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A 400 Year Old Cocktail | The Mojito!

Three mojito cocktails side-by-side ranging throghout 400 years

A pirate, Ernest Hemingway and James Bond walk into a Bodegita and they order a… Mojito? Hi, Friends of Cocktails, today we’ll dive into the history of the Mojito and look at 3 very different recipes of this Cuban cocktail, made with rum, lime, sugar, mint, and soda water. Starting with the earliest mentions from the 16th century, to the first official written recipe, finishing with a modern variation and looking at what it could be like going forward.

Like is often the case with these Old vs New Cocktail episodes, the full origins of this refreshing cocktail has been lost in history, and even the origins of the name are disputed. It’s unclear if the mojo comes from something that is believed to carry a magic spell, a seasoning that’s made with lime juice or if the name is simply a derivative of “mojadito”, Spanish for "a little wet". Either way, most origin stories of the Mojito point to one man, known as El Draque, or the Dragon.

Francis Drake, an English explorer and privateer, arrived off the coast of Cuba in 1586 to plunder the city of Havana for its wealth. Drake left the city untouched after firing only a few shots, and some claim a new drink, named the Draque, was created in celebration. Another story claims the cocktail was created on Drake’s ship when he landed in the south of Cuba and his sickened soldiers mixed a remedy for their fevers, combining aguardiente, limes, hierbabuena and sugar - getting some help from the locals as well.

Aguardiente de caña was a local cane spirit that literally means “fire water”, that was considered a crude form of rum. Nowadays, aguardiente is the name for unaged distilled cane spirit that is the origin of rum and bottled without aging in wooden barrels. As for the Hierbabuena, it translates to “good herb”, and it's the Spanish name for a number of aromatic plants, most of which belong to the mint family. In Cuba, hierbabuena usually refers to Mentha nemorosa or Mentha × villosa, a red-stemmed mint which is now called Mojito Mint, but in many other countries it usually refers to spearmint.

Finally, while you’ll often see “limón” written in the spanish recipes, in Latin America, that usually means lime, but in Cuba a special variant called “limón criollo” is typical, that’s small, very acidic and it doesn’t have much juice. This combination made it so that the Draque was regarded for its medicinal properties when Havana was struck by a severe cholera epidemic in 1833. It was also believed that this cocktail helped with stomach ailments, making it popular with the buccaneers.

The author Ramón de Paula wrote “Everyday at 11 I drink a Draquecito of sugarcane aguardiente with sugar, and it suits me perfectly. The use of soda water is also said to be excellent, because it corrects the stomach acids”. So let’s see what we need to make ourselves a little stomach remedy, it’s Cocktail Time!

Spearmint water, lime, cane sugar and aguardiente for a 16th century Mojito

El Draque

● 1 teaspoon Cane Sugar

● 1 Lime Wedge

● ½ glass Aguardiente de Caña

● Hierbabuena infused water

This recipe comes from the book “Spirit of the Cane, the Story of Cuban Rum”, and it has no complicated steps. As a quick sidenote, this book is an engaging and informative read by Jared Brown and Anistatia Miller, that delves into the rich, but also dark history and culture of Cuban rum, exploring its origins, production process, and cultural significance, while also highlighting Cuban bars, bartenders and of course cocktails, so I recommend you check it out.

Now back to the cocktail, it’s as easy as mixing aguardiente with water that has hierbabuena in it, then dissolving some sugar into this mixture and finally expressng the lemon wedge over the top - no ice for this one, as they wouldn’t have it available in those days. Flavorwise, with a little practice and a few adjustments to balance the flavors, this could be a really enjoyable drink and easily something that is enjoyed on the palate, if not for the stomach remedy - needless to say, it may not suit me as well as it did for the Cubans back then.

In the second part of the 19th century rum replaced aguardiente in Cuba, and some say that’s when the Drake became known as the Mojito. Others claim that the Mojito was invented thanks to the large number of Americans visiting Cuba between the wars, mostly to escape the Prohibition and enjoy Havana’s thriving bar culture. Tourists and bartenders probably brought their taste and expertise for cocktails like the Mint Julep and Tom Collins, which many claim are the origins of the Mojito, but no recipe book outside of Cuba had a Mojito cocktail in it until 1935.

