profile. The drink, there’s like a tension I find with London dry drinks. But at times, there are all these botanicals in there and it’s just a little bit tense. And it’s not a fun drink to drink, and that barrel just kind of relaxes everything.
T: Amazing. Question number three: What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve received in this industry?
W: It’s a good question. I think that being reminded, as I mentioned earlier, that drinking history was written by drunk people, to not take it too seriously, and to forge your own path. Yeah, and that’s what definitely steered my ethos about drink-making. I just cannot get hung up on recipe books. I mean, they inform, but they’re just one of many things that informs.
T: Ingredients change and evolve.
W: Yes. Oh my God. So many things change. Plant agriculture changes, even. Just like even basics that you wouldn’t think that would change like whiskey or Cognac, or harvests are different.
T: Yeah. And in these spirits are natural products. We sometimes forget it. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, which one would it be?
W: I would say that I would go to the American Bar. I know that it’s not necessarily the hippest or coolest answer. There are a lot of great bars, obviously, all around. I guess I just think of when you think about a room that has accrued so much talent and history over the years. If I knew it was less I was going to in my life, I’d want to celebrate. Yeah, yeah, I think I’d want to be there among the legends, and it was so awesome that our good friend Shannon Tebay is now the head bartender. They’re making history. I was able to hang out with her recently and saw her making drinks, and it was amazing.
T: That’s incredible. Final question for today’s show: If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
W: I would order myself a dry, navy strength gin Martini. And I would make myself a Daiquiri.
T: We will allow you to do that.
W: Hopefully, the day isn’t soon yet. Give me a heads up.
T: Well, thank you so much for your time today. It has been a blast.
W: It was a pleasure, Tim. Thanks for inviting me.
T: Let’s go enjoy a Daiquiri.
W: Sounds good.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast group. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.