Moment of truth: my first sugar free cocktail. And it’s going to be entered into a competition. No pressure. I’m just kidding; I was terrified.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in cocktail competitions before…well, one. But this is a pretty legit competition, at least as far as Omaha is concerned. It is called Perfect Pour, put on by the wonderful people over at Friends of Nebraska Children. They do some wonderful things for foster kids in Omaha and you should definitely find out more about them here: nebraskachildren.org
The Friends of Nebraska Crew
This is the second year that they have put on a craft cocktail competition, the first of which happened to be my first too. This year the theme was Havana, Cuba which sounded fun. Since I felt comfortable with the format besides, I felt this was the best place to beta test my concept.
The competition was co-sponsored by Brugal, and the only requirement for entry was that the cocktail needed to prominently feature it’s most popular rum, Brugal Extra Dry. This is a white rum produced in the Dominican Republic that, as it’s name suggests is very dry on account of its triple filter after its age in white oak. This creates a unique challenge for anyone attempting to mix with it - With a dry spirit with such a delicious yet subtle flavor, perhaps only a few steps above vodka, mixing anything even remotely aggressive in profile with it only mutes the attractive qualities of the rum. Challenge accepted.
But before we delve into the science and methodology of the cocktail itself, I’m sure you’re all wondering who in the world Constante was.
Constante making a cocktail. Earnest Hemingway can be seen sitting in the back at his usual seat
Constantino Ribalaigua Vert, aka Constante as he came to be called, was the owner of The Floridita (Little Florida) in Havana, Cuba. The bar and restaurant is still there, and the cocktails are still legendary. The reason why can only be credited to Constante, who in the early 20th century was a legendary bartender that strove for the craft cocktail that created the golden era of the late 1800’s and 1900’s. Only having visited the US once, he was never tainted by the scourge of prohibition that almost completely destroyed craft cocktails in our country. Instead, he created a haven for any looking for a libation that could not only refresh them from the heat of Havana, but more importantly create (on almost a DAILY basis) new and innovative drinks that proved to be major contenders in mixology. The heaviest hitter of his creations, arguably? None other than the Daiquiri.
And I swear on my life, if you ask if he put strawberries or bananas in it I will pretend not to know you. We’re talking about the most classic of classics; Rum, sugar and lime juice. Interesting enough, but the guy went so far as to create four variations that tasted completely unique of each other but only modifying slight ingredients and ice type. This emphasizes that sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to stay relevant, only perhaps creating a few foundation stones to build a number of buildings on. That alone gave me some inspiration for my concept, but it’s the story of one of the most infamous writers in history that completed the idea.
One day, none other than Earnest Hemingway walks into his bar and inspects “The Cocktail King” as he was called, and his cocktails. He eagerly imposes his knowledge of mixology on Constante insisting that he modify his third iteration of his Daiquiri into what he called his “Papa Doble”: 4 oz of rum and 2 oz of lime juice. Shaken. Quite possibly one of the worst cocktails ever. And ever being the perfect host and barkeep, poor Constante made them. A lot of them.
Part of the reason he was the perfect host was that he knew EXACTLY what would happen if his bar became the mainstay of a guy like Hemingway - and he was right. Almost overnight it became a tourist sensation, where you could go to meet a very famous, and usually very drunk celebrity.
And there were two reasons why Hemingway drank garbage like this. The first is pretty obvious; Hemingway was an alcoholic. And as the great Jeff Berry writes in his most recent book “Potions”
Only a small minority of his many biographers choose to ignore the pink elephant in the room: Earnest Hemingway...was an alcoholic. And alcoholics do not make good drinks. They make strong drinks. They're not interested in striking the right balance...they're interested in getting lit.
But I think the other reason, less known and perhaps more interesting about Hemingway’s cocktail structure has to do with the medical diagnosis that he received around the same time as meeting Constante. Earnest Hemingway was diabetic. And while diabetes was poorly understood back then, one thing was for sure - sugar made things worse. So he insisted on leaving it out of his drinks.
Unfortunately for Constante, mass produced and alternative sweeteners (besides lead…stay tuned in another article) would not be available in the market for another 20 or so years. So while Hemingway might have been sipping on coffee with saccharin packets during his stent in Italy during World War I due to sugar shortages, getting a hold of the stuff away from war times was not only limited but presumably expensive, let alone in Cuba.
Constante put up with the bearded novelist and his favorite, albeit gross, concoctions. But I like to think that if a guy like Constante had access to the materials and ingredients that we have today, he could have created a cocktail that Hemingway would have liked and that would have been safe for him to drink. Perhaps his daiquiri…or in the least, a compromise on one.
