History of the Cuban Mojito from a Cuban perspective, according to Erasmo Brito Lima*
By: Miguel Figueredo
This is a conversation that I’ve been given permission to publish with a direct account from Cantineros de Cuba (the old school Cuban Barmen Guild), regarding the history of the Cuban Mojito and the use of Angostura bitters in it. As you’ll notice, the recipe is not the same one that has been universally adopted, that most of us follow, but listening to the Cuban side of the story doesn’t hurt in the slightest. Those who know me, know that I do support and encourage the use of heavier, older rums and mint instead of spearmint or peppermint sometimes. In any case, this is what Erasmo Brito had to say to the people at the house of Angostura:
**[Notice that when they mention “limón” or lemon, they’re referring to the green one, called “lima” or lime in other countries; that happens in some Latin American regions]
1. HISTORY OF THE MOJITO (by Erasmo Brito Lima)
As a barman since 1954, he joined the Club of Cantineros (Bartenders Guild) in 1958 (closed some years later) and founded, with others, the Asociación de Cantineros de Cuba (ACC) in 1998. After working at different bars in La Habana, he did so in the Ministry of Tourism, participating in trade shows all around the globe. He is chief of the Comisión de Jueces Gastronóminos Cubanos and one of the biggest cocktail authorities in the world.
The genetic predecessor of the Mojito is a concoction known as Drake, or Draque, consisting on the combination of cane aguardiente, sugar, lemon and mint. This mix was created by one of the most famous British corsairs Francis Drake’s crew member, who oddly enough had the same last name. The concoction was used during sea piracy times for stomach illness, to prevent cholera and fight the tremendously hot weather in the West Indies.
People commonly say that the Mojito was invented in “La Bodeguita del Medio”, but it was not; cubans had already made it before the bar’s opening. It wasn’t invented in the “Las Cañitas” bar at the Habana Hilton Hotel in the 1930’s either, nor at the Sevilla Hotel, as it is wrongly taken by many, although there’s no doubt all of them have contributed to its diffusion.
Its true origin dates back to 1910 at a bar in Playa de la Concha. Its creator (whose name remains unknown) was a direct Spanish descendent who made it at an aristocrat club in a 6 oz glass, later made in an 8 oz glass, but always keeping the mint, lemon and Angostura bitters (special component that, as we will see, differentiates between a good cocktail and a great cocktail). The original Mojito, unlike some marketing professionals would have us believe is not linked to any Cuban rum brand at all, according to books of the time.
Its name comes from the Spanish derivation of the British word “Mojo”, meaning “mixture”, which alluded to the popular drink at the time made with gin & vermouth, known today as Gin & Tonic (“I, Miguel, believe that there must have been a confusion of terminology or translation, because as we all know gin with vermouth is more similar to a Martini that to a “gin & tonic”), although the recipes and origins of both drinks are very different. There’s also a dish called “Mojo Criollo”. The most famous Mojito is, with no doubt, the one from “La Bodeguita del Medio” (a meeting point for Cuban intellectuals) because the writer Ernest Hemingway made it popular with his slogan “My Daikiri at the Floridita and my Mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio” back in the 1950’s. The establishment was originally a place where only very basic dishes were served. It wasn’t even a bar. But then, its owner Mr. Martínez, started offering some elaborate creole dishes to the neighbours, seasoning the talks that took place there.
2. HOW TO PREPARE THIS FAMOUS COCKTAIL THE RIGHT WAY, ACCORDING TO THE GENUINE RECIPE
Of undoubted Cuban origin, different rum brands claim to be the perfect ones to prepare one of the most famous and most consumed drinks in the world, the Mojito. So much that a very well known rum brand has a website dedicated to the cocktail and some others commercialise their formulae already mixed, but the thing is there is a right way to prepare it. The paradox is that (as it occurs to many other celebrated recipes), being so spread around the world, the Mojito is made in hundreds of different ways and the results do not always meet the expectations, since it is a drink that is hard to make if one wants to reach excellence in its preparation.
Mint or spearmint? White or aged rum? The leaves, inside muddled, smashed, or only as a garnish? lime or lemon? Soda, ginger ale or tonic water? With or without Angostura? Here we unravel the mystery of the best Mojito in the world, thanks to Reynaldo López (chief of the Cuban Bartenders Guild Training Comission) and Erasmo Brito (President of the Comisión de Jurados in the CBG), true and famed experts who explained to us, in La Habana, everything regarding this legendary drink.In order to accomplish a perfect Mojito it is mandatory to set up the bartender station properly with the tools and ingredients needed: a 3 y.o. rum, a handful of spearmint as fresh as possible (do not use mint since it alters the final flavour a bit, unless spearmint is not available), refined sugar, freshly pressed lemon juice, seltzer water, crushed ice and a few dashes of Angostura bitters (a blend of fruit, roots, aromatic seeds and tropical barks, highly valued in cocktail making), a wide long drink glass, which will help unifying the aromas, a muddler and a stirrer.
