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Daisies: Your favourite cocktail family

If cocktails come in families then the Daisy is definitely the most popular household on the block, and leading the pack is its famed Margarita.

Before there were bespoke menus and bars where it’s house drinks only, the world ordered their cocktails through categories.  I realise this doesn’t sound exciting, but it was actually an expedient way of getting the drink you wanted – fast.

A Gin Fix would have ordered you a pineapple flavoured gin sour, for example, had you been in the right bar in the right decade. And a Whiskey Fizz would have ordered you a classic whiskey sour with lemon and sugar lengthed with soda water. But the one category that has, without contest, given the world its most popular, drinks to date is the Daisy.

Daises are a confusing bunch of drinks with an even more confusing history. Yup, this style of cocktail was mentioned in print before it was even invented, but as the witty David Wondrich remarks in Imbine “Who says cocktail history has to follow the same dull linear path sober history does?”

The problem with the Daisy is that is thrives as one style of cocktail, appears as another, dies out and then comes back as two of America’s most popular drinks, seemingly unrelated until you have that Daisy-eureka moment. Those two drinks are the Margarita (meaning daisy in Spanish, so not exactly disguised) and the Cosmopolitan (meaning nothing in Spanish and thus very much disguised).

Apparently, according to Billy Taylor’s memory (and who on earth he is we have no idea – just go with us on this) the Daisy was invented on July 7, 1873. The story goes that Taylor waltzed into Fred Eberlin’s (some bartender chap) popular stand on New Street, around the corner from the New York Stock Exchange and did something that every online article about things-that-will-piss-off-your-bartender says not to do. Yup, Taylor asked the bartender to invent a drink for him and started calling out ingredients. Try that at your local next Saturday night and see what happens.

However Taylor’s bartender was surprisingly accommodating and actually concocted him up a drink. Taylor sipped and allegedly said “by George, that’s a daisy!”

Ten years later and the New York Journal wrote of Eberlin’s place that “a drink called the ‘whiskey daisy’ was introduced down here a few years ago, and became quite popular…it is made something like the whiskey sour, with the addition of seltzer.”

So our original Daisy is lengthened by soda water – which is unlike any Margarita I’ve ever tried.

Luckily our faithful old pal Jerry Thomas decided to lend his talented hand to the drink and it next appears in print in the 1876 second edition of his Bar-Tenders Guide, and in this guise the drink is sweetened with orange cordial. That sounds a lot more like to beginnings of the Cosmopolitan to me.

“The Daisy had its vogue, mostly as a whiskey drink but other spirits, too, and then faded, unless you were in the vicinity of New Street and didn’t mind drinking in a basement. It didn’t help that is was little different from the Fizz, which made its debut a couple of years later but was less confusing a drink – where the Daisy couldn’t make its mind up whether it was a short drink or a long one, a Sour or a Cocktail, the more streamlined, more classic Fizz went long out of the gate and swept the field,” writes Wondrich.

While the Fizz was dominating - the Daisy did still survive but it became divided between two different styles which complicate the history a lot. Around 1890 someone started adding raspberry syrup and then grenadine, serving it over ice and garnished with all the fruits money could buy. Sort of like a Daisy Cobbler. This was around the same time English-style dry gin was the most popular spirit and so a revamped Daisy meant grenadine, citrus and gin on the rocks and a traditional Daisy meant orange liqueur, spirit and citrus served straight up. But then Prohibition hit and put an end to the fun.  

Which is when everyone got on the bus to Mexico. Hello Tequila Daisy. The revamped Daisy found itself in the first ‘Sunrise Tequila’ which skipped today’s OJ for lime juice, grenadine and crème de cassis served long with soda water over ice.

Eventually, after repeal when America got back on the sauce, seemingly for good, the Tequila Daisy pops up in Syracuse, New York, of all places. Possibly because it didn’t occur to anyone, but most likely because they were all steaming, nobody bothered to record which kind of Daisy they were drinking. “If they were drinking old-school,” writes Wondrich, “you see, they were drinking tequila, orange liqueur, lime juice (much more common than lemon in Mexico), and maybe a little splash of soda – and ordering them as Margaritas.”

Thus the Margarita side-lined the Daisy, because tequila is delicious and speaking in Spanish is far more glamorous when ordering a cocktail. And that’s where the Daisy very possibly could have ended its illustrious career – as a single drink rather than a category.

But the modern bartender is having none of it. By stretching into the past and exploring all the various guises of the Daisy pre-tequila, the Daisy has made a come back.

“Discovering this category of drinks was the most exciting thing that happened to me while writing this book,” writes Gary Regan in The Joy of Mixology. “I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. Cocktail, a.k.a. Ted Haigh, for pointing out that the Sidecar is a variation on the Brandy Crusta, and that the Margarita is also built on the same formula.”

Regan doesn’t call these Daisies but rather New Orleans Sours, after the Brandy Crusta’s first appearance in the eponymous city.

“You will notice that some of the world’s greatest cocktails are members of this family, the Sidecar, the Margarita, and the Cosmopolitan among them. New Orleans Sours call for a base spirit, lemon or lime juice, and triple sec or another orange-flavoured liqueur, such as curacao.”

Some of these great drinks include Between the Sheets, Calvados Cocktail, Corpse Reviver No 2, Cosmopolitan, Margarita, Pegu Club Cocktail and the Sidecar.

Modern adaptations of the Daisy can go so far as to shy away even from the classic orange flavour. After all, in Jerry Thomas’s Daisies the cordial is intended as an accent, not as the main sweetener. The Dead Rabbit in New York have even swapped out the orange for the likes of ginger and floral syrups, yet retain the title Daisy in these drinks. And who are we to argue? They’re currently the best bar in the world.™  

No matter what spirit it arrives with, a good Daisy holds its extremes of sweetness, sourness and bitterness in thrilling tenuous balance, making it a cocktail well worth discovering.