"El mojito es una pequeña Cuba: Azúcar, ron, vegetación y frío artificial"

(The mojito is a small Cuba: Sugar, rum, vegetation and artificial cold.)
Guillermo Cabrera Infante

La Bodeguita del Medio is about a fifteen minute walk from El Floridita in Habana Vieja, the old colonial center of the city. Together they form a dyptich of bars where you could find Papa Hemingway having a drink every day with almost religious fervor, a Daiquirí in the latter, and in the former, a mojito.

The mojito is roughly a Caribbean version of the Mint Julep that substitutes rum for bourbon. They were in all likelihood developed in parallel, fed by the oppressive humid heat of the bayous of Louisiana and the swamps of the Cienaga de Zapata near Havana. Though the origin of the drink is often credited to the Bodeguita around the 1930s, it has in all likelihood older roots. One story traces the origin to a cocktail invented by a pirate named Richard Drake (not to be confused with the privateer Sir Francis Drake) in Havana in 1586. Made with aguardiente (literally flaming water, the unrefined precursor of rum), sugar, lime and mint, it was called a Draque and was refined in the 1800s when rum became available. The name mojito could come from a corruption of mojadito (a little wet) or a diminutive of mojo (a seasoning sauce used in cuban cuisine) or some have even said that mojo is an African word meaning to cast a spell. Whatever the origin of the name, the drink is beguiling and tropical. Mojito

Put sugar and lime juice in a tall cocktail glass. Muddle a few fresh yerbabuena leaves (a Cuban mint almost impossible to find outside of ethnic markets in Miami and parts of New Jersey so substitute with mint) into the sugar and the lime juice, preferably with a wood pestle. Add one ounce of white rum, the bitters and ice cubes. Top off the glass with soda water, stir well and serve with a sprig of mint. Very chi-chi bars will also add a long thin cutting of sugar cane as a stirrer, this is, strictly speaking, an affectation, but fun to chew nonetheless.

The end result looks like swamp dredgings over ice making it one of the ugliest cocktails you will ever have. It is however a little piece of Cuba in a glass, in other words, a slice of heaven.

A mojito is a bitter-sweet drink - lots of sugar balanced by lime, mint and angostura bitters. A decent mojito is a good drink, but an excellent mojito is a glass of iced paradise. A murky, muddy, sweet, cold, tangy, rum-drenched paradise full of mojo - grit and alcohol and bits of leaves. It all blends together into a harmonious whole. The rum is hard to taste, but it adds a distinct tang to the lime and mint.

The mojito has its roots in Cuba in the mid-1800s, and has apparently been highly popular in Cuba since at least the 1920s. Apparently it was popular in 1890s America, and Ernest Hemingway was fond of them.

The mojito is now in 2004 enjoying another moment of international fame as the "it" cocktail, much as the cosmopolitan was all the rage a couple of years ago.

Good mojitos that I have had have involved a healthy amount of bitters, have often used brown sugar. Bad mojitos that I have had have often used only white sugar, and ice that was not finely crushed, and lots of soda water.

After some diligent research1, here's how we saw excellent mojitos made in a bar in Soho:
Get a sturdy tall glass and put into it, in roughly this order:

  1. A bit of sugar syrup2. It looked like a couple of tablespoons worth – it covered the bottom of the glass a few millimetres deep.
  2. Some lime bits. These were juicy limes cut into eighths. At least eight bits were thrown in, making a whole lime or more. This was very limey drink, flavoured by both the juice and the rind. You may want to bruise or "roll" your limes a bit first, to soften them.

  3. Two heaped teaspoons of dark brown sugar – it was a muscovado type, fine-grained so that it would dissolve quickly.
  4. Some mint. Preferably spearmint, the yerbabuena variety if you can get it. More than a sprig, less than a handful. It seemed to be mostly leaves, not much stems. He tore it up a bit first.

Now mash it a bit (the technical term is to muddle it) with a wooden pestle to bruise the mint, release the lime juice and flavour. The sugar will act as an abrasive here. Then add, in order:

  • A generous helping of finely crushed ice.
  • White rum (plain Bacardi will do, but Havana Club or expensive aged rum is even nicer), at least one shot, maybe two if you want to be able to taste the alcohol.
  • At this stage you may want to shake it up a bit, to make sure it's not completely unmixed.

  • Top off with a splash of soda water. There wasn't much room left in the glass for dilution by soda anyway.
  • Poke a straw in it and serve. Drink and sigh contentedly.

    Note that this recipe doesn't use any angostura bitters, but the brown sugar does make up for that. I've made similar mojitos with adding a drop of bitters just before the rum, and had good results.

    As with all good cooking, the quality of the groceries matters. The freshness of the mint, and the juicyness of the limes is important to the quality of the finished product.

    Some differ on the mint stalks vs. leaves element of the cocktail, insisting that the stalks, not the leaves are what is needed. I usually just trim the ends and dead bits off, and put the whole lot in.

    Variations

    I've had a "wild forest mojito", which also contained bits of strawberry and raspberry. It wasn't bad. Other berries might work well, if you mash them up well enough, and manage to get the flavour to get past the strength of the lime.


    The lovely senorita Lila adds:

    Try using Havana club 3 years. It has the lightness of a white rum but the hint of age and smokiness of a more expensive aged rum. Bacardi makes my heart weep.

    Use hiebrabuena (spearmint) instead of peppermint. with peppermint you get a sweet aftertaste and with all that sugar it really takes away from the balance. hierbabuena is perfect for mojitos. Just perfect.


    1) This research took the form of drinking cocktails in various bars, and of making and drinking cocktails at home. What else did you expect?

    2) AKA Simple syrup. Here's a recipe for Sugar Syrup: Mix roughly equal volumes of white sugar and boiling water. Stir or shake to disolve the sugar, cover and leave to cool.

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