The Mojito is the drink bartenders love to hate.
It takes too much time to make, it’s a pain to clean up and it’s ordered in quantities far too large by drinkers far too unadventurous.
Yet the Mojito remains one of the most popular cocktails, and for a solid reason: It’s a very, very good drink. It deserves to be constructed with respect and care.
Unlike cocktails invented by auteur bartenders giving outlet to their creativity, the Mojito came about through a natural evolutionary process, progressing from knuckle-dragger to sophisticate over the course of more than a century.
The Mojito took root in Cuba at a time when most rum was scarcely potable—fierce, funky and heavy with fusel oils and other noxiousness. How to fix this? Well, if you were a Cuban farmer with a bottle of cheap rum and a long night ahead, you would have used whatever diversions were at hand to make it more palatable—a squeeze of lime, some sugar-cane juice, a handful of mint. Then it would go down just fine.
Fast-forward to Prohibition and Havana’s rise as America’s favorite offshore cocktail lounge: The Mojito migrated from the farms to working-class beaches around the Cuban capital and then marched inland. Here it was dolled up a bit, with the addition of carbonated water, lots of ice and a tall glass. Foreign visitors marveled at this glorious offspring of the Mint Julep and the classic Daiquiri like it was the scion of a royal marriage.
And it’s a pretty freewheeling scion. There’s a basic recipe for the Mojito but you should adjust it on the fly, depending on the tartness of the limes, the potency of the mint (always use spearmint) and the robustness of the rum. Light rum makes for a pleasingly refreshing beverage that demands little of you, but an aged rum can add welcome complexity. Even just a teaspoon of heavy Demerara rum as a float will take this college-educated drink and give it a graduate degree.
Learn to make the perfect Mojito, and your friends—not to mention your bartender—will love you.
Wayne Curtis writes about drinks for The Atlantic Monthly and is the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.