Me doing my thing at Perfect Pour, with my very supportive wife Courtney alongside me
Which brings me to the drink that I submitted for Perfect Pour 2017: Constante’s Compromise. You can find the recipe here, but for the sake of this article I’ll give you a comprehensive breakdown since I used some unorthodox ingredients.
Of course the prevailing ingredient is Brugal since that was our requirement for this competition. And a daiquiri at it's core is simply rum, lime, and sugar shaken together. However a classic daiquiri can be made with a number of different rums. Some would say to be a daiquiri it MUST be a white rum, but I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. The trick is to know the rum you are working with so that you can alter the sweetness and acidity to match it - just like Constante used to do. I prefer a softer, more full bodied aged white rum in most classic daq’s, like Cruzan White or Diplomatico Blanco. If I’m getting really weird I’ll go for a dark and seedy Venezuelan rum like Pampero or Diplo Exclusiva. But it really is just that - your preference. Typically though, the older and darker the rum (though not always), the less sugar you want to mix with it.
”But I thought you said this was sugar free!”, you may be asking yourself.
You would be correct - Because instead of sugar in this drink, I’m rocking a heavy contender called xylitol. This sugar alcohol, mostly derived from birch trees, is found in many sugar free candies. The reason is that pound for pound it not only tastes like sugar, but also sweetens at about the same measured proportions. If you have ever tried to cook with a non-granulated artificial sweetener (Spenda, equal, etc) you know exactly how helpful that is. Because it tricks your body into digesting it differently, it affects your blood sugar very little (Just don’t eat too much of it, or that little trick it uses turns into a laxative!) Only one obstacle - when xylitol is turned into a simple syrup, it has little viscosity, or “syrup-like” qualities. This presents a problem in many classic cocktails, because the mouthfeel that is created by a traditional sugar syrup is critical to giving a cocktail that soft, almost velvety feel on your palate. The first draft of the Compromise tasted like a daiquiri, but with the consistency of water, so that’s no fun. The way that I adjusted for this is the same way that has been used since the 19th century in drinks - a gomme syrup.
Essentially, a gomme syrup is a simple syrup that has been fortified with gum arabic. This powdered sap from the acacia tree has been exploited for centuries on account of its binding and thickening abilities in food and other applications that might surprise you. Ever lick a stamp or paint watercolor? It’s usually there! And when blended with my xylitol syrup it made it just that - a syrup! Now I just needed to add some lime juice, right?
Well…not exactly. What many people don’t necessarily think about is that while diabetics obviously use caution with fruit juice on account of its sugar content, limes can be overlooked because of the tartness of the juice. And while we’re only talking about a measly 3 grams of net carbohydrates per fruit on average, I can’t exactly call it “sugar free” if I use that ingredient.
That’s when I remembered something that one of my mentors and colleagues Luke Edson uses regularly at his bar, The Berry & Rye. Very old school rule of thumb when mixing drinks is that if it has juice of any kind, you MUST shake the drink in order to properly mix the particulates. But what if you don’t want the extra dilution and aggression to your flavors that shaking provides? Welcome to the wonderful world of acid!
And I’m not talking about the kind you drop onto groovy papers to see pink elephants with. I’m talking about malic found in apples, tartaric found in grapes…and citric found in limes. It’s great for the craft bartender because it allows you to stir a cocktail with an acidic element of fruit without having to rely on shaking fruit to do it. This is cool but what obviously interested me more is that this solution is carb free! The trickiest part was figuring out what concentration in a solution would best mimic that found in a naturally occurring lime juice. After figuring this out, I pretty much had the makings of a completely sugar free daiquiri.
But it was still missing something. That something was a fancy word called organoleptic, or in the culinary world the ability for the senses to interact with each other. It tasted like a daiquiri, but it didn’t smell like one. That’s when I realized that by using citric acid instead of lime juice, I had over-isolated the ingredient. A lime peel expression of its oil fixed that without adding sugar. Mission accomplished.
Reactions to my first sugar free craft cocktail were incredible. I knew it could be an interesting idea, but had no idea how overwhelming of a response I would get. People wanted this, and not just diabetics. People on restricted diets or even those just wanting to keep calories down were fascinated. Jade Thiesen, a Pharmacist at Nebraska Medicine present for the event said this:
I think it's a really revolutionary concept. As a pharmacist, I counsel diabetics on medication management, but diet is so integrated with that. What to drink is a common question, and I look forward to being able to share more exciting options than diet soda and light beer.
I know you want to know; I didn’t win the competition. I didn’t deserve the win anyway - there were some really fantastic drinks offered there and this was my first attempt at this kind of cocktailing. Honestly, in the steep competition available there, I was honored to take part at all. But it was definitely what tipped the scale and told me with a resounding voice - Omaha, and maybe the rest of the country, needs this right now, and badly. So stay tuned for more from your friendly Diabetic Bartender. I’m just getting started.