The Amazing Story of the Bacardí Cocktail and How It Came to Be

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(image: Meg Shamblen)

By the time Prohibition fizzled on December 5, 1933, much of the bar trade’s know-how had already atrophied. As barkeeps pieced together a renewed American cocktail culture, a relatively obscure 20-year-old recipe was elevated to grand heights, becoming one of the most popular cocktails of the period immediately following repeal. That drink is the still-misunderstood Bacardí Cocktail, a variation of the Daiquiri that involves rum, lime and grenadine. It is rare on menus today but was a stalwart of the 1930s bar repertoire.

In order to understand the Bacardí Cocktail and its place in history, you need to know three things. You need to know about the Daiquiri, that queen of refreshment. You need to know about grenadine, which has been much abused over its long service. And you need to know a bit about Americans boozing it up in Cuba.

Of course, Americans still drank during the dry years, often more than before. They drank in the countless speakeasies that sprang up everywhere and in their stately homes like they always had. Increasingly, they drank in Havana. Just a short hop by plane from New York, the island promised all the modern comforts of whiskey, brandy and gin, plus a homegrown specialty, rum, of which one of the most famous local purveyors was Compañía Ron Bacardí.

Americans brought home a taste for rum, particularly the elegant confluence of white rum, lime juice and sugar known as the Daiquiri. That beverage was introduced to the United States in 1909 by a navy officer returning from Cuba where he had acquired its taste. No grenadine was included.

These were the heady days when the discovery of a cocktail recipe was always a newsworthy event. On November 13, 1913, “The Oakland Tribune” reported: “There’s a new cocktail in town—a fresh importation from New York. Take half a whisky glass of Porto Rican rum, add the juice of half a lime and dash into it a squirt of grenadine; shake with ice.”

That’s a straightforward Daiquiri variation turned pink and sweet with grenadine, essentially what would later be called a Bacardí Cocktail but not yet specifying Bacardí rum.

The Bacardí Cocktail, made with the Bacardí name and that specified rum, first appeared in the 1914 edition of a tome humbly titled “Drinks.” Its author, Jacques Straub, was an influential Swiss-born bartender in the employ of Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel. Similar formulations, and the same name, were soon appearing in other volumes, such as Hugo Ensslin’s 1917 “Recipes for Mixed Drinks,” and Tom Bullock’s “The Ideal Bartender,” also 1917.

Bacardí Cocktail (image: Tim Nusog)

Ensslin’s volume features an odd reversal: a Bacardí Cocktail without grenadine and a “Daiguiri” with the same ingredients as the modern Bacardí Cocktail. In this period, the Daiquiri and Bacardí Cocktail became a binary star, orbiting each other tightly, switching names and ingredients through their time together.

Even grenadine was not a constant. A pomegranate syrup originating in France—grenade being the French for that fruit, from which we get the name of the similarly shaped explosive—grenadine did not appear in early American cocktails, although it was utilized in the barrooms of Paris. The first American recipe book to prominently feature a host of grenadine drinks was in fact Straub’s; he was no doubt familiar with the syrup from his European training.

In its advertising from the 1930s through the 1950s, Bacardí suggested that its eponymous cocktail could be made “dry” or “sweet”—either as a straight Daiquiri or appended with pomegranate syrup (not replacing the sugar but in addition to it, so quite sweet indeed). But bartenders tended to prefer the grenadine version, considering the Daiquiri a separate concoction.

In mid-1930s New York, the Bacardí Cocktail was a top-selling bar staple, and Bacardí was in the enviable position of having its brand in the very name of that drink. Its pride, however, was tempered by the realization that plenty of bars didn’t use Bacardí in its Bacardí Cocktails. This was an attack on many fronts. Bacardí didn’t want to lose sales to other brands, of course, nor did it want inferior products being associated with its own name. But perhaps most of all, it wanted to protect the Bacardí trademark from becoming just another generic term for rum.

Accordingly, in 1936, Bacardi and its lawyers sprang into action. The company targeted a well-known midtown Manhattan hotel and nearby restaurant and undertook its own elaborate sting operations, clandestinely ordering Bacardí Cocktails and recording the results.

Bacardi’s subsequent lawsuits were based on detailed depositions of its cocktail recon missions, which may amount to the world’s dreariest tale of a night out of drinking. A key takeaway: One deponent described his Bacardí-less Bacardí Cocktail as having “an unpleasant taste” that “puckered the mouth.”

Historical Bacardí ad

In the face of Bacardi’s evidence, presiding New York City justice John L. Walsh had no choice but to side with Bacardi’s request for relief. He ruled that if a customer ordered a Bacardí Cocktail by name, it amounted to deceit to provide them with a drink excluding the named rum.

“The Bacardi decision is almost like the inverse of Prohibition,” says former intellectual property attorney and current rum aficionado David Nir. “The 18th Amendment said there was no correct way to imbibe, period. Then just a few years after Prohibition ended, we had a ruling saying that there was a correct way to drink, at least as far as this particular cocktail is concerned.”

The pioneering legal strategies of the Bacardi company proved as inspirational to other companies as its cocktail had to drinkers. Pusser’s and Gosling’s are two other rum brands that have brought similar suits against unsanctioned recipe followers, though their approach was different.

Neither company’s corporate identity was part of an existing cocktail name, so both trademarked the names of popular rum cocktails: for Gosling’s, the Dark ’N’ Stormy; for Pusser’s, the Painkiller. With those rights secure, they could then demand that bars or competitors who specified the cocktail with anything other than their brand as infringing that trademark.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that this kind of legal wrangling first involved the Bacardí Cocktail, with its addition of grenadine. Grenadine itself had been the subject of a New York case in 1872 between two importers of “grenade syrup” from France, with one claiming that the name, insofar as it was uncommonly used in English, amounted to a distinctive company brand. The court agreed.

While our right to enjoy a Bacardí Cocktail is government-protected, reproducing the flavors of a 1913 or 1935 drink today can take a bit of extra effort. Troy Sidle, the head bartender at ZZ’s Clam Bar in New York City and a man who worships at the altar of all things Daiquiri, suggests making your own pomegranate syrup. If you use an electric masticating juicer on the pomegranate seeds, “the reward is bright red nectar,” he says. “The intensity of the pomegranate flavor with this method means you need a stronger flavor contribution from the rum itself, so I’d suggest a more aged Bacardí than the traditional white.”

“While you may be limited to Bacardí in a Bacardí Cocktail, there are no regulations, restrictions or court cases involving how fresh your lime and grenadine must be,” says Sidle. “And maybe there should be.”

Get the recipe here.

Series & Type: Cocktails
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