STEP 1) When available, put the glasses in a freezer for 15-20 minutes.
STEP 2) Add 2 spoons of sugar in the glass
STEP 3) Add only the stem (not the leaves) of the spearmint; gently muddle without really crushing it
STEP 4) Add the juice of half a lemon (10-15 ml) so muddling is more effective
STEP 5) Muddle the three ingredients, gently but consistently.
The Mojito is accomplished mainly in its base. Its great secret lies in the first muddling, dissolving the sugar with the lemon juice, so the substances present in the stem come out nice and smooth. The leaves are not really of big interest until the end, when they will be used to bring the drink to completion and garnish it. A good Mojito’s characteristic flavour is provided by the stem, perfectly balanced with the lemon juice, sugar and just a little bit of seltzer water, which will all together constitute the base substance. This is the reason why many bartenders don’t reach the quality of this drink despite their big efforts.
A common mistake is to put all the leaves of the spearmint and muddle them too aggressively, crushing them, since they’ll float and can be swallowed by the consumer. The muddler must be totally clean and with no trace of previous aromas.
STEP 6) Then we “acampanamos” the sugar, this is to say we add a bit of seltzer water to the muddling, increasing the amount of liquid so the oils from the spearmint stem are well diluted and let dissolve sugar more efficiently. We muddle some more and then we stir vigorously in order to get rid of any lump that could unbalance the drink.
STEP 7) Don’t add the rum yet. If you do so for the maceration of the base, due to a chemical reaction in the sugar when alcohol is present, it gets neutralized and doesn’t dissolve. If that happens we won’t reach a perfect balance. Sugar must be completely dissolved at the end of the first maceration. If not, the Mojito won’t be well done or balanced.
STEP 8) Put the glass with the maceration into the fridge for at least 5-10 minutes to obtain the best results, although it is not obligatory.
STEP 9) We get the glass out of the fridge and stir. Fill the glass with crushed ice, add a 3 y.o. rum to a third of the glass and slowly complete with seltzer water until half an inch is left to the rim, stir for a few seconds and garnish with the spearmint leaves you previously separated from the stem (about 8 of them). These lack the character to perfume and aromatize, like the stem used at the beginning, but they complete the balance and decoration of the drink. We stir again for a few seconds.
STEP 10) Lastly, add a dash of Angostura bitters (only a few drops). It is essential not to go too far with this; the amount of Angostura might take the drink to Nirvana or just as easily ruin its balance. We stir again for a few seconds.
The Mojito is ready. It is optional to finish it with a thin wheel of lemon on the rim of the glass, although this is merely decorative and doesn’t interfere with the recipe. Put a stirrer in the glass, so the consumer can keep on “macerating” his/her mojito between sips.
3. THE TASTING
Contrary to what is commonly believed and served in the vast majority of establishments, it is not proper to serve or drink a Mojito with a straw, since the liquid goes directly to the rear part of the tongue, leaving many of its attributes lost because the taste buds spread on the tongue shall identify its different flavours (sweet, sour, salty and bitter) in different areas of the mouth. When you swallow a drink that is balanced and complex in terms of essences and textures, like the authentic Mojito, you don’t get to enjoy it or savour it properly.
Visually it is more harmonious with no crushed leaves within the drink or in its surface. Its aroma is provided by the spearmint, which acts like an aromatizing and a decorative element, influencing with its freshness to consume it. The Mojito shows up in the mouth as smooth and balanced. On the palate it is refreshing and flavourful. Alcohol is present but no too aggressive. Perfectly balanced between the lemon’s acidity and the sweetness of sugar. Angostura bitters is a stabilizer element that enhances flavours and makes the drink homogeneous, also giving it sort of a special and complex bitter finish, eliminating any cloying excess, providing structure and amalgamating the flavours. It is important not to use a rum that is too young or too old; a 3 y.o. rum is just perfect, since it has enough character to give rich, different notes on its own at the same time that it also has the versatility needed to be combined with the rest of ingredients harmoniously.
The Mojito is refreshing yet dry, smooth yet intense, sweet but with a bitter hint. Its mixture of aroma and essences will take us to heaven. It is undoubtedly one of the best and most popular mixological creations in history.
Enjoy the authentic Cuban Mojito!”