New Orleans is currently in the middle of our annual daiquiri season. Teaching camp this summer involved my driving six miles through Chalmette, past roughly two dozen daiquiri shops — several of them with drive-through windows. After hot and stressful days attempting to teach kids who wanted only summer play, it was hard not to stop for an icy, mellowing treat. The Daq Shaq just over the bridge on Judge Perez Drive sells two medium daiquiris for $5.25 every day of the week between 4 and 8pm. Strawberry and White Russian mixed… I digress. I just love daiquiris. I love them as I do swimming pools: as a balm to New Orleans’ balminess. I love the icy crush in my mouth. Mmm, daiquiris.
To that end, Bacardi’s 150th anniversary party and daiquiri competition seemed one of the more intriguing concepts presented at Friday night’s Tales of the Cocktail. At The Chicory in the warehouse district, Tales celebrated the classic cocktail in its own way, with a dozen or so bartenders blending disparate recipes in $1,500 mix-off. At first I was wary of the tiny cups of unfrozen, syrupy daiquiri with their emphasis on fresh ingredients. Having never been to Tales of the Cocktail, I was also disappointed to discover we’d just be “sampling” the drinks. I even thought about pouring one out — not really — to show my allegiance to “What the Fuck,” the “Solja Slim,” and the “Good Joog” (my recommendations if you’re going to be swinging by Gene’s Daiquiris on Elysian Fields anytime soon).
What I didn’t realize until my forth “sample” in 20 minutes, was that each small cup featured a whole shot of booze. Man, they were good too! I didn’t mind the lack of brain-freeze either — since, after all, a good brain-freeze is on par with a kick in the nuts. These concentrated creations also made it easier to take my flipcam around and interview the competing bartenders.
Despite being busy, all were very willing. But all the hullabaloo coming from the decidedly international crowd made the three tasting rooms and the wraparound balcony as a
soccer football stadium. Even in shortest lines, I overheard people speaking French and Spanish as the lively sounds of local Latin act Vivaz filled the air. Many of the black-clad, younger drink enthusiasts with gelled hair and silver hoops looked in far better shape than New Orleans’ usual drinking crowd. Presumably, they’d arrived in-tow with the giant-breasted hostesses in tight, red Bacardi dresses.
Unfortunately, it was so loud that none of the interviews turned out quite as I had hoped. One bartendress put banana chips in her daiquiri but was unable to answer the hard question: “Why?” When I approached the third-place runner-up, Brian Prugalidad of San Diego, the tattooed contestant couldn’t talk because he was about to go on stage.
The winners were announced by Dan Dunn, author of Living Loaded: Tales of Sex, Salvation, and the Pursuit of the Never-Ending Happy Hour. “He looks like a guy who tends bar,” I thought, as he announced that his Sirius radio show “Dan Dunn’s Happy Hour” debuted this week. Sure enough, Dan played the part, cursing and quoting Hunter S. Thompson en route to announcing the first-place winner, Christopher Sinclair of Sacramento. Dunn then called up Travis Tober of Austin, Texas, proclaiming “Now that looks like a guy who tends bar,” as he handed him the “People’s Choice” prize.
On my way home after the Bacardi party I stopped in at Mimi’s in the Marigny, a drinker’s establishment of a decidedly more local magnitude. There, I ran into event promoter Jeremy Thompson of Open House New Orleans Company (OHNOCO), and it wasn’t long before the subject of our conversation shifted to daiquiris.
Last year OHNOCO held the first annual New Orleans Daiquiri Festival, an all-day tithe to the gods of sugary slush. “[Daiquiris are] a topic that gets surprisingly little coverage,” he told me. “But many folk enjoy talking about [it] and generally have very strong opinions about [it].” Thompson considers Louisiana’s many daiquiri shops, which serve sweet ground ice from churning machines, “[an] industry at odds with Tales of the Cocktail, mixology, etc.” While there’s much to be said about the disparity between the stiff, hand-shaken sippers I had sampled earlier and the boozed-up frozen concoctions churned out at Gene’s on Elysian Fields, to Thompson OHNOCO’s Daiquiri Fest is about more than acknowledging the wonders sipping of your buzz from a styrofoam cup. “[Daiquiri Fest is] about preserving the way folks in New Orleans drink. [Its] logo, the outline of a go-cup with lid and straw, is a political symbol — one that is a rally cry to protect our right to drink outdoors,” he says. “We have a number of such rights in New Orleans, and I believe that the only way to insure that we continue to have them is to celebrate them and to formally make the rituals that surround them iconic.”
Truth be told, daiquiris of the shaken deserve a shot, but I still prefer the sweet, icy libation in a styrofoam cup, and I’ll definitely be hitting up OHNOCO’s Daiquiri Festival, also features some of the city’s best DJs, on Saturday August 18th. In the meantime, a tip from a pro: Both the Daq Shaq in Chalmette and Gene’s serve their mediums in plain white styrofoam, sans that telltale light-blue wave design…wink wink.