Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Diki-Diki

Learn the history of the brandy cocktail and three different recipes!

The dwarf king, Panglima Diki-diki, was hereditary ruler of the island of North Ubian.  Hunt up a detailed map of the Philippines and you will be able to find it. The Moro people of his island, full-grown and insatiable warriors they are, swore allegiance to him instead of to President Hoover principally because the great chief 10,000 miles across the waters to them was totally unknown to them.

--Hiram Merriman, Three Kings of the Philippines

Sometimes, a really good cocktail has a really unfortunate name. Toss in an ingredient that, until recently, required a trip to Scandinavia or a lengthy homemade process, and you end up with a cocktail that is really, really off the grid. And really, really delicious.

As so much of this series has been heavy on gin and rye drinks, with a soupcon of rum and a dash of applejack, it is time to look in another direction, to a cocktail that uses a brandy of sorts as its base, is modified by an obscure and delicious liqueur and finally lets us use the grapefruits in that bowl on the kitchen counter. And though its name may conjure visions of tropical paradise and paper umbrella bedecked concoctions, the Diki-Diki Cocktail is a grown-up drink, pleasantly tart and dry, with a thumping bass note of funk and smoke.

The Origin of the Species 

The Diki-Diki Cocktail makes its first known appearance in the Robert Vermeire’s Cocktails: How to Mix Them, published in 1922. In introducing the drink, Vermeire lays claim to its creation, with this introduction:  “Diki-Diki is the chief monarch of the Island Ubian (Southern Philippines), who is now 37 years old, weighs 23 lb., and his height is 32 in. The author introduced this cocktail at the Embassy Club in London, February 1922.”

Fair enough. What Vermeire doesn’t explain is why he named a drink after an obscure Filipino king who refused to submit to the United States, but used a French apple brandy as his base, modifying it with a traditional Scandinavian liqueur and grapefruit. Perhaps it is something to do with the liqueur using a traditional Indonesian spirit as its base, and, to a faraway barman, a Pacific island nation is a Pacific island nation. Or, perhaps, it is something to do with Diki-Diki being rather unlucky in love and needing a cocktail of his own to drown his diminutive sorrows. Or perhaps, Vermeire spoke the Sherpa language of Tibet, where “Diki-Diki” translates as “healthy and wealthy,” which makes a fine toast indeed.

What is known is that Harry Craddock cribbed and altered the recipe for his Savoy Cocktail Book, and that shortly thereafter, the drink fades away into forgotten obscurity on the wings of Prohibition. Ted Haigh in his Vintage Sprits and Forgotten Cocktails publishes the recipe again, but he uncharacteristically leaves out much in the way of origin and creation myth, so speculation and Google lead us where they can.

A Note on Ingredients: Punsch? 

The modifying liqueur for the Diki-Diki is Swedish Punsch, a holdover from the days of European exploration. The Swedish East India Company (Svenska Ostindiska Companiet) didn’t have the same reach and muscle as the Dutch East India Company or the British East India Company, but from 1731 until 1813, the Swedes set out to do what Europeans of the era did: rip off trade with the Far East. As it was with most fleets of the day, liquor was a necessary and constant companion on board. And while they may have left the home country with stocks of their native hooch, the return voyage was fueled by stocks of Batavia Arrack brought on board in Indonesia.

There is an argument to be made that Batavia Arrack could be the oldest distilled spirit in the world; it certainly has been made for centuries, and it tastes like it. Like most island spirits, Batavia Arrack has fermented sugar as a key component, but it supplements the sugar with red rice, for a final product that is deeply redolent of game and funk. On its own, it is an acquired taste. But mix it with sugar and spices, and maybe some citrus and tea, and suddenly you have something magical. Still funky and a touch smoky, but with a round, pleasing sweetness as balance.

On board the ship, the Arrack was mixed with sugar, and if the crew was lucky, Eastern spices, and the sailors called that mixture their “Punsch.” The taste for it spread, and by the early 19th Century, bottled examples of Swedish Punsch were sold in Sweden and it remains popular there today, traditionally served warm, alongside pea soup and pancakes on Thursday nights.

Until very recently, if you wanted to recreate a handful of (very worthy) early cocktails that used Swedish Punsch (also known as Caloric Punch in some tomes), you had to make your own. Thankfully, that is no longer the case, as Kronan Swedish Punsch hit American shelves last year. If you want to make a Diki-Diki (or the equally excellent Doctor Cocktail), you are finally in luck.

Yellow or Pink or Ruby Red?

