The Mojito is so simple that it’s genius: mint, sugar, rum and soda water, plus the support staff of ice and straw. Of course you’d want all these things together in a glass! Figuring out who invented the Mojito, though, is a little like trying to figure out who was the first person to sweat bullets in the sun and cobble together a ravishing source of refreshment. But while you’re building up a thirst for a tall, minty, macerated Mojito, sip on these facts to denude the mysteries of this warm-weather wonder.
1. It Was Born in Cuba
There are many theories on exactly where in Cuba the Mojito originated, from the cane fields themselves to the bars pouring out the rum byproduct that came from them. But Cuba is inarguably the motherland of the Mojito. What does the name mean? Well, that’s up for debate too, but Will Pasternak, the head bartender for the very rummy BlackTail in New York City, has some thoughts. “It first appeared in cocktail literature in the 1932 edition of ‘Sloppy Joe’s Bar,’” he says. “Some say it comes from the Spanish mojar, a verb meaning ‘wet.’ Others say it comes from the African mojo meaning a ‘little spell.’”
La Bodeguita del Medio (image: Jake Emen)
2. It Uses White Rum
The combo of sugar, mint, lime juice and soda water is nothing if not refreshing, and a key part of that in a modern-day Mojito is unaged white rum. “I prefer Plantation 3 Stars or Banks 5 Island, as they are blends of different rums from different locations creating a nuanced base spirit with which to build the Mojito,” says Krissy Harris, the owner of Jungle Bird in New York. “But seeing that you’re adding mint, lime and sugar, just about any decent crisp rum can do the trick.” If you find yourself bemoaning your inability to get really authentic due to the lack of availability of a fuller-style Cuban rum, take a tip from a few enterprising bartenders.
“Here’s the thing—rum coming from Cuba now isn’t what it was like at the time classic cocktails like the Mojito were being created,” says self-described rum-tender Jen Akin, the general manager for Rumba in Seattle. “Cuban rum was likely a blend of heavier pot and light column distillate, creating a richer, fuller rum than the light, crisp and delicate profile of modern Cuban rums.” At Rumba, Akin makes her own Cuban-style blend with rums from Puerto Rico, Jamaica and Barbados, as does Pasternak at BlackTail, breaking it down to four-parts Caña Brava three-year-old, three-parts Plantation 3 Stars, two-parts Rhum Barbancourt and one-part El Dorado three-year-old.
Mojitos being made at La Bodeguita del Medio
3. In Cuba, They Muddle, and They Don’t Use Simple Syrup
“The whole thing with the Mojito in Cuba is there’s no simple syrup. That’s such bullshit,” says Paul Menta, the owner and distiller of Key West First Legal Rum Distillery. Menta, a chef who teaches a Mojito class six days a week in his tasting room, has even scored time behind the stick at Havana’s La Bodeguita del Medio, the bar that claims to be the Mojito’s birthplace (and where, apparently, Ernest Hemingway would sip on them when he was taking a break from his beloved Daiquiri). There, Menta learned the importance that using granulated sugar (he prefers demerara) and muddling plays in the drink. “When crushing the sugar granules, you’re also crushing mint, and from that action, the oils come out. The fresh lime juice then creates a chemical reaction and mixes with the chlorophyll in the mint and kills some of the bitterness.”
4.Cube Ice Is King
While you might feel a Julep-like urge to use crushed ice in a Mojito, don’t do it. This tall drink will fare better over time if you use cubes. “A Mojito is basically a rum highball,” says Harris. “Also, most Mojito consumption is in the summer, and you don’t want your ice melting too quickly. The larger surface area of cube ice allows for slower dilution of a cocktail already using soda.”
Another thing that Menta learned on his pilgrimage to the Mojito mecca was that stirring gives you more control over the ultimate flavor of the drink. “As we pour in the rum, running over the ice as it’s slowly melting, the water and oils from the mint mix and blend together. Top with soda water, then take your bar spoon, keeping the tip on the bottom, swirl along the inside of the glass twice and pull up a little so you bring up all that oil and sugar into the mix.”
6. Bitters Are Welcome
Although it’s not likely that aromatic bitters were part of the original recipe for a Mojito, don’t be surprised if you find that your bartender has dotted your drink with a bit of them. “Adding Angostura to a Mojito is a snappy way to spruce it up, but most origin stories don’t include it in the list of ingredients,” says Harris. “Although it’s not in the original and most guests don’t expect the bitters, I do think the Angostura adds layers of flavors, which is why modern bartenders add it.”