A quaint Cuban cafe, Old’s Havana, on Calle Ocho. Beyond an open facade the white noise of an early evening squall slaps at the sidewalks of Little Havana, Miami. Four squat and dark haired middle aged men sardined in the corner play some Latin Jazz. Warble-crooning and easy-plucking at the vinyl strings. Behind the bar a tall young man sporting a white button-down lines collins glasses up about ten across. In each glass he methodically, and with flippant precision, javelines in mint sprigs, then handily into each one scoops two bar spoons of sugar… and waited.
The orders came in legion. Two of them were ours. I watched the bartender brandish a large wooden muddler. Squoosh-splish...The sound of fresh lime juice pressing vigorously into mint and sugar rivaled the tropical shower outside. Each glass got its cummupense. Pour the white rum, a brand I didn’t recognize, into a sugar frothed pallid green slush. Filled with ice every promethean cocktail received a sugar cane stalk and was topped off with sparkling water. I poked my straw deep into the mint and remnants of undissolved sugar. My daughter lifted her glass for a cheers and we each took that metanoial sip. That began in earnest my foray, nay, my expedition into the mojito.
My “research” has since taken me to a plethora of bars and restaurants to find a comparable mojito. Including Havana, Cuba, the birthplace of this convivial cocktail. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. To me anyway, the story of the mojito is the story of Cuban rum.
It was the year of our Lord 1862 in Santiago de Cuba when an immigrant of Spanish/French decent opened his distillery. Don Fecundo Bacardi set out to create the best new rum in the Caribbean. His charcoal filtration technique lead to the clear clean style of distilling now referred to as the Cuban style. Its fruity-earthy-crisp-tobacco’ish profile incontestably marries flavors of the Cuban terroir with the smooth easy drinking sensibilities of the burgeoning American tourist boom. (We’ll get there.) The idolic tower distillery in Havana still bears an iconic fruit bat effigy aloft its mighty spire. The impending revolution and Bacardi’s strong political leanings forced him, and consequently his rum, to abandon his native island for less turbulent seas. But not before lending itself to the creation of some of the world’s most popular cocktails.
Today Havana Club dominates the mojito, but at it’s very root the progenatorial rum would’ve been Bacardi. We’ll compare the two later for our purposes.
Of course like every single cocktail I’ve researched thus far there is an origin, and an origin. The way back claims the infamous pirate Sir Francis Drake may have initially combined the ingredients we know as the Mojito today as a remedy. Legend has it while somewhere off the coast of Cuba around 1586 Drake’s men found themselves too ill to sail. After consulting the local Taino people the primaveral plunderer concocted a remedy for his sailors consisting of mint - to soothe the tummy, lime - to prevent scurvy, sugar - for flavor, and chuchuhuasi tree bark soaked in rum - said to have certain, ahem - “medicinal” properties. This was what some claim to be the world’s very first cocktail, named after the Spanish moniker for Francis Drake, El Draque - The Dragon.
Centuries later came the Americans. Yes, we find ourselves back at prohibition. You may be surprised to learn that the ratification of the eighteenth amendment didn’t suddenly turn the whole of the United States into repentant teetotaling puritans. Rather, it was more like the entire country was made to sign a nationwide “prom promise” while millions of fingers crossed behind backs from sea to shining sea. Thirsty American tourists flocked like a murder of booze-mad crows from the eastern seaboard of Estados Unidos to Havana, Cuba.
The infatuation with our rum-soaked cigar-smoked offshore neighbor didn’t burn out post prohibition. An influx of tourist and mob money made Havana light up like a floating Vegas. Dirty money never sparkled and glistened so bright. Sinatra sang, Hemingway wrote, Ava Gardner rubbed elbows with Nat King Cole and Eartha Kitt while in 1946 the Hotel Nacional hosted one of the largest known gatherings of crime bosses in mob history.
Amid the glamourous uproar local people still needed normal folk stuff, like a bodega to eat and pick up sundries. In 1942 Angel Martinez opened a little place on the middle of Calle Empedrado in Habana Vieja. Serving dinner and drinks throughout the late 40’s Casa Martinez grew as a hotbed of burgeoning hipster culture. Poets, writers, musicians, and yes - even a few pre-revolutionaries with names like Castro and Guevara came to hang out at the little bar in the middle. Or as it was christened in 1950 - La Bodeguita Del Medio.
Bodeguita holds popular claim to inventing the Mojito. Barely a one room wooden barroom, walls covered twice over with handwritten signatures from decades of patrons. Tourists hover around the bar while locals popping by for a quick mojito on their way home spill out of the open facade onto la calle. An all too seasoned bartender with buzzed peppered hair barely cracks a stoic smile at my girlfriend as they mock-dance with the bar between them; arms steepled over rows of small collins glasses. We named him the Cuban Papa.
The mojito at Bodeguita is pale green and might taste a bit flat to someone used to soda water. In Havana they use sparkling water instead of soda. Yes, there is a difference. Soda water or seltzer is artificially carbonated. The bubbles are larger and more abundant. Whereas sparkling water’s bubbles are naturally occurring from the natural spring where the water is collected. Simply put, smaller softer bubbles. I prefer sparkling water over club soda in my mojitos. Another difference one might find in a Cuban mojito is the mint springs. A strain known as Yerba Buena, they’re way bigger and more verdant than any of the lame limp mint twiglets found in my local Kroger. Keep in mind that pretty much everything in Cuba is grown in Cuba. The mint and lime juice are both farm to table, or farm to glass in this case.
