Your Guide To Drinking This Weekend: The Mojito

Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris is back with our new series guiding you to your weekend's libations.

Now that Mad Men is on hiatus, Alamo Drafthouse Beverage Director Bill Norris is honoring us with a new series. Every Friday, learn the history and proper way to prepare a different cocktail - and try it out over the weekend! You can read Bill's Cocktails With Mad Men series here

Around mid-June every year, the mercury in Austin thermometers starts to climb into triple digits on a consistent basis, walking outside becomes a Sisyphean effort and whiskey drinks start to feel impossibly heavy.  Even short, sharp sours like the daiquiri become a bit too intoxicating for slow, lazy sipping on back porches or inside air conditioned refuges.  Longer drinks become a necessity, and, when made properly, the mojito is among the best on offer.

Over the last fifteen years, it seems that every bar that can order in some rum, a lime and a bunch of mint thinks they can make a proper mojito, even if the bartender might sullenly roll her eyes at you when you order one.  A good mojito does take a bit effort, but it’s not the long and difficult procedure that some bartenders want you to believe, and it doesn’t take anything special to make well.

One Theory of Origin: Sir Francis Drake, Pirates & Firewater

Though the mojito appears to be the bastard love child of the mint julep and the daiquiri, it’s more likely a forerunner of both.

In the latter half of the 1500s, Sir Francis Drake was running around the Caribbean, plundering, pillaging and generally wreaking havoc on the Spanish colonies on behalf of the English Crown.   One nation’s pirate is another’s hero.  The Spanish, who rightly feared Drake and his crew, dubbed Sir Francis “El Draque” and didn’t manage to rid themselves of him until he croaked due to dysentery after failing to take San Juan in 1596.  Amongst Drake’s crew was a pirate who went by Richard Drake (history does not record if they were related), who is said to have first mixed up some aguardiente de cana, a sort of primitive proto-rum, or sugar cane firewater, with limes, mint and sugar while Sir Francis was anchored near Cuba.  It was either celebratory drink or used for medicinal purposes to revive a sick crew before attempting an attack on Havana.  Richard dubbed the drink “El Draque” in honor of his boss, and it became the preferred tipple of crew and boss alike.

Points in favor of this theory: It’s logical—Drake often based operations in Cuba; aguardiente de cana was easy to obtain; pirates have a well-known affinity for rum; sugar and limes were plentiful; and Yerba Buena, a species of spearmint, grew wild on the island.  Indeed, the Yerba Buena, literally the good herb, lends a lot of credence to this theory, as it was widely used at the time as a medicine for just about anything, including stomach upset.

Better still, the mojito is also widely known in coastal regions of Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia, other places Drake was known to have “visited” during his tour of the Caribbean.

Further support: during a later cholera epidemic in Havana, one Ramon De Paula noted, "Every day at 11, I consume a little Draque and I am doing very well,” so clearly the Draque existed as a medicinal beverage in addition to it being a damn fine intoxicant.

The Proper Use of the Muddler, The Nature of Fresh Herbs, The Perils of Chlorophyll

You belly up to the bar and order, “A Mojito please.”  Your bartender grabs a mixing glass and a pinch of wilted mint leaves, drops them into the glass, grabs a stick of wood covered in peeling varnish and sets to work mashing and grinding your mint into a shredded pulp seasoned with wood stain.  Nothing could be more wrong.

Herbs like mint contain all their pleasing aromatics and flavors in tiny nodules on the surface of the leaf, and, to a lesser extent, the stem.  Take a bunch of fresh mint, and raise it to your nose.  Smell it.  Now, slap that mint gently between the palms of your hands and raise it to your nose again.  The gentle bruising of the nodules releases a massive burst of aromatics. This is what your muddling is meant to do when creating a mojito.

Better still, take a fresh mint leaf and put it in your mouth.  Press the leaf against the roof of your mouth as hard as you can with your tongue and revel in the pure minty flavor.  Now chew the mint.  The mint flavor is still present, but it is undercut by a vegetal, metallic bitterness that comes from the chlorophyll stored inside the leaves.  Mint gets its deep green hue from the presence of a large quantity of chlorophyll in the leaves, and chlorophyll molecules contain, among other things, copper: not a particularly pleasant flavor.

When muddling any herb into a cocktail, be aware that shredding or overly crushing the herb will always add that chlorophyll to the finished product.  It’s easy to avoid that mistake, and the first step is the tool.  The most common muddlers in use today are simply the wrong tool, either too slender to achieve the proper technique or, worse, finished with grooves or teeth that shred herbs to bits.  Get a heavy wide muddler without teeth and without varnish.  Unvarnished wood is good, and the preference of most craft bartenders.   Heavy rubber or even plastic will work.  Just find something that feels good in your hand, is wide enough to almost fill the bottom of your glass, and let the tool do the work.

