The MOJITO: the hamburger of the bar world?

This pirate punch of rum, mint, lime and sugar was one of the first big crowd-pleasers of the bar renaissance, equal parts blessing and curse. In his reconstruction here, Gabriel Daun looks at how it all happened and whether it’s still OK to order a Mojito in a top bar in 2016. A plea for simplicity and quality.

In recent years the Mojito has developed into something like the hamburger of cocktails, i.e., both are prepared and sold time and time again. And, when they’re made well, both offer the palate a sophisticated experience that has nevertheless been virtually nullified out by the sheer widespread availability of second-rate impostors.

Relationship status: It’s complicated

This is perhaps one of the reasons why bartenders have begun to take a dimmer view of the Mojito in recent years. The second reason is essentially because during the last two decades the Mojito’s preparation has too often been lacking the necessary expertise and appreciation, especially by staid suburbanites forcing their pseudo-exotic Caipirinha upgrades on Saturday evening BBQ guests on the garden terrace as a sign of their apparent worldliness and sophistication. Soon too many of these brownish-green brews stuffed with ice cubes, old mint, pieces of lime and clumps of brown sugar were being slung at customers of mediocre wannabe riverside beach bars and large discotheques. It wasn’t long then before the Cuban classic was being sloshed en masse into paper cups at any excuse for a street party or large event for brainless boozing at bombastic prices.

All this stokes the suspicion that someone ordering a Mojito in a bar today is not exactly a connoisseur. Like many drinks before it, to some degree the Mojito has fallen victim to its own success. It simply isn’t sophisticated enough anymore for the contemporary bartender who, in his or her heart, may want to go for an upgrade of the Old Cuban to fill a Mojito order, nor for the Gin-&-Tonic avant-gardists lining up in hordes at today’s bars.

The pirate and the mint

The origins of what we call a “Mojito” go way back. Elizabethan-era sailors and pirates were already appreciative of the relief mint could provide for the stomach problems they frequently encountered on their tropical and subtropical travels. The idea that this may be where the roots of the Mojito can be found is neither far-fetched nor new. Many drinks have medicinal origins.

In 1655, Britain’s Royal Navy introduced a daily ration of rum for sailors on its vessels. But even before that, every ship always carried a considerable amount of wine, beer and distillates on board, primarily to conserve perishable goods. Since fresh water was a rare commodity on the high seas and the water gathered in barrels when the crews went ashore would quickly begin to breed algae, British shops made a habit of conserving their water by adding alcohol. And it’s a virtual certainty that “aguardiente de caña” was already in use back in the 16th century for forays around the Caribbean.

So how did these ingredients eventually merge together? It is said that as Sir Francis Drake, an outstanding figure in British naval history, fell ill during one of his infamous pirating missions in the Caribbean it was a mixture of sugar cane brandy, mint and sugar that finally helped him regain his sea legs. Drake’s Spanish adversaries nicknamed him “El Draque”, and over time this label was also linked to the mixture rumored to have restored his health.

Cuban original and pseudo-Cuban tourist trap

In contrast, the “Mojito” we know today first appears in cocktail books from the early 20th century. It is in fact a Cuban invention (or at least upgrade). It is notable that the earliest sources citing the Mojito make no mention of mint. These early versions are more like the classic Rum Rickey or Rum Collins.
In John B. Escalante’s “Manual del Cantinero” we find a Ron Bacardí Julep, one of the first references reuniting rum and mint based on the “El Draque”. It’s only a small step from there to the Mojito as a refreshing alcoholic beverage, which was by no means originally a strong rum drink. Its popularity was then boosted by the bars El Floridita and Bodeguita del Medio, along with the Club de Cantineros.

Bodeguita del Medio is the legendary bar where Ernest Hemingway himself proclaimed his preference for drinking Mojitos. The bar subsequently developed into a Mecca for Mojito fans. The number of Mojitos served across this bar is hard to calculate, a fact that conceals an inherent problem: You are unlikely to be served a Mojito prepared by the bartender with anything resembling attention, to say nothing of true dedication. Busses packed with all-inclusive tourists stop at the bar for 15 minutes to fill up on this Cuban classic. While the bartenders are unquestionably fast and efficient, real magic is probably too much to expect. These are “conveyor belt” drinks, and quality is a natural victim. In his book “And a Bottle of Rum”, Wayne Curtis notes his general disappointment with Mojitos in Havana with the words, “The mint wasn’t minty, the lime wasn’t limey, and the bubbly water wasn’t bubbly […] I’ve had better Mojitos at airport bars”.

Every drink has its moment

Things don’t look so good these days for the Mojito. But let’s close with a few conciliatory words. Even though the Mojito may have fallen out of favor in good bars in our part of the world, it can still be a magnificently refreshing drink if you pick the right moment, and above all the right temperature. And the right temperature is those hot nights where you can hear orders echoing for a “Mary Pickford” or a “Royal Bermuda Yacht Club”. And now and again for a “Mojito”!


Translation by J.J. Collier.



Foto: Drake via Shutterstock. Post: Tim Klöcker.