In Bodeguita the glasses are lined in a similar way as described earlier along the small bartop. El Cuban Papa, wielding a muddler the size of a small baton, preps and attacks the mint-sugar-lime in each consecutive glass with a fervor that sends drops of sugary citrus raining down upon the bar. He eyeballs a decent helping of Havana Club 3 anos, fills the glass with ice and tops off with local bubbly water. The result is a perfectly balanced masterpiece of cocktailia. Not too sweet, prevalent mint, hints of citrus accentuated by the bodily light aged rum. It’s refreshing and easy to go down, (especially at the bargain price of $5 a drink). The rum palate holds its own against any hipster-old-fashioned-pinky-out-thumb-up-your-ass bourbon classist. And, this is the basis for the way I make mojitos.
Okay, let’s make a drink. I find this recipe works best in a 10-12 oz collins glass. Grab yourself a wooden muddler, bar spoon, and small cubed ice. We’ll need fresh lime juice. Cuban barkeeps will say half a lime to equal ¾ oz. Since the lime selection in the U.S. can vary from hormone induced monolithic green giants to something more like a little green testicle, it’s a safe bet to simply juice your limes ahead of time to assure proper portion control. For the best mint I would look for the live herbs some of your better groceries are carrying now. They come as a little plant ready to be cut right from the source. The other option is to befriend a local bar manager who will get you some of the nice fresh mint from a restaurant supply store. I’m no drink snob, but soggy broken prepackaged mini mint won’t render the flavor we’re looking for in a mojito. My preference on sparkling water is Pellegrino. I find Topo Chico and Perrier too carbonated. Now just grab yourself a bag of raw cane sugar, usually found in the baking aisle, and we’re good to go!
Oh, dear heavens. Lest I’ve forgotten the most important part. Rum! If you can get your hands on some Havana Club 3 Anos that’s the obvious choice. This drink was invented with Cuban rum and nothing else is quite like it. The 3 year is a pallid off-white color due to the aging in oak barrels and offers a fruity tepid-sweet taste with notes of creamy oak and soft humidity. For something a little sweeter a light Demerara rum fills this drink out nicely. The added earthy/fruity notes are not quite like a Cuban in flavor but they add a complexity that offers a similar body and feel. I use El Dorado if I’m going that route. Cruzan makes a decent cost efficient light rum and Plantation 3 Star will add a hint of funk. I personally am a mojito purest, so I go with Bacardi. It might not be from Cuba anymore, and hard core rum snobs will battle me on this, but a good Puerto Rican rum is not that different from the Cuban. Especially when it’s from the company that invented Cuban rum. I’ve taken my stand and I’ll die on this hill alone if necessary. Fruity and sweet with a little woody spice Bacardi light rum is perfect for mojitos.
(Sidenote: Havana Club PR light rum is available in the US and supposed to be a comparable replacement for Cuban rum, designed for Cuban cocktails. I haven’t tried it but I have noticed the more pallid tinted color, so maybe there’s complexity there worth a taste.)
Here we go! Fold a good size mint sprig into a collins glass. I go for three tiers of leaves. There’s a lot of flavor in the entire sprig so don’t go picking the leaves off and discarding all that minty goodness in the stem.
Add 2 bar spoons of raw cane sugar and ¾ oz lime juice. Now it’s time to muddle. Wait wait wait… Slow down, tiger. Veteran bartenders make it look sexy with all the pomp and circumstance but all we’re really trying to do is bruise the mint to release the flavor and pull the lime and sugar off the proverbial wall of the high school dance and get them all friendly. Too much muddling could result in shredding and you’ll end up with a mouthful of the tiniest salad.
Eyeball in about an ounce of sparkling water. We just want enough to dissolve the sugar by quickly stirring with the bar spoon. Pour in 1½ oz of rum, no need to restir. Fill to the very top with cubed ice and top off to the rim with sparkling water. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig, giving it a few slaps in the palm of your hand to release the aroma. This is one cocktail that’s acceptable to drink with a straw. For one, for the nature of there being leafs essentially floating around in it, and two, you want to drink this cocktail from the bottom; the province of all that sugar and mint.
Now, there seems to be some controversy on whether or not the recipe stops here. Recently in Havana and amid the craft cocktail resurgence stateside some establishments have begun adding a dash of Angostura bittesr atop the finished mojito. Honestly, I like it both ways. In fact I will usually have two a sitting and make one each way. The bitters fall slowly through the drink giving a duality to the profile like one of those two-scents-in-one layered candles.
Mojitos in Havana are the OG. You can count on a more mild yet rum forward experience. Humid and tropical like the place and people of Cuba. In Miami you’ll find just as good of mojitos albeit catering more towards the sweeter more limey taste. Down in Key West there’s a stand selling street side mojitos that are more like rum on ice with a lime twist. (Couldn’t even finish mine.) Here in Nashville we are not wanting for upscale bars. A few of the best I’ve had in town come from Flamingos and Earnest Bar and Hideaway, with a tip of the hat to my boy Matt at Primings who made me a pretty damn good mojito while I sat in the lounge being antisocial doing the research for this article.
This herbaceous mint tart citrus sweet cane libation is probably my favorite cocktail of all time. It’s perfect with any flavor cigar. You can substitute pineapple or coconut rum if so inclined. It’s a great drink to experiment and even better as the original. Sugar and mint could be adjusted to taste. It’s simple and refreshing, perfect for poolside chilling or late night salsa dancing. Muddle muddle splash pour fizz, the Mojito.
There’s a sign hanging in Bodeguita Del Medio, supposedly signed by Earnest Hemingway, which reads - “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” There’s some suspect around this being authentic. Some claim the man didn’t even like mojitos! I find it hard to believe Hemingway, who loved Cuba and its people and culture so much, didn’t stop in to the little bar in the middle of calle Empedrado on his way back to his room at the Ambos Mundos hotel for a quick tipple.
There is one quote Hemingway did say for sure, “If you want to know a cities culture, spend a night in it’s bars.”