Make mine a Mojito

Everyone likes rum. It’s probably the least divisive spirit, so it’s no surprise that rum-based drinks are so popular: a 2016 survey by CGA Strategy found that the Mojito is the UK’s favourite cocktail. We’ll be serving a version of this zingy, aromatic, summery beverage at our party on Saturday, but what is the secret of its universal appeal?

A Mojito has four ingredients: rum, lime juice, sugar and soda water. It shot to fame during Prohibition, when thirsty Americans realised it was only a short hop to Cuba where they could get a legal drink: overnight Havana became a party town for booze-tourists, unemployed US bartenders went there for work and the bars and hotels quickly developed a rum-based cocktail tradition. Some say the Mojito is simply a Mint Julep made with rum instead of bourbon, but a Julep has no lime juice, and in fact there is evidence of the drink being much older than that.

The long, cool classic that is the Mojito

The long, cool classic that is the Mojito

One theory traces it back to “El Draque”, a drink supposedly named after Sir Francis Drake: the story goes that after raiding Cartagena and San Domingo Drake’s crew fell ill and he stopped at Cuba to seek medicine. The shore party came back with aguardiente (a crude sugar cane spirit), sugar cane juice, lime juice and hierbabuena, a local mint. The lime would have helped with scurvy and there’s reason to believe that by Elizabethan times mint was known as a good stomach medicine. Whether the story is true or not, aguardiente-based stomach tonics called Draque, Drague, Drac, etc, became known in parts of Venezuela, Colombia and Puerto Rico where Drake had raided.

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Prohibition-era magazine cover tantalising with the delights of a holiday in Cuba—note all the cocktail glasses on the fan

But the combination of rum, lime, sugar and mint does not appear in recipe books till 1910 and the name Mojito only crops up in the 1930s—it could be a Spanish diminutive for the African word mojo, meaning a charm or lucky spell. The recipe as we know it could have been invented at Sloppy Joe’s or La Floridita, two of the most famous Havana bars, but it really came to fame at La Bodeguita del Medio, where they developed the practice of “muddling” the mint (essentially mashing it with a wooden stick). Legendary literary boozehound Ernest Hemingway is said to have announced, “My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.” It’s written out by hand and displayed on the wall of the bar, allegedly signed by Hemingway. You can see a Mojito being prepared there in the video below.

The version we’ll be serving on Saturday at our London speakeasy adds a hint of vanilla. Come along and see if you think it is an improvement!