It is has often been claimed that the Dry Martini is the world’s most popular cocktail. Perhaps this was true in the past. I’d even accept that it was the most popular cocktail of the 20th century. But I believe that now the Mojito holds the crown. In my own bartending career I have probably made more Mojitos than any other cocktail.
The Cuban classic comprises of rum, lime, sugar, mint, crushed ice and soda water, making it quite simple. Yet somehow it has conquered the world. A sip of it evokes memories of tropical beaches or lazy summer afternoons. Plus the easy accessibility of its ingredients make it an ideal candidate for home cocktail making.
The Tom Collins may best represent the philosophy of the light and refreshing taste profile. But the Mojito is by far the most popular cocktail in the group. It is an instantly recognizable classic known and ordered in bars all across the world. This begs the question – what makes it so special?
Well I’d argue that there are a lot of different factors which make any given cocktail appeal to people. The Mojito manages to tick all of these boxes. When made well it is both refreshing and alcoholically satisfying. There’s just something special about the mix of rum, lime, sugar and mint that enjoys a wide appeal.
It also impacts upon all our senses and even our psychology. It tastes and smells great. It’s visually bright and naturally stunning. The tall, elegant glass it is served in appeals to men and women alike. Rather than evoking connotations of manliness or being thought effeminate as other glass types sometimes do. And its summery nature reminds us of holidays in warm climes or other good times.
Lastly, when done properly each Mojito is made individually in front of your eyes. There is a certain cachet to that. A sign of quality that someone clearly takes time and effort to handcraft your drink for you bespoke. No, that is no different than any other cocktail covered in this blog, yet it somehow seems different.
So, a fair question to ask is why the Mojito is so much more popular than either the Daiquiri or the Caipirihna? Since these both have very similar ingredients to the Mojito. The answer is mint. Mint is in many ways what makes or breaks the Mojito. If you’ve had trouble making this cocktail in the past, the most likely culprit is the mint.
The short answer and simple solution is this: do not muddle the mint!
Explaining why will take a little time, but I’ll try to simplify it.
When we think of mint we think of the smell and taste of it. These are caused by chemicals the mint plant evolved as an insect repellent. They just happen to also be generally appealing to humans. These chemicals are stored in intracellular pockets – spaces between the tough, walled plant cells. So even a slight disturbance to the leaf will result in their release.
To illustrate this, very gently pick up a mint leaf in good condition and sniff it. Now, slap that same mint leaf on the back of your hand and sniff it again. The minty smell is now much more intense because your slap has disturbed the leaf’s intracellular pockets and released these chemicals. That’s all the pressure it takes.
The problem is that there’s a lot more within a mint leaf than just this minty smell we know and love. There’s chorophyll and a whole load of other chemicals which give leaves in general their slightly bitter, not-so-tasty aspect. These are locked firmly behind the leaf’s cell walls, which require a bit of force to rupture.
This force is amply provided by muddling. When you muddle mint leaves you release all this not-so-tasty stuff into your Mojito. This typically makes it taste a little bitter, leafy, and not quite right. People often try to fix this by adding extra sugar syrup, but that simply does not work. This is the most common cause of Mojitos which don’t come out right.
Instead, we want to apply just enough pressure to the mint leaves to release the chemicals we want without rupturing the cell walls. This is easy. Simply take some mint leaves in the palm of your hand, then make a fist. That’s it. To bring out the delicate flavour of a Mojito, a delicate touch is needed.
Recipe and Method
The method of making a Mojito is a little involved and time consuming. But there is nothing inherently difficult about it.
Start by selecting a tall glass with a sturdy base. Throw in some lime and a dash of sugar syrup and muddle them.
How much lime? I tend to use half a lime, sliced into segments. However, some recipes go as low as 1/4 of a lime up to a whole lime. So long as you maintain the correct Balance of Sour it shouldn’t matter.
Some recipes call for loose sugar. But using it has the standard problem when using loose sugar – how can you be sure it made it into solution? Answer, you can’t. Some recipes call for muscovado or icing sugar to counter this problem. While effective, this will take a little longer and alter the Mojito’s colour – which may not be desirable. To my mind the best solution is pre-dissolved sugar. Sugar syrup. 10-15ml should be the right range to balance the sour of your lime.
