Defending the Daiquiri and New Orleans’s Go-Cup Culture
The ultra-sweet frozen slush that's errybody’s drink.
Daiquiri advocate Jeremy Thompson, left, and daiquri shop employee Ryelene "Jazz" Jasmine, at Gene's Daiquiris. Photo by Zack Smith
Back in the good old days, before 2004, passengers in Louisiana cars could freely enjoy cocktails en route to their destinations. Upon this permissive landscape flourished the state’s legendary drive-through daiquiri stands, at which you could buy delicious frozen adult beverages without ever turning your engine off. (Drivers, of course, couldn’t imbibe.) Their numbers have since shrunk, but select locations statewide still deliver strong daiquiris out their windows in big-ass Styrofoam cups featuring gaudy pastel logos. The straw remains wrapped and laid across the lid, so no open container laws are broken until the straw penetrates the hole, which surely won’t happen until you get home. Some daiquiri shops even stick a little piece of tape over the straw hole, providing you with no way into the drink until you can get home to your workbench and your tools. Still, many daiquiri connoisseurs keep track of which drive-throughs use blank white Styrofoam cups without telltale logos easily identified by cops.
But there is much more to the daiquiri than drinking and driving. Over the last three decades, the daiquiri has claimed coveted tradition status in Louisiana.
In a 2012 Houston Chronicle trend piece on what he saw as a daiquiri renaissance, bartender Alex Gregg repeats the drink’s well-known turn-of-the-20th-century Cuban origin story: At first a more traditional cocktail of rum, cane sugar and lime juice, in the 1940s the daiquiri transformed into a blended ice and fruit beverage. Then, as it did with Cuba’s musical rhythms so long ago, New Orleans adopted the country’s signature drink – or “bastardised” it, Gregg believes, aping the attitude of many a snooty “mixologist”.
“Capitalising on this trend are all types of tourist traps nestled along Bourbon Street in New Orleans, offering 20 or more ‘daiquiri’ flavours in often shocking hues,” he writes. “Most of these drinks are so far removed from the daiquiri as to be laughable; few contain the essential rum or the critically important fresh lime juice.”
On behalf of most New Orleans residents let me say: fuck what that guy thinks.
He’s only correct in that New Orleans’s frozen daiquiris don’t stick to the original recipe, instead utilizing every type of booze from cheap white rum to Hennessey, Hypnotic to (yikes) Everclear. Representing the world’s only excuse for the continuing production of Styrofoam cups, the ultrasweet street daiquiri is the official drink of every hell-hot New Orleans summer. They’re often purchased by the gallon, but a simple large cup can nonetheless take an hour to suck down. A medium – which goes for around $5 or $6 outside of the French Quarter – will get you right, even if you don’t add the extra shot you are always offered. Two mediums quaffed during daylight hours can easily put you to bed before sunset. The daiquiri is the drink of the bounce-fueled block party. It’s what you imbibe while riding your bike. Daiquiris are sold at our movie theaters, our aquarium, our zoo and its accompanying children’s water park. The daiquiri is the drink upon which natives wean their children at Mardi Gras parades (shhhhh). It is a populist drink. A girl’s drink. An African American drink. The drink the rich, entitled white asshole slurps in his Mercedes. When the humidity sits atop the city like some immense toad, Gregg’s “laughable” frozen daiquiri is errybody’s drink.
My own personal favourite shop is bright pink Gene’s in the Marigny, just outside the French Quarter. Like the famous La Floridita bar in Prohibition-era Havana, Gene’s hosts an entire special daiquiri menu featuring poetically named concoctions like the What the Fuck? (peach 190, orange 190, jungle juice, Hypnotic and White Russian), Good Joog (named for a southern term for “good sex”, featuring Blue Hawaii, Hypnotic, peach 190 and Tropical Passion) and the Child Abuse (a mix of everything but White Russian and Pina Colada). I was honoured when Gene’s put my own signature drink of peach plus White Russian on their menu, though they wouldn’t list it under the name we’d called it for years: White Bitch. Thinking that too offensive, they now call it Sweet Pussy.
Daiquiri institutions such as Gene’s aren’t going anywhere. But New Orleans is suffering the same gentrification issues as every other major American city, and the municipal government and neighbourhood associations have been cracking down on our nightlife scene, all of which is making daiquiri fans nervous. Recent NO transplant Jeremy Thompson has preemptively launched the “Defend the Daiquiri” initiative, as well as the annual Daiquiri Festival, which celebrates its third year this Saturday, August 17. Thompson believes the daiquiri is a cultural icon under attack, and considers his movement to be “the national guard for go-cup culture”. “The Daiquiri shop,” he claims, “is on the edge of becoming an endangered species”.