All you need to do is lightly press the herbs with the business end of the muddler against the bottom of the glass.  Don’t crush, don’t shred.  Just press. Softly.

A Very Brief Note on Linguistics

Mojito, as its root, uses mojo, the Spanish word for “spell,” and thus a mojito is a “little spell.” Sometime in the mid 1860s, as rum replaced aguardiente in the drink, it lost the Draque moniker and came to be called the mojito.  Given the way shamanism and medicine are historically connected, the little spell lends further legitimacy to the 1500 era claims of a medicinal beverage.

The Lime Conundrum

Cubans, at least those still in Cuba, insist that a proper mojito is made simply, with fresh mint, cane sugar, lime juice, rum, and soda or mineral water.  Others, including Rachel Maddow, maintain that lime quarters should be muddled into the drink with the mint and sugar.  Both are quite good.  Muddling the limes, if they’re used in the right quantity, releases the same quantity of juice as called for in the classic recipe and the oils from the lime’s skin and bitter pith can help to balance the sweetness of the mojito.   But muddling the fruit also has its perils; the pressure needed to properly crush the limes can cause the mint to become too pulverized.

It’s also harder work.  If you like muddled limes, by all means, go for it.  But when it’s 104 degrees when the clock strikes cocktail hour, it seems like a lot of unnecessary effort.

Yo, Ho, Ho And A Bottle of…Redux

Much like the daiquiri, the mojito works best with rum with a bit of Hogo or rum funk.  In Cuba, the standard is the Havana Club 3 year old, and if you’re up for traveling abroad and risking US Customs, it’s not a bad choice at all.  Brugal White Label is a good, inexpensive choice.  The Flor De Cana 4 Year Old is worthy of a look. The Banks Five Island is a revelation.  Sadly, the modern Bacardi is so stripped of any flavor during distillation and filtering, that it’s only a last resort.

Generally, long-aged and darker rums don’t work well here, as they’re so sweet and flavorful that they overwhelm the mint and lime, and they make a murky, brown drink to boot.

Things That Have No Place in A Mojito That I’ve Seen in Mojitos

Mojito in A Bag, Mojito Mixes, Mint Syrup, 7-Up, Sprite, Lemons, Lemon Juice, Splenda, Sweet and Low, Rose’s Lime Juice, Sour Mix, vodka, peppermint extract, Diet Sprite, confectioner’s sugar, strawberries, mangos, anything pureed, anything from a bottle other than rum and some kind of bubbly water.

A Few More Words About Mint

Mint begins to degrade the moment it’s removed from the ground.  There’s not much to be done about this, unless you’re plucking the mint directly from a back yard garden.  To properly store mint, leave it on the stem, and wrap the lower portion of the stem in damp, not soaking paper towel.  Store in an open zip lock bag in the fridge and use it as soon as possible.

There are also many varieties of mint available.  The most common supermarket mint is peppermint, but varieties of spearmint are more intense and will create a more fragrant drink.  Use what you have handy, but mint is incredibly easy to grow and the fresher the better.

A Brief Note on Execution

The Mojito is one of those drinks that started simple and has become needlessly complex.  It also breaks several bartending rules.  A proper mojito is stirred, not shaken, despite the presence of fruit juice.  It properly uses sugar in lieu of the more easily integrated simple syrup.   They are better with a straw, something that adults should usually avoid.

It’s important to remember that the mojito is a hot weather sipper; it’s not a drink that requires quite all the pomp and circumstance that has come to surround it.  It should be easy and gentle.

A Recipe

The Mojito

2 oz. Good Quality White Rum like Brugal or Banks Five Island
1-2 tsp. sugar, superfine being best, and adjusted to taste
½-1 oz. Fresh Lime Juice, adjusted to taste
8-15 mint leaves, depending on size
1 mint top for garnish

Club Soda or Sparkling Mineral Water Squeeze lime juice into a smallish Collins Glass (about 10 oz.), and add sugar and mint leaves.  Lightly muddle the mint, releasing the aromatics without crushing or shredding the leaves and mixing the lime juice and sugar.  Stir gently.   Add rum and fill glass 2/3 full with cracked, but not crushed ice.  Stir again and top with sparkling mineral water or club soda.  Lightly smack the mint top and use it to garnish the glass, serve with a straw.