Then take half a dozen mint leaves in the palm of your hand and make a fist to release their taste. Or you could slap them with your other hand. Throw them into the glass, add two shots of (usually white) rum and top the whole thing up with crushed ice. Churn with a bar spoon to evenly distribute the solid matter throughout the drink. Then cover with more crushed ice and top with soda water (club soda).
Mojitos tend to be garnished with a sprig of mint. Slap it across the back of your hand before you add it to release the scent. Sometimes people will shake a little icing sugar over it for effect.
However, I like to add a little float of dark rum at the top of my Mojitos. It looks great and adds a little extra something to the drink.
History and Myth
Surprisingly little is known about the Mojito’s origins. It definitely originated in Havana, Cuba. But as to who invented it and when we’ve got nothing. This is strange since usually a classic cocktail will have too many claims of who created it and when to be sure rather than too few.
Some would argue that something like the Mojito would have been made in Cuba for decades or centuries before it was officially “created”. After all, sugar, lime, rum and mint are all grown/produced on the island. There is some historical evidence to support this as well.
One possibly apochryphal tale is that of a 16th century drink named El Draque after Sir Francis Drake. A few years before commanding the British Navy which repulsed the Spanish Armada of 1588, this legendary British sailor attacked Cartagena in the Spanish Main. After a successful conquest and brief occupation, his fleet left weighed down with treasure, but also suffering from scurvy. Looking for medicine from the natives to treat this affliction, they landed in Cuba and acquired the ingredients for a successful remedy.
These were lime, sugar, mint and aguardiente – a rough early spirit distilled from sugar cane. Rum as we know it wouldn’t be developed until the following century. But other than that, this sounds like the core ingredients of a Mojito to me. Given its inclusion of Vitamin C from the lime juice, El Draque successfully combated the sailors’ scurvy, and its use spread throughout the Caribbean.
In modern times the Mojito really came into its own during Prohibition when many wealthy Americans would come over to Havana to patronize their great bars. Hemmingway in particular loved the Mojito, and singled out the bar La Bodeguita del Medio as the best place to get one. From what I’ve heard, this is sadly no longer the case.
Even regarding the origin of the name, no-one knows for sure. One theory is that it comes from the Spanish word mojadito, meaning “slightly wet”. Another, that it is a diminutive of Mojo – a lime and mint based salsa.
Variants and Efficiency
As with any great cocktail, the Mojito has spawned a host of variants. Some of the more interesting or complicated ones I may cover in future posts. However, the simplest ones really are very simple. They are just a matter of adding some fresh fruit along with the lime and sugar and muddling them together. Good examples are the Raspberry Mojito or Blackberry Mojito – shown (right) along with a classic Mojito. Each is made by adding 3/4 berries and muddling, nothing more.
But to round out this post I really need to talk about efficiency. When making cocktails in busy bars, efficiency is everything. When making them at home, it’s usually not so important. But for Mojitos it really is.
Without a swift and efficient setup for crafting Mojitos, a round of them can take ages. And if you make them right, you should expect to make rounds of the popular little buggers. My record for a single round is fourteen (!) Mojitos at once.
When I have been advising clients which cocktails to offer in pop-up cocktail bars for big events I always try to dissuade them from going for Mojitos. While many cocktails can be scaled up or simplified for efficiency, the Mojito can’t – they must be made individually. Let me try to illustrate how time consuming this can be:
For a Ball I worked a couple of years ago we had five cocktails on offer and four bartenders making them. Four of the cocktails were no big deal. But in order to offer Mojitos, we needed two further student workers who spent hours muddling lime and sugar and adding mint to keep us supplied. No other cocktail I could plausibly offer for a big event requires that level of work to pull off.
So, when planning to offer Mojitos, always ask yourself whether you’re prepared to put in the work to do them properly. Because there’s nothing worse than a half-hearted Mojito. It’s a crying shame.