In Cuba however we find a recipe named simply the Rum Cocktail or Rum Mojo printed in 1929, in the simply titled Libro de cocktail, or The Cocktail Book by Juan Laser, with all the parts of the Mojito. One year later, in 1930, we find the first written recipe for a cocktail named Mojito, printed in the Club de Cantinero de la Republica de Cuba: Manual Oficial, a cocktail book sponsored by Bacardi, as seen on every page.

The Mojito was to be made in a highball glass with a teaspoon of sugar, half a lime, a glass of rum, a sprig of mint, pieces of ice and complete with mineral water. Bacardi has since been exiled from the island, but more because the flavor profile has changed significantly, I’ll use Havana Club 3 Year for this version of the Mojito.

1930’s Mojito

● 1 glass Havana Club 3

● 1 teaspoon Sugar

● 1 sprig of Mint

● ½ Lime

● Soda Water

Into a highball glass add the sugar, followed by the juice of half a lime. It’s often mentioned in the old recipes that Mojito is not a Caipirinha, so don’t add the lime or muddle it, just the juice. Then add the sprig of mint, as well as a tiny amount of soda water and stir to help the sugar dissolve but also to release the oils from the mint. Finally add a glass of Cuban rum, fill the glass with cracked ice and complete the drink with a soda or mineral water, as written in the recipe.

I’ll give it a quick stir to mix the ingredients and add more mint for decoration, and we’re ready to try it, cheers! A cocktail with plenty of mint on the nose, that’s also light, refreshing, herbal, sweet and boozy. The Mojito has good reason to be one of the 3 most famous Cuban cocktails, and if you got served this on a beach, you wouldn’t say no… but wasn’t this one of Hemingway’s favorite cocktails?

Havana’s Bodeguita del Medio has his signed note framed on its wall, proudly stating “My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita” - although he never mentioned La Bodeguita or the Mojito in his writings, which he often did for his other liquid pleasures, also his signature was different and he was known to enjoy cocktails without sugar, so it’s doubtful Mojito was ever his thing. For James Bond, on the other hand, we know he enjoyed his Mojito with a nice view, and for me, I’ve always enjoyed the taste of a Mojito, but was never crazy about getting a salad of mint and sugar in my glass.

That’s why I’ve made a homemade mojito cordial, combining lime, mint and sugar, all in one. From blanching, juicing, blending, straining and clarifying, I’ve gone over the preparation of this cordial a few times, most recently when we made a batched Mojito, so you can click here to learn how it’s made. With this you’ll be making modern, full-flavored but minimalistic looking Mojitos in no time, so let’s go!

Modern Mojito

● 45mL (1.5oz) Plantation 3

● 30mL (1oz) Mojito Cordial

● 2 drops 20% Saline Solution

● Soda Water

Simply pour some light rum into a chilled high tumbler glass filled with ice cubes or an ice spear, followed by our mojito cordial. We can’t forget about the classic cocktail flavor enhancer, 2 drops of saline solution, then top with soda water and turn a few times to mix the ingredients. Spank the mint sprig on the side of the glass and place it on top - now that’s a good looking drink. Cheers.

It has everything you’d want in a Mojito, the aroma & full flavor, it’s refreshing but also balanced from the first to the last sip, which might come faster than you think. I think this is the perfect form of the Mojito, but nowadays progress can hardly be controlled - I’m looking at you, AI engineers - so I wanted to see what could be the next step in the evolution of the Mojito. That’s why I created the Inverted Mojito, without the help of AI, with mint foam and a sprinkling of matcha powder.

You can check it out here, and don’t forget to make yourself a few Mojitos this summer, any way you like. I’ll see you next week. Cheers, Friends of Cocktails.

1 Comment

Per Almén
Per Almén
Jul 13, 2023

Great job as usual Kevin! The mojito really has an interesting history that you covered really well!

I have a question thats not about the Mojito but the Martini if its okay! :) Do you have any recipe for your own homemade martini bitters? I believe they had 4 different bitters inside? Lemon, Orange, Grapefruit and Spruce Tips.

Cheers Kevin and thank you for inspiring my bartender journey!

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