Katrina flooded the city's last nonsuburban daiquiri drive-throughs, and they didn’t come back when the waters receded. With that precarious tradition pushed to the 'burbs, the powers that be have now begun chipping away at to-go drinks in general. Any music clubs that run afoul of city authorities for any reasons now regularly have their go-cup rights taken away (a la the stalwart St. Roch Tavern), and are burdened with 2AM closing times, which is antithetical to New Orleans’s famous nightlife – go-cups and all-night bars being two of the city’s most marketable qualities. Thompson himself works with two newer Bywater restaurants that had to adopt a “no go-cup” policy before being allowed to open. Before Gabby’s Daiquiris (established in 2007) was allowed to relocate from Franklin Avenue to St. Claude Avenue in 2012, city agencies forced owners Grear Riles and her husband to build a kitchen and change all their signage to read “Daiquiri Café”, clarifying its status as a restaurant with a bar license. “A daiquiri shop is just a bar,” she says, “and the city says no more bars in the Ninth Ward. [Author’s note: that moratorium may have just expired.] So as long as we don’t sell more drinks than food, we’re good.” Gabby’s was also just forbidden from letting patrons take open containers off of the premises. Then again, if the straw does not penetrate the hole...
New Uptown concert venue PubliQ House is essentially a daiquiri bar where go-cups are disallowed. Zoning issues, plus supposed anti-daiquiri-shop bias from his neighborhood association and city government, have caused owner Rhett Briggs to pointedly “repackage” the alcoholic slush churning in his six silver machines as simply “frozen cocktails.” The drinks feature premium spirits and real cane sugar and come in craft flavors such as kiwi mint julep, so they’re different enough from Gene’s concoctions. Still, forsaking the word daiquiri is no small concession given Rhett’s family history. In the early 80s the Briggs clan moved from Houston to Hammond, Louisiana, where his father David Briggs opened what is widely regarded to be Louisiana’s first ever daiquiri shop, Fat Tuesday, which quickly became a local chain, then an international brand. Along with its 29 daiquiri shops in Louisiana and others in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Honduras, Florida, Las Vegas, and elsewhere, Fat Tuesday now also provides both daiquiri and margarita mixes to corporate chains such as Chili’s.“My dad was involved with all of the laws that have to do with daiquiri shops,” says Rhett. “He helped clear the way for drive-throughs. He more or less created the daiquiri phenomenon in Louisiana.” But now, for the sake of his new concert venue, Briggs must, at least superficially, shun the drink that made his family’s fortune.
Jeremy Thompson says he’s been warned by City Council that a bigger go-cup battle is on the way. So in partnership with local businesses such as the Big Easy Daiquiri chain (which has five shops in the French Quarter alone), Thompson is helping to set up protective bureaucracies around the drink and go-cup culture in general. “Rather than protest or play defense,” says Thompson, “we plan to create policy and an infrastructure, so that when [go-cup culture] is threatened we can say, ‘What are you doing with these ordinances? They’re impeding on the structure of the city.’ We want them to be playing defense.”
For now he's focused on this year’s Daiquiri Fest, which will feature a headlining set by world-renowned bounce artist Sissy Nobby, for whom Thompson has concocted the special “Caddy Daiq” (peach purée, orange juice, spiced rum, with a side shot of Hochstadter’s Slow & Low Rye). “Every show I ever do – and that’s a lot of shows – I am going to get a small daiquiri before my performance,” says Nobby. “It’s my own type of energy juice, my own type of Red Bull. I mean, I won’t have one if I am performing at a school function though. I am not that ratchet.” Nobby generally prefers daiquiris with amaretto and pineapple juice, as well as those named after local celebrities such as YouTube comedian Messy Mia (RIP), gangsta rapper Soulja Slim (RIP) and female lyricist 3D Na’tee (please don’t get shot, girl).
Nobby’s Caddy Daiq is one of the festival’s six featured “craft daiqs”, all made with Old New Orleans Rum and other mostly local ingredients. Thompson’s Rum Runner creation, for instance, includes rum, blackberry liqueur and fresh-squeezed pineapple. But his heart, and his advocacy, is with the cheap stuff. “I put fancy ingredients in some of them for the festivals, and I do want to see flavours evolve in the shops,” Thompson admits. “But this is not a trend.”
The third annual New Orleans Daiquiri Festival will take place this Saturday, August 17, from noon to 9PM at Michalopoulos Studio, 527 Elysian Fields Avenue.
Michael Patrick Welch is a New Orleans musician, journalist and author of books including The Donkey Show and New Orleans: the Underground Guide. His work has appeared at McSweeney's, Oxford American, Newsweek, Salon and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter here.