"It was sort of like getting thrown in a lake and not expecting it," says Nick Detrich, co-owner of Cane & Table in New Orleans, of the mojito’s sudden spike in popularity during the early 2000s. Since then, the mojito has only become more ubiquitous. In 2011, Applebee's started selling the cocktail in strawberry, mango and wildberry flavors. Betty Crocker still pushes a mojito cheesecake recipe on its website, and The Body Shop even sells several mojito-scented skincare products.
To build Cuba’s most classic, long-enduring cocktail, bartenders all over Havana regularly stuff fistfuls of mint into the bottom of highball glasses, add sugar and fresh lime juice, and muddle the mix into submission. A shot of white rum, ice cubes, and a bit of fizzy soda water round out the drink.
... the mojito was most famously enjoyed by Ernest Hemingway.
Built from just five simple ingredients, the mojito was most famously enjoyed by Ernest Hemingway. After spending many years splitting time between Key West, Florida and Spain, he moved to Havana in 1939. An enthusiastic imbiber, Hemingway famously declared, "Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquirí en El Floridita" (my mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita) which, according to legend, he penned on the wall of the La Bodeguita del Medio, a thriving bar in Old Havana. Of course, their most popular drink (like almost all bars in Havana), is still the mojito.
Cocktail expert Wayne Curtis recounts the bar's history in his book And a Bottle of Rum. Proprietor Angel Martinez first opened the place as a simple restaurant in 1942 and then eventually started selling drinks. He changed the name twice, settling on El Bodeguita del Medio in 1950. The quality of the drinks, especially the mojitos, attracted celebrities like Nat King Cole and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Fidel Castro, who was a completely unknown college student at the time, also visited.
Although Martinez (with the help of Hemingway) popularized the drink, he didn’t invent it. One thing is clear, though. It started as a concoction meant to cover the flavor of crude spirits. "That's how every cocktail starts," explains Chad Phillips, head bartender at PennyRoyal and Shaker + Spear in Seattle, but who previously spent over three years bartending in Miami. "Good spirits are relatively new, so lots of people had really poorly made spirits that they'd mask with other ingredients so they could drink it," he explains.
... the mojito’s moniker remains a mystery ...
New York bar vet Ravi DeRossi of Cienfuegos and newly launched Mother of Pearl supports this theory in his new book, Cuban Cocktails. According to DeRossi, the mojito’s roots lie in an old drink dubbed "El Draque," possibly created by Sir Francis Drake, the notorious English naval captain who served under Queen Elizabeth I. The drink combined mint and lime to make the flavors of crude sugar cane spirits, like aguardiente, more palatable. The mint also helped relieve nausea and the lime prevented scurvy. In 1585, the Queen sent Drake to the Caribbean to invade the Spanish colonies and the boats likely carried these ingredients. Today, versions of El Draque exist throughout Latin America.
This cheap combination of mint, sugar, lime and rum eventually caught on with Cuba’s rural farm workers. From the fields, it likely swept through Havana’s bars where Americans visiting the island during Prohibition first tried it. It's believed that they then added ice and soda water to appeal more to their palates. Chef Guillermo Pernot, owner of domestic Cuban restaurant chainlet Cuba Libre, says the mojito’s moniker remains a mystery, but people have theories. "Mojo is the word Cubans use for a sour citrus sauce. It could come from that. Or maybe it’s from mojado, the Spanish word for wet," he says.
Recipes for the mojito appeared in early American cocktail books like Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s The Gentleman’s Companion from 1939. Yet, despite the drinks initial popularity, the mojito had all but disappeared in the U.S. by the 1960s, though it remained commonplace in Cuba. In his book, Curtis blames that golden age of shelf-stable foods and prepared daiquiri and mai tai mixes for the mojito's decline. Fresh ingredients, like mint leaves and lime juice, had become passé. But, as trends come and go, he says the mojito slowly returned to Miami and the rest of the country in the 1990s, on the heels of the Nuevo Latino dining trend.
The standard today for any quality drinking establishment is cocktails built with fresh herbs, juices and homemade syrups, but such ingredients were remiss from most bars even 10 years ago. When Detrich began bartending in 2004, he picked up a muddler and asked a coworker, "What’s this?" The response, "Oh, that’s for mojitos."
... the mojito’s fresh ingredients are what made the cocktail stand out when it took off in the early aughts.
Detrich believes the mojito’s fresh ingredients are what made the cocktail stand out when it took off in the early aughts. "People really gravitated towards that," he says, "so if you have this tall refreshing looking drink with herbs in it, people are going to ask what it is, and they're going to order it."
Mojito mania reached a fever pitch when the drink made an appearance in the 2002 James Bond Film Die Another Day in 2002. In a scene set in a Havana beach bar (it was actually filmed in Spain), Halle Barry rises out of the water in her orange bathing suit and walks toward Pierce Brosnan. He’s sipping a mojito. He hands her the glass and says, "Mojito? You should try it." With those words, Americans around the country learned of the old Cuban drink. Bars weren’t always ready to meet the demand for it, so bartenders often scrambled for fresh mint, frantically squeezed a lime and wasted time muddling while customers grew impatient. Chad Phillips of Miami's Surfside Bar at the Beachcombers Hotel, recalls resenting the mojito before learning to make it from Cuban bartenders at Julio Cabrera’s Sra. Martinez, also in Miami. "It was a very laborious drink to make and because of that I really didn’t like it," he remembers.
To save time, many bars started substituting sour mix for lime juice and other mints for hierbabuena (spearmint). Pernot says that when he started consulting at Cuba Libre 14 years ago, they were trying to make the drink with mint purée. The quality of the spirit also plays a role in the success of a mojito. An exceptionally clean-tasting white rum is preferable, and anything else can ruin the drink.
All the Cuba Libre restaurants now have a guarapo machine to juice fresh sugarcane stalks, which cuts out the need for muddling. So, their mojito is probably more similar to the drink Cuban fieldworkers enjoyed when the classic cocktail first started to take shape. And despite his initial dislike, Phillips came around to the drink during his tenure in Miami. He adds, "I personally love the mojito. If your bar is setup properly, it’s an incredibly easy drink to make."
With renewed diplomatic relations in Cuba, it’s only a matter of time before more Cuban cocktails cross the Straits of Florida. But for now, it looks like the mojito is here to stay.