Sipping the South: The other Derby drink

Kentucky may have the julep, but Florida's got the juice.

click to enlarge South Florida’s Mai-Kai claims the state’s first cocktail, the Derby Daiquiri. - wikimedia commons
wikimedia commons
South Florida’s Mai-Kai claims the state’s first cocktail, the Derby Daiquiri.

The thing about historians is, they’re so busy memorizing names and dates that they sometimes forget about the good stuff. A friend and fellow historian likes to say, “Don’t tell people what time Rosa Parks boarded the bus; tell people what shoes she was wearing, and then they’ll pay attention.” I say, tell us what she had to drink that night.

Look at what a people drink and you can learn lots about the rest of their lives. I’d love to claim this notion, but I heard it first from Florida historian Gary Mormino, who created a graduate-level Florida Foodways class at USF St. Petersburg. I took the class from food historian Andy Huse, and spent a semester researching the history of the Florida cocktail. Along the way, I found a few cocktails named “The Florida Cocktail,” although show any evidence of having originated at a bar or restaurant located in in the state. They contained all manners of weirdness, from cherry brandy to gin, neither of which exactly screams “Florida.”

Traditional Florida cocktails — at least, recently traditional — date back only as far as the 1960s Orange Blossom, and even that claims “vintage” status without any hard proof. The second, the Floridita, masquerades as an original drink, but its inventors at the Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale admit they simply mix a customized daiquiri.

The 1960s Orange Blossom evokes images of sipping a gin and (orange) juice at a Florida tiki bar or in a posh hotel, perhaps the Plant Hotel or the Don CeSar. It has elements of an older cocktail: heavy on the gin, light on the juice. In that sense, it doesn’t have the makeup of a successful contemporary cocktail. Gin has lost favor with millennials, the juice fails to mask the alcohol and it lacks the sweetness desired by many of today’s bargoers — especially the law students, spring breakers and tourists filling Florida bars and looking to get drunk quickly.

The division between cocktails of the mid-20th century and the slammers, shooters and ’ritas of more recent vintage bring to light an interesting point: Cocktails have changed. Classic cocktails involve more complicated ingredients and focus more on details; newer drinks involve less preparation, except, perhaps, for some sorority girls who display a definite preference for frozen drinks. Modern drinkers want their drinks strong, but with the taste of the alcohol almost completely masked. Even a recent Manhattan cocktail competition I judged saw Manhattans made with banana chips — really, people?

Classic cocktails center on the experience. In Florida, that experience includes citrus or other locally grown produce. The Molokai Bar at the Mai-Kai claims Florida’s first true cocktail, the Derby Daiquiri, circa 1961. This quintessential tiki bar entered it in a contest to name the Florida Derby’s official beverage. Think of it as a daiquiri with the state’s orange juice. The Derby Daiquiri won first place, plus the honor of “The Official Drink of the Florida Derby.” Today, the Mai-Kai still references the same recipe, and the joint also uses original formulas for almost all its drinks.

If a daiquiri isn’t your thing, you can always try our take on the mojito on the previous page. With the Strawberry Festival hovering around the corner, it’s a perfectly Florida drink.


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Cathy Salustri

Cathy's portfolio includes pieces for Visit Florida, USA Today and regional and local press. In 2016, UPF published Backroads of Paradise, her travel narrative about retracing the WPA-era Florida driving tours that was featured in The New York Times. Cathy speaks about Florida history for the Osher Lifelong Learning...
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