Nothing says “Cuba” more than communism. No, wait. Forget that, that’s for another article on the Cuban Missile Crisis. What I meant to say is, nothing says “Cuba” more like the Cuba Libre. But that simple beverage (Rum, Coca-Cola, and a lime) has a cousin, a far more complex and satisfying cocktail called the Mojito. Derived from the Spanish word for “Delicious” [Citation Needed], the Mojito is as legendary as it is divisive. For a drink with only four variables–white rum, mint leaves, lime juice, and sugar–there are almost infinite variations on its construction. How much mint? How many limes, and do you need juice or whole limes? Crystal sugar or simple syrup? Here at the Man Cave, we won’t rest until the best of all possible cocktails is on its way down your throat. As the Man Cave’s junior alcohol correspondent, I was dispatched into the field to find the perfect Mojito recipe.
My first step was to reach out to some professionals. I got in touch with Ricardo Ortiz, a veteran barman who has tended in six cities across three states, finally landing in Chris Owen’s on the legendary Bourbon Street. “The secret to the Mojito is granulated sugar, not simple syrup,” he told me. “Sugar crystals are very sharp, and when you initially start to muddle, they cut open the cells in the lime rind, releasing the oils that give the mojito its distinctive flavor.”
Not a bad place to start. Next, I have to assemble my weapons:
Taking everything I’ve learned, I assemble my weapons: sugar, mint leaves, rum, soda water, and enough limes to choke a Parrothead. An important note on glassware: normally I use Old Fashioned glasses for my at-home drinking, as it makes me feel like I’m an international playboy swirling a potent digestif, rather than a barely-employable barista drinking vodka sours on a balcony overlooking a parking lot, but Mojito purists are adamant that the beverage be served in a Highball glass (more vocabulary: an Old Fashioned (or “Rocks”) glass is a short, stubby glass, usually about eight ounces, and is used to serve some of the more traditional cocktails, such as Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. A Highball glass is taller, about 16 ounces, and is used for “long” drinks, like the Mojito, Bloody Mary, or Mai Tai). So go ahead and get the Highball glasses out (one final note: if you’re out drinking with anyone that gets upset because their drink isn’t in the “right” glass, do two things: finish their drink, because obviously they don’t want it, and cut all ties with that person).
Because we at the Man Cave only use the highest quality ingredients in our cocktails, I’ve decided that whole limes are going to be my fruit of choice. If you can’t get limes, your best bet as far as lime juice is Rose’s. It’s a brand with a reputation and history, and you can’t really go wrong with it. I also got organically-grown mint leaves, but that’s less of a stance and more of a necessity. I couldn’t find any other kind.
A crucial element to a Mojito is something called a muddler. Essentially a pestle (as in “mortar and”), a muddler is used to crush ingredients together in order to mix them and release their flavors. Here, we’re muddling the mint, limes, and sugar together. If you don’t have a muddler, they’re easier to make, and easier to improvise–a trip to Home Depot will get you dowels of various sizes, and then it’s the work of half an hour to cut it to length and sand the edges down. If you go the wood route, make sure to clean it after every use. This should be obvious, but wood retains flavors, and you don’t want to taste limes next time you’re muddling a maraschino cherry in your Old Fashioned.
The mint is key, obviously, and it’s one of those things you can’t get around–you have to get mint leaves, and they have to be fresh. Accept no substitutes.
As for rum, most recipes (and indeed, most rum-based cocktails) demand white rum instead of golden rum, and never spiced rum. This is because white rum, like vodka, is less flavorful and allows the various mixers to blend without being overshadowed by the alcohol. Golden rum gets its color from a wood barrel aging process, much like American and European whiskeys, and has a more complicated flavor that will interfere with the subtler flavors we’re playing with. But I find it sweeter than white rum, so I guess it could go either way.
Finally, sugar is a contentious element of Mojitos. Some folks (like Ricardo) say granulated sugar is ideal–other sources (as we’ll find out below) prefer simple syrup. Simple syrup (or “Classic” if you’ve ever gotten iced coffee at Starbucks) is just a sugar/water mixture, and you can make it at home. Just mix one cup of sugar with one cup of water and heat on the stove, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Toss it in an empty water bottle, throw it in the fridge, and it’ll keep forever. It’s good to have around–you can make a lot of classics if you have enough simple syrup.
With my arsenal prepared, I can move on to the actual cocktail building. As a well-behaved English major, I do what I’ve been taught: crack the books. I’ve got a modest collection of curiosities and cocktail guides. Let’s see what they have to say (all entries are replicated in their entirety–some include muddling directions, some don’t).
