Looking for a cheap, ahem, budget hotel in the Big Apple? Try the Carter Hotel, located at 25 West 43d Street, in the heart of the Times Square/theater district, where you can get a room for about 100 clams a night. As you enter the lobby, close your eyes and envision the joint in its glory days, during the 30s, 40s and 50s, when it was the Hotel Dixie. Opened in 1930 (same year as the Chrysler Building), the Dixie was one of Manhattan’s grand hotels. Just as Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station today, the Dixie had the Central Union Bus Terminal in the basement, with a giant turntable for the buses to change direction.
The Dixie’s Plantation Room was a favored venue for many big bands and torch singers. Al Trace and His Silly Symphonists, Toni Arden, Una Mae Carlisle, Dick Carlton, and Tony Lane and the Airplane Trio all played there. Okay, maybe not “A” list performers, but hey, Sinatra did refer to Toni Arden as “a singer’s singer.”
A weary traveler in 1936 could be sure to find “700 attractive outside rooms each with private bath and radio.” That room would set you back $2.50 a night. But the Dixie, like many grand hotels, fell on hard times in the ‘70s, and by the ‘80s was being used as a city-run shelter for homeless families. By the ‘90s, the venerable old Plantation Room became a venue for drag queen shows, as part of a notorious Times Square nightclub called Sally's Hideaway.
In addition to the nightlife at the Plantation Room, the Circle Bar and Terrace was a legendary watering hole for journalists and newspapermen, particularly from the nearby New York Times and the New Yorker. It’s commonplace for a hotel, such as the Monteleone in New Orleans, to boast of the notable writers it’s hosted. Well, during its later, seedier days, the Dixie had the dubious distinction of being the hotel where literary types checked in only to check out. Novelist William Lindsey Gresham succumbed to a sleeping pill overdose in 1962, and poet Delmore Schwartz died of a heart attack in his room at the Dixie in 1966 - in the words of Lou Reed, “some kind of heart attack probably brought on by amphetamines, liquor and God knows what else.”
This menu is great, offering thirty, count ‘em “Thirty Popular Drinks and How to Make Them.” Since it’s summertime, let’s look at a couple of classic rum drinks, the Daiquiri and the Bacardi Cocktail. And, no, I’m not referring to the Daiquiri made from the “just add rum and people” bottled mix or the juice cans out of the freezer. Not that there’s anything wrong with those; just as pasta sauce out of a jar can be fine, but don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s authentic. I’m talking about the classic ingredients, traditional methods, making it from scratch.
The Daiquiri and the Bacardi Cocktail - Roll Your Own
The differences are slight: the Daiquiri is rum, lime juice and sugar, while the Bacardi is rum, lime juice and Grenadine. Oh, make sure that’s Bacardi brand rum in the latter, or the trademark lawyers will be all over you like a cheap suit. Take it from me, I happen to be a trademark lawyer, and I’ve owned a cheap suit or two in my day.
Indeed, on paper these drinks are very similar, an example of David Embury’s “Roll Your Own” theory, that drinks are made up of components, and subbing one for another will create a new drink. Using the terminology found in his classic 1948 book, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," both drinks share the same base (white rum) and modifier (in this case, a sour modifier, lime juice). The difference is in the choice of sweetener. The Daiquiri uses sugar, while the Bacardi calls for Grenadine. Note: use a Grenadine made from pomegranate juice (not just fructose or corn syrup) and you’ll make better drinks, and that includes your Shirley Temples.
Continuing to "Roll Your Own," you’ll see that if you start with the Daiquiri and add mint and seltzer, you’ve got a Mojito. Or, replace the rum with vodka, use Cointreau or triple sec for the sweetness, add some cranberry juice and, voila, it's a Cosmopolitan. Use brandy as the base, lemon juice as the sour and Cointreau as the sweet and it's a Side Car. Rum for the brandy and it’s a White Lady. Whiskey in place of the rum and it's a Whiskey Sour…Okay, you get my point.
As with most classic drinks, there are as many stories as to the Daiquiri’s origins as theories about where Jimmy Hoffa is. Quoting Charles H. Baker, Jr., in his epic 1939 book "The Gentleman’s Companion - Being an Exotic Drinking Book or, Around the World With Jigger, Beaker and Flask," "[w]e honestly believe that more people have boasted about the origin of this happy thought than any modern drink." Baker traces the origins to the village of Daiquiri, Cuba, attributing it (as is so typical in drink folklore) to medicinal purposes.
"There was fever. Doctors still thought that a lot of yellowjack malaria cases came from drinking-water and swamp mists. They couldn't turn off the swamp mists but they knew that diluted alcohol was a disinfectant against germs. So they put a little rum in their boiled drinking water. That tasted pretty bad so some bright citizen squeezed a lime into the thing, and a little sugar to modify the acid. Ice made from distilled water took the tropical heat off the thing. The 2 originators were my friend Harry E. Stout, now domiciled in Englewood, New Jersey, and a mining engineer associate, Mr. Jennings Cox. TIME: summer of 1898. PLACE: Daiquiri, a village near Santiago and the Bacardi plant, Cuba. Hence the name."
Baker’s recipe is as follows:
“1 1/2 oz white or gold Bacardi rum
2 teaspoons sugar
Juice of 1 1/2 small green limes, strained
Very finely cracked ice
Either shake very hard with finely cracked ice and pour ice and all into a tall flute cocktail glass, or put the same things into the Blender, and let frost into the delicious sherbet consistency we so admire nowadays. Never use lemon juice. And remember please, that a too-sweet Daiquiri is like a lovely lady with too much perfume."
Of course, the invention of the blender brought us the frozen Daiquiri, making that version of drink as ubiquitous and predictable as the ice cream headache that accompanies it. But a frozen Daiquiri doesn’t have to be what you’ve come to expect from the Daiquiri bars (namely, syrupy sweet) if you make it from scratch.
There are many variations on the classic Daiquiri recipe; CocktailDB.com offers about two dozen Daiquiri recipes. CocktailDB.com is operated jointly by Ted "Dr. Cocktail" Haigh and Martin Douderoff; Ted is the curator of the Museum of the American Cocktail, and author of the amazing and indispensable book "Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails."
Among these variations, of course, is the so-called Hemingway style Daiquiri. And where else to look at recipes but the source, a 1930s-era menu from the Bar La Florida in Havana, Cuba, known affectionately as El Floridita.
(This is part one of Phil's latest blog on hotel bar menus. More early next week. Phil Greene will present a seminar on the Ramos Gin Fizz at Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans July 19-23. Phil is also treasurer of the Museum of the American Cocktail.)