Sunday, March 27, 2011

El Floridita...The Cradle of the (Real) Daiquiri

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Hemingway and Errol Flynn at El Floridita in the '50s
It's that time of the year when the warmer weather gets us thinking of switching from our usual winter libations to fun and refreshing cocktails, at least once in awhile.  To tell you the truth, this post has been in the archives for over a year waiting for me to find an old photo of my grandfather at one of his favorite jaunts, El Floridita in Old Havana.

In my house, it was a name that was frequently mentioned when I was a child.  My father was often going to or coming from El Floridita when he had business downtown, although I never heard my mother's name mentioned in the mix.  Unlike La Bodeguita del Medio another of Havana's famous bars, the Floridita seemed to attract more of the Cuban elite and less of the tourists that frequented the city in those days.  Both were a short walk from the Hotel Ambos Mundos where Hemingway used to stay.  It is said that one day he stopped by to use the bathroom and when he came out he saw all these filled glasses lined up at the bar.  He asked what they were and asked for a sip and the rest is history.

Hemingway's room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana

History of Floridita

Founded on November 16, 1519, the township of San Cristobal de La Habana celebrated its 298th birthday in 1817. At that time Havana was a city of just over 84,000 inhabitants, protected by a system of fortresses and walls from the constant siege of corsairs and pirates.

The wall divided the city in two: the walled portion, where the rich Spaniards and Cuban-born whites resided: and the portion outside the wall, inhabited by poor blacks and country folk, who entered and exited the walled city every day.

One of the main access points to the walled city was the Monserrate gate, with its entrance on Obispo Street and it’s exit on O'Reilly Street. Like the other gates, it opened at a set time in the morning and closed at a set time at night, signaled by cannon blasts at the San Carlos de la Cabana Fortress.

Around that time, ice made its appearance in Havana. Although it had been lauded for its medicinal benefits, it was put to its greatest use in this city to chill drinks, warding off the sweltering tropical climate.

Thus emerged, at the corner of Obispo and Monserrate Streets, an establishment named after the "queen" of fruits: La Pina de Plata (The Silver Pineapple). There, one could calm a terrible thirst with juices, milkshakes, an almond-flavoured drink called Chorchata, and soft drinks made from fruit. Also available were alcoholic beverages and, by the end of the nineteenth century, the first combinations became fashionable: simple mixtures of rum, gin, vermouth or cognac which were the ancestors of classic international cocktails.

When it was close to 100 years old, La Pina de Plata changes its name to La Florida, with the goal of attracting the numerous visitors from the United State who passed through the Florida peninsula. The people gave the spot its definitive name with which it has achieved worldwide fame: EL FLORIDITA.

At that time there was an open bar from which it was possible to observe passers by. The 10-meter-long mahogany bar and the same Corinthian friezes remain today. In the 1910's it incorporated a restaurant area, headed by French chef Lapont.

In 1914, bartender Constantino Ribalaigua Vert arrived at El Floridita. A Spanish immigrant, he was known as "Constante" to his friends. In 1918 he took over from Salas Perera as the owner.

Hemingway with Constante tending bar

Constante was a master Cuban bartender, the very embodiment of professionalism, creativity, and cleanliness. He devoted his whole life to his profession, preparing cocktails behind the bar, and converted El Floridita into the city's cathedral of cocktails. Indeed, he had numerous creations: Presidente, Habana Special and much more. But the Daiquiri is undoubtedly the cocktail that achieved the greatest international fame, and for that reason, there is a phrase embossed in bronze on the ice chest over the bar: "The Cradle of the Daiquiri."

El Floridita became the most famous bar in Havana, and one of the most famous in the world. In 1953, “Esquire” magazine, called it one the world's seven best bars, along with, the Pied Piper bar in San Francisco, the Ritz in Paris and London, Raffles in Singapore, Club 21 in New York and the bar at the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin.

One of the old timers

Since that time El Floridita has been frequented by distinguished visitors to Havana, ranging from artists to official guests of the government. But U.S. novelist Ernest Hemingway, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature, was the most assiduous of all. He became a personal friend of Constante and after the latter's death in 1953, Hemingway continued to consider El Floridita his favorite spot in Havana during the more than 20 years he lived in the country. His favorite bar stool and a bronze bust unveiled in 1954, when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his "Old Man and the Sea" are permanent witnesses to his presence.

El Floridita and its Daiquiri have been immortalized in literature on more than one occasion. Perhaps the best description was written by Hemingway himself, in "Islands in the Stream".The British Regency style and décor that El Floridita bar/restaurant has today dates back to the 1950's, as does the carpentry work, lamps and the paintings on the walls.