The grapefruit is a classic frankenfruit, a hybrid of the Jamaican Sweet Orange (which is itself a hybrid) and the Pomelo, first documented in 1750 by the Welsh naturalist Rev. Griffith Hughes in his Natural History of Barbados, where it was known as the Forbidden Fruit. Hughes noted that it, “exceeds, in the Delicacy of its Taste, the Fruit of every Tree in this or any of our neighbouring Islands. It hath somewhat of the Taste of a Shaddock; but far exceeds that, as well as the best Orange, in its delicious Taste and Flavour.” It is not known if the grapefruit was deliberately cultivated or a naturally occurring hybrid, but it is safe to assume that most classic drinks that use grapefruit juice would have used a grapefruit that was either yellow or pink in color (the natural colors of the hybrid fruit), as the Ruby Red Grapefruit hybrid (which also became the first grapefruit patent) wasn’t introduced until 1929.

For the Diki-Diki, if your goal is historical accuracy, go with a pink or yellow grapefruit variety. If, however, you want the best tasting drink, consider Ruby Red Grapefruits as they’ll give you a very subtle hint of sweetness and fruitiness that marries exceedingly well with the Swedish Punsch and also gives the end drink a pleasing hue. That said, if you have pink or yellow grapefruits on hand, have at it, and don’t fret too much about it.

A Note on Proportions

The original version of the Diki-Diki uses the classic sour ratio of two parts strong spirit to one part each liqueur and citrus juice, and it makes a fine cocktail. Harry Craddock, in his version, ups the ratios to 4-1-1, which makes for a drink in which the apple brandy shines considerably brighter, at the expense of the modifiers. It is more booze forward, different, but also tasty, and the version favored by John Gersten of Boston bar Drink. Ted Haigh, however, reduces the pour on the apple brandy from the original, keeps the Punsch at the same level as Craddock, but slightly bumps up the grapefruit, producing a finished cocktail a shade drier than either and arguably more in balance. The choice is yours.

(Apple) Brandy, She’s a Fine Girl:

As with The Jack Rose, the Diki-Diki starts with an apple brandy. Unlike the Jack Rose, where the American version of the thing, Applejack, is your only choice, the Diki-Diki needs the French Calvados (or a domestic equivalent). There are many differences between Applejack and Calvados, but the two most important for this drink are the base materials and the ageing methods. Because Calvados uses sour cider apples and pears as its raw material, and because the barrels used are not charred in the manner of Applejack barrels, Calvados is a lighter product, less like whiskey and more like traditional grape brandy in the mouth and on the palate. The nose of a good Calvados is redolent of the orchard, and the flavor of apples is surely there, but Calvados is all uptown elegance, while Applejack is downtown grit.

Calvados can also be expensive and comes in several grades, based on how long it is aged, each with several different naming conventions. Fine/3 Star/Original sees two years in French oak, while Vieux/Reserve sees at least three years, Vieux Reserve/VO or VSOP sees at least four years and Extra/X.O./Napoléon/Hors d'Age/Age Inconnu sees at least six years in the barrel. Confused yet?

For use in cocktails, immediately set aside anything in the six year old category and save it for sipping. It might make a great drink, but it seems wasteful. The sweet spot will be in the three year old categories, as the price is generally still moderate and the roughness of the raw spirits is well mellowed. The Fine/3 Stars will work too, and most of the four year old versions should make a stellar drink.

Because Calvados is still largely off the radar of major liquor companies, label availability will be different in most places. Anything imported by Charles Neal is guaranteed to be excellent, and, for the Diki-Diki, you’re mixing in a couple of other pungent flavors. Don’t skimp too much, but don’t obsess too much either. Among widely available products, Domaine DuPont Fine Reserve is excellent and a good value at about $35 a bottle.

You can also use American apple brandy, provided it’s not produced like Applejack. Two good examples are the Clear Creek 2 Year Old Apple Brandy and the Laird’s 7 ½ Year Old Apple Brandy, though the latter really straddles the line between Calvados and Applejack in style, and might be a bit much here.

If you have a good liquor store, with clerks you trust, ask for a recommendation.

Some Recipes:

The Diki-Diki Cocktail (Robert Vermeire, 1922)

2 oz. Calvados
1 oz. Kronan Swedish Punsch
1 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice

Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold and strain into a chilled glass. Serve unadorned. 

The Diki-Diki Cocktail (Harry Craddock, 1930)

2 oz. Calvados
.5 oz. Kronan Swedish Punsch
.5 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice

Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold and strain into a chilled glass. Serve unadorned. 

The Diki-Diki Cocktail (Ted Haigh, 2009)

1.5 oz. Calvados
.5 oz. Kronan Swedish Punsch
.75 oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice

Combine all ingredients in cocktail shaker with ice. Shake until very cold and strain into a chilled glass. Serve unadorned.

Enjoy.

Read other entries in the series here. Read Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here.

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