The mojito, the refreshing and minty drink that mentally transports you to a tropical location no matter where you’re drinking it, is a lot more than meets the eye. It’s not just the preferred drink for quenching your thirst after a long night on the dance floor or toasting during a sweltering vacation night out. The drink that busy bartenders everywhere are hoping you don’t order in the middle of a rush actually has a long and (hotly debated) history.
“As with most classic cocktails, the origin of the mojito is widely debated,” says Parker Boase, co-founder of New York-based mixology company Liquid Lab NYC. “However it’s without question that its roots started in Cuba and continues to be the quintessential Cuban cocktail.”
“The most widely believed story of its origins involves a 16th century Cuban cocktail named ‘El Draque,’ which was named after Sir Francis Drake, which involved an early, more crude version of rum called ‘aguardiente,’ fresh mint, sugar, and limes,” Boase says. “Over time, as rum distillation evolved, we ended up with the classic mojito.”
Philip M. Dobard, vice president of the National Food & Beverage Foundation, shares some of the other circulating theories about the cocktail’s roots (and birthplace). “Unlike its Cuban cousin, the daiquiri, which enjoys a good half dozen or so origin stories and birthplaces, the mojito has maybe two plausible origins—either Dutch sailors looking to curb an outbreak of on-board illness or African slaves seeking to blunt the sharpness of early rums—and but one birthplace, Havana,” says Dobard, also the president of the Pacific Food & Beverage Museum and director of The Museum of the American Cocktail.
The drink also has strong associations with Ernest Hemingway, who was rumored to have drank the cocktail often at one of his favorite bars, La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. There’s even a sign on the wall that boasts his (potentially forged) signature and affinity for the drink, stating: “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” (Though Hemingway’s fascination with mojitos may be more myth than fact, that doesn’t stop tons of visitors from ordering the cocktail at the Havana watering hole.)
No matter the origin story, today the mojito remains a popular choice for discerning drinkers, says Boase. “The Mojito is a really popular cocktail because it’s light and refreshing, with a fresh citrus kick and light sugar,” he says.
According to Boase, the classic recipe involves taking three lime wedges and one tablespoon of superfine sugar and muddling it. Then add a pinch of fresh mint and lightly crush it. (“The trick here is not to pulverize the mint and break it apart but to lightly press it to release the mint oils,” he says.) Add two ounces of white rum, shake vigorously, and pour without straining into a highball glass. Garnish it with lime and fresh mint, Boase says.
A more modern and efficient way of making the cocktail is using lime juice and simple syrup instead of muddling the lime and sugar. “[It] saves a bit of time making it and still tastes delicious, though you lose a bit of the pulp from the muddled lime,” Boase says.
“As for variations, the mojito is a rather robust canvas,” Dobard says. Swap out rum for gin to make a Sidecar, use other citrus, or add bitters “without violating the fundamental nature of the drink,” Dobard says.
To twist the classic mojito recipe, Boase says, you can also add your favorite fruit when muddling or add in your favorite fruit juice to make it your own. “I also like to switch up the herbs, as opposed to mint,” he says. “Try it with some sprigs of fresh basil for an added spin.”
Header image by Chowhound.