HAVANA - Happy hour came early Thursday as 10 bartenders from six countries including Cuba, the United States and Canada vied to be crowned "king of the daiquiri'' at the storied Old Havana tavern where the drink was born.
Salsa music blared in the morning at El Floridita, blenders hummed and a few dozen spectators were on hand to applaud the mixologists when they presented their frothy cocktails, using tongs to finish them off by slipping in colorful straws.
Nick Detrich, a 31-year-old from New Orleans, intently eyeballed his whirring blender as he added splashes of rum, explaining afterward that his technique involves "watching it dance'' and picking up cues from the texture.
"Watching the swirl to make sure that that's uniform, as opposed to just doing one and a half ounces and calling it a day,'' said Detrich, who runs Cane & Table and two other joints back home along with his partners. "You really learn that drink while you're making it.
The rules called for contestants to prepare three traditional rum- and lime-based daiquiris, as well as two of a fruity variant chosen by lots - strawberry, mango, pineapple, a greenish mint-infused take known as a "rebelde,'' or "rebel.'' Three veteran El Floridita bartenders in bright red blazers and ties sat at the bar as judges, with tasters at a nearby table.
Contestants from Argentina, Mexico and Panama also took part.
"We are coming together through the mixing of different cocktails,'' said Mirtha de las Mercedes Gonzalez Salguero, a 21-year-old from Matanzas, Cuba, who was called upon to whip up banana daiquiris as part of her trial.
The daiquiri is "a word with deep Cuban roots,'' she added.
El Floridita, which is celebrating its 199th anniversary, is famous as one of the watering holes favored by longtime Havana resident Ernest Hemingway. According to legend he once downed 13 sugarless double daiquiris in a single sitting.
Tourists are fond of having their picture taken with a life-size statue of the Nobel Prize-winning author resting its elbow on the bar; each day, employees place a cold one next to it in honor of El Floridita's most famous customer.
"To experience any sort of place that's been open for this long, it takes you out of your life in a way, you know?'' Detrich said. "It gives you a lot of perspective on, like, for me not just what I do for a living but the passions that I have outside of bartending and literature and things like that.''
The two-day contest runs through Friday.