The Everything Bartender’s Book, 3rd Edition (Cheryl Charming’s 1,000+ recipe book is a good place to start for the amateur mixologist. It’s a relatively modern text, so its sections on vodka drinks and shots are extensive. It doesn’t disregard the classics, though, and its Mojito stands up to the rest of the boys.)
- 3 sprigs mint
- ½ lime, cut
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
- 1 ½ oz light rum
- Club soda to fill
Analysis: Simply put, there isn’t enough mint in this drink to give it the distinct flavor the Mojito needs. This is more like a daiquiri (rum, lime, sugar) than a Mojito. Not that there’s anything wrong with daiquiris, mind you–but we want a true Mojito. The actual lime is a step above lime juice–fresh or bottled, you want those little pulpy bits in there. You only get that by muddling the lime.
How-To Archer: The Ultimate Guide to Espionage and Style and Women and Also Cocktails Ever Written (While ostensibly a companion to the hilarious FX spy comedy, this in-universe book written by the show’s main character (a hopelessly dense James Bond analogue) has a legitimate (and substantial) cocktail section. I use it more than the Everything Bartender’s Book, honestly.)
- 3 sprigs fresh mint
- 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1 ½ oz freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 2 oz white rum
- Soda to fill
Analysis: Again, there isn’t enough mint. More rum and lime juice than the Everything guide, which means it packs a bit more of a wallop. Rummy, yes, citrusy yes, but minty? No.
Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century (A fascinating find I picked up for a dollar at a used book sale, this early 90s book contains editorials and histories of some of the more famous cocktails.)
- 2 to 3 oz light rum
- 1 lime
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 8 to 10 mint sprigs
- Soda water
Analysis: Finally, enough mint to taste. This is a bit of a departure from the previous entries, as it uses simple syrup (a pre-made 1:1 sugar/water mixture, for those of you not in the know) instead of granulated sugar. Hmm…Ricardo told us about this. And at first taste, he’s definitely on to something–the syrup makes this version of the Mojito much sweeter than the rest, overpowering the citrus and mint, even though you’re using an entire lime and a whole branch of mint leaves.
Cocktails Classiques (Pilfered from the bar of the Fairmont Hotel in Quebec, this bilingual drink menu has the recipes for a bare handful of drinks—but every one of them is, like the title says, a classic, from the Manhattan to the Brandy Alexander, to, yes, the venerable Mojito.)
- 1 ¾ oz rum
- 1/3 oz freshly-squeezed lime juice
- 2 bar spoons brown sugar
- 12 fresh mint leaves
- Ginger ale
Analysis: Everything seems to be in order. Good amount of mint leaves, brown sugar (if you’ve been to a Starbucks lately, you’ll know it as “sugar in the raw”), “freshly-squeezed” lime juice, ginger ale…Wait, ginger ale? I don’t want to be flippant, but the ginger ale changes everything. Instead of the tasteless effervescence created by the unflavored soda water, the ginger ale makes the audacious step of trying to increase the Mojito’s natural sweetness. It’s a bold move, and I have to say, the sweetness and I agree with each other. It isn’t quite lime-y enough though.
- 2 oz white rum
- 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 1 lime, cut in half
- 8-10 mint leaves
Analysis: Ricardo was kind enough to share this variation of the Mojito, which is the version consumed by none other than drink enthusiast, boxer, bull fighter, and Nobel Prize-winner Ernest Hemingway. I have to say–if you’re going to drink a classic Mojito, this is the way to go. A good amount of rum, a good amount of lime, a good amount of sweetness–Papa knew what he was doing.
The Official Man Cave Mojito
For the official Man Cave Mojito, I knew I needed three things: lots of limes, lots of mint, and lots of rum. Taking the best advice of Ricardo and the Archer guide, I put together something I’m a little bit proud of:
- 3 oz white rum
- 2 spoons granulated sugar
- 8 mint leaves
- 1 lime, cut in half
Start by putting the sugar and the mint leaves in the bottom of a Highball glass. Squeeze the juice of half a lime into the glass, then toss the lime half in there. Muddle the hell out of them. Add ice, rum, and soda water, then invert twice into a mixing glass. Garnish with a lime wedge.
Analysis: Look–I wouldn’t call this the official Man Cave Mojito if I didn’t think it was the best damn Mojito you could get outside of Cuba. Enjoy, and I’ll see you next time for some more cocktail advice. In fact, I’ve had a bit of a jones for a good Bloody Mary…