In 1991 El Floridita was totally remodeled, respecting all the original elements, including the bust of Hemingway and the bar top.

Some of El Floridita's Customers

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Gene Tunney, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gary Cooper, Luis Miguel Dominguin, Tennessee Williams, Charles Scribner, Spencer Tracey, Rocky Marciano, Ava Gardner, Samuel Eliot Morison, Buck Lanham, Herbert Matthews.

Hemingway with his wife Mary and Spencer Tracy while filming The Old Man And The Sea 1958

Hemingway and Gary Cooper 1951

And more recently: Paco Rabanne, Joaquin Sabina, Pablo Milanes, Alicia Alonso, Silvio Rodriguez, Javier Sotomayor, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, Matt Dillion, Danny Glover, Jack Nicholson, Giorgio Armani, Gianni Mina, Jean Michel Jarre, Fito Paez and others.

and, of course, my grandfather and his cronies way before Hemingway ever set foot!

My grandfather standing left in white suit, his brother seated left

El Floridita Daiquiri*

2 oz white rum
1/4 oz maraschino liqueur
1 oz lime juice
2/3 oz sugar syrup

Shake briefly with a glassful of crushed.  Strain into a glass.
Serve in an open champagne or martini glass.  You can top with a maraschino cherry.

Note:  Use real lime juice.   When squeezing the limes extract only the juice and nothing else. You do not want oils from the skin to get into the drink.

Constante Ribalaigua Vert (known as Big Constante), who ran the El Floridita when Hemingway was a regular customer, was described by the contemporary cocktail writer David Embury as follows: His limes were gently squeezed with his fingers lest even a drop of the bitter oil from the peel get into the drink; the drinks were mixed (but not overmixed). . . The stinging cold drink was strained through a fine sieve into the glass so that not one tiny piece of ice remained in it. No smallest detail was overlooked in achieving the flawless perfection of the drink

*From the 1934 Bar La Florida Cocktails Guide

Floridita Daiquiri #2

2 oz rum
1 oz lime juice
¼ oz grapefruit juice
¼ oz maraschino liqueur
½ tsp sugar

This was the house Daiquiri at the El Floridita Bar in Havana. The grapefruit makes a really nice addition, working almost as an alternative to sugar in taking the edge of the lime. This version is excellent frozen.

Papa Doble (Hemingway Daiquiri)

4 oz rum
2 oz lime juice
½ oz grapefruit juice
½ oz maraschino liqueur

This was Hemingway’s usual drink at the El Floridita, and is basically a double sized Floridita Daiquiri without the sugar. Since Hemingway was diabetic he limited his sugar intake, and apparently simultaneously doubled his rum intake to compensate. Hemingway drank them frozen, and the freezing probably helps mellow the acidity a little. Some suggest making the maraschino a float on the final drink. It is worth noting that potent, acidic, minimally sweetened drinks were quite common in the first few decades of the 20th Century, so a sugar-free Daiquiri was not such an odd idea for the time. Obviously, you could (perhaps should) either cut this one in half or share it between two.

No matter which one you choose, at least have a real one!

The History part is from the Floridita website here
Daiquiri #2 3 and comments from here
Photos from Floridita website, Google and Lindaraxa Photo #12 


  1. Julieta, this is perfectly delicious. I love a very good Daiquiri and no doubt in my mind that yours if very-very good. your grandfather and his brother look very handsome and no doubt looking for the perfect blend. what was his drink of choice? in the twenties?- 30's? pgt

  2. LA

    I scanned from my daughter's copy but I think that photo is like you said late 20's early 30's. I have to find my original and verify. The only drink I ever saw him with, and of course that was much later on, was a scotch on the rocks, although I'm sure that's not what they were having in this photo!

    He and his brother were famous for their good looks which caused my poor grandmother many a sleepless night. Many, many stories about his escapades!

  3. What a fabulous post, and a marvelous story. I loved it! Thank you for sharing your memories of this remarkable place and in your former homeland. A great pleasure to read. Thank you!

    Oh, and I look forward to trying out the recipes, as always!

  4. I am a Hemingway fan and learned of the Papa Dobles thru A.E. Hotchner's book....mixed many of them since then....a great variation.
    Great post!

  5. I'll be making a round this evening. Wonderful suggestion, gives me a bit of mal de Cuba!

  6. Excellent info big fan of eh and errol flynn both legends


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