When I first became interested in cocktails some fifteen years ago, I scored an original edition of Charles H. Baker’s seminal guide to cocktails, The Gentleman’s Companion: Being an Exotic Cookery and Drinking Book. One of the first drinks from the book that I fell in love with was the Hotel Nacional Special. At one time the house Daiquiri at the Hotel Nacional in Havana, Cuba, the bar tweaked the original version by sweetening it with pineapple juice and apricot brandy. Properly made, it is sublime.
And for years I thought I made the drink properly. I took pride in my Hotel Nacional. I introduced it to a new generation of drinkers, placed it on cocktails menus, and touted my version of Baker’s recipe on my blog. But then I met Erik Adkins, bar manager at The Slanted Door in San Francisco. He and I shared a love of Baker’s drinks, and talked at great length about the Hotel Nacional.
Now, when bartenders get together, we typically talk shit. We make fun of each other, pick on one another’s shortcomings, and generally belittle each other to no end. I’ve told you this before. It’s all in good fun, and in our hearts, we have a great deal of admiration and respect for each other. But I really didn’t want to like Erik’s version of the drink, because—as you might imagine—I was convinced that my Hotel Nacional reigned supreme.
And then I tried Erik’s version. Soul searching ensued. His drink was far superior to mine. His decision to use a classic pineapple syrup in place of pineapple juice as a sweetener, with the addition of a small dash of spicy Angostura bitters to highlight the tropical ingredients with its cinnamon profile was, I had to admit, brilliant. Thankfully, he gave me that recipe so I could share it with you.
And so now I’ve adopted Erik’s version. And as much as I’d like to heckle my friend, he one-upped me. So I present his brilliant version of Baker’s classic recipe. Try it this spring and transport yourself to classic Havana.
HOTEL NACIONAL SPECIAL
• 1 ½ oz. aged rum
• ¾ oz. fresh lime juice
• ¾ oz. pineapple syrup*
• ½ oz. apricot brandy
• 1 dash Angostura bitters
Combine the rum, lime juice, pineapple syrup, apricot brandy, and bitters in a cocktail shaker or mixing glass. Fill with ice cubes and shake. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with a lime wheel.
*HOW TO MAKE PINEAPPLE SYRUP
Trim a one pound pineapple of its peel and cut crosswise into 3⁄4-inch slices, and then cut each slice into six wedges. Combine the pineapple 12 oz. of 1:1 simple syrup in a large bowl and leave to macerate for 24 hours, in the refrigerator, stirring the mixture from time to time. Strain the syrup into a clean bowl through a fine mesh strainer and press on the pineapple with a ladle to extract as much liquid as possible. Let cool, bottle, and refrigerate for up to 1 week.
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Jeffrey Morgenthaler is the bar manager at Pépé le Moko and Clyde Common, the acclaimed gastropub at the Ace Hotel in Portland, Oregon. He is also author of The Bar Book: Elements of Cocktail Technique.