Friday, March 14, 2014

Cocktail of the Week: The Hotel Nacional Special

One of the joys of buying a new bottle for the home bar is the opportunity to recreate a perfect memory. Two years ago, I visited San Francisco’s temple of rum Smuggler’s Cove. There, I savored one of the finest cocktails I’ve ever had. With the purchase of some apricot brandy, as discussed last week, I was finally able to try my own hand at the drink.

Wil P. Taylor was the bar manager at the Waldorf-Astoria when Prohibition forced him to ply his trade in warmer if not more temperate climes. He assumed the same role at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana. Charles H. Baker, Jr., singing his praises in The Gentleman’s Companion, said Taylor was at his post in 1933 when the Cuban army “mighty near blasted a marvelous hotel off the map” in order to capture officers loyal to deposed president Gerardo Machado. Taylor, Baker notes, “kept right on managing just as if it had been old times!” In 1946, the Nacional would be the site of an infamous gathering of Mafia chieftains including Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky, who would eventually strike a deal with Cuba’s president Fulgencio Batista to take over part of the hotel and open a casino there.

Taylor’s reputation was made with a cocktail perfected during his stint at the Nacional, which Baker would immortalize as “one of the three finest Bacardi drinks known to science.” It’s a daiquiri variation – in some circles it’s known as a Nacional Daiquiri – but what a variation. A few words on the ingredients.

Rum. Recipes call for either an aged or a white rum. Aged, obviously, is preferred. I used white.

Pineapple juice. For the most part, canned pineapple juice is viewed as an acceptable substitute in cocktails. I’d make an exception for the Hotel Nacional Special, where that intense flavor is the entire point. Hold out for fresh juice.

Apricot brandy. Again the question is raised of whether to use apricot brandy (read: a sweet apricot liqueur) or a drier eau de vie. Taylor, in his original recipe, specified “dry apricot brandy,” which would indicate the latter. I don’t have an eau de vie, so the choice was easy. Besides, the liqueur’s additional sweetness is far from an obstacle here, blending with the pineapple’s fulsomeness in splendid style.

Simple syrup. Reliable sources endorse using pineapple gomme syrup, a sweetener made with gum arabic, which combines the simple and the pineapple juice into a single element. I cannot speak to that innovation myself, but regular simple in conjunction with fresh pineapple juice worked magic.

Lime juice. Just regular fresh lime juice. Nothing to see here. Move along.

My rendition of the Hotel Nacional Special didn’t match the one served at Smuggler’s Cove in terms of sheer transcendence – they frothed a pineapple right in front of me, for God’s sake – but it was still a roaring success. The luxuriant taste of the pineapple crossed with the apricot’s sweet earthiness isn’t a memory any more. It’s only a few shakes away.

The Hotel Nacional Special

2 oz. rum
1 oz. pineapple juice
½ oz. lime juice
½ oz. simple syrup
¼ oz. apricot brandy

Shake. Strain. Garnish with a lime wheel.

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