Street scene outside the famous Bodeguita Del Medio, the little bar that has spent well over half a century promoting itself as the spiritual home of the Mojito
The tropical heat can be a killer, and while in Havana I made sure to stay properly hydrated by drinking lots of Mojitos. This constitutionally prudent habit turned out to have useful side effects, such as affording an excellent opportunity to learn how the Mojito is made in the country of its birth. Little did I know at the time, but the long hours spent lapping up knowledge in stifling barrooms would eventually provide the launching pad for a prestigious writing career with China’s preeminent drinks industry magazine, imaginatively entitled “Drink”. Naturally, I got started by writing about Cuba’s famous export.
A tastier and less touristy Mojito experience than you will find at La Bodeguita
The Mojito-related matter I was most curious to learn about was the famous Yerba Buena – the local name for the mint component of the drink. Yerba Buena is said to have its own unique taste, and every bartender I asked in Havana told me it differed from regular mint. On trying the stuff though I found it tasted just like spearmint. Perhaps Havana’s bartenders are as confused about the English meaning of mint as I am about the Spanish meaning of Yerba Buena? Perhaps I am not much of a mint taster?
Anyway, having tasted Yerba Buena I do not think anyone needs to feel shy about using spearmint in their Mojitos. Still, those trying to be authentic might prefer to go for plants with smaller leaves. The leaves of the Cuban version of the herb looked smaller to what I have seen elsewhere. They may simply be younger plants, but probably the variety is a little different to the common ones. Don’t get enthusiastic and experiment with peppermint. This is not a case where stronger equals better.
Cuban bartenders tend to mix a Mojito by taking a glass and adding sugar, then mint, then lime juice and soda, and only then doing the ‘muddling’. Their version of muddling merely involves light bruising and stirring with a spoon, and only rarely will you see them employ an actual muddler. In other words, Cubans muddle simply. The drink is finished by adding rum and finally ice, though sometimes the ice goes in after the muddling but before the rum. The goal is a clear rum drink with a refreshing mint accent, not a cloudy mess of pulverized vegetation and alcohol. Take note!
“My Daiquiris in El Floridita, and my Mojitos in La Bodeguita” reads the famous self-promotional sign hanging in the Bodeguita del Medio. According to acquaintances, Hemingway was not known for drinking Mojitos, and may never have visited La Bodeguita. The signature is said to be real though, penned by an extremely drunk Hemingway who did not much care what he was signing.
Never once in Cuba did I encounter a Mojito with lime wedges floating around in it. Cubans invariably use only the juice of the lime. Nor did I see Mojitos made with crushed ice. One tale goes that Cuban Mojitos stopped being made with crushed ice when the ice crushing machines broke down after the Revolution and nobody could be found to fix them. This sounds implausible. Virtually every bar in Havana can serve a Daiquiri Frappe, so crushed ice clearly stays out of Mojitos through choice rather than necessity. Therefore, I feel an authentic Cuban Mojito should use cube ice rather than crushed. Besides being slightly more straightforward to put together, the relative clarity of a drink made this way is not unattractive.
One interesting Cuban custom is splashing a little Angostura bitters on the drink as a final touch. Probably around half of all Havana bars serve an Angostura-spiked Mojito as their default, though I don’t think La Bodeguita del Medio is one of them. I rather liked the Angostura variation and have since adopted it.
Mojito production line at La Bodeguita del Medio. The quality here isn’t the best.
Cubans make their Mojitos on the strong side, placing the rum in the foreground rather than drowning it in soda. The soda is never much more than a splash. Occasionally they leave the soda out entirely, though this seems done more as a customer request than as the default style in any given bar. The glasses are not large, and if they are large (e.g. a standard Collins size) they tend not to be filled to the brim. If you are still struggling to adjust to the tropical heat you can yourself needing another pretty quickly.
Finally and most crucially, the better Cuban bartenders distinguish themselves by garnishing the drink with an additional sprig of mint that they gently slap between their palms to release the aromatic oils.
To read more about the Mojito checked out the article I wrote for China Drinks Magazine.