From A Mojito To The Cuba Libre: A Culture Of Cocktails

From A Mojito To The Cuba Libre: A Culture Of Cocktails

The Mojito: A Cocktail Icon

If you’ve ever had a Mojito then you know how intoxicatingly fresh and light they are, but how did this humble drink come to be one of the most popular beachside drinks around the world? The Mojito dances on your palate with a bright, crisp citrus flavor that always brings me back to the beach. With a somewhat murky history, the mojito originated in Cuba around the 1500s. Surprisingly, it was first used for medicinal purposes to heal ailing sailors and later evolved into the summertime cocktail that it is today.

The fresh muddled mint proves that aromatic ingredients are key to quality beverages which can cross time and cultures. The Mojito has evolved throughout the centuries, as people infuse them with local fruits and different herbs to create unique concoctions. I had a coconut mojito down in Tulum the last time I was there for a friend’s wedding. I’ve included a simple mojito recipe and a few of my personal favorite spins. Let’s dig into the culture of Cuban cocktails, origins of the mojito and how it has become so iconic.

The Cuba Libre

The humble origins of this classic Cuban cocktail are steeped in history. The simplicity of Cuba Libre is not to be understated, as it represents an important time of liberation in Cuba. After the independence of Cuba, following the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, trade began to flow into the island. As iced cocktails began to flourish in the humid Cuban weather, coca-cola hit the island from the shores of American pop culture. Bacardi and other rum companies began there assent to popularity as free trade and exports flowed freely at the turn of the century.  

One claim to the origin of the Cuba Libre was a man named Fausto Rodriguez said to have been present when the Cuba libre was first poured at a local bar in Havana. According to Rodriguez, this took place in August of 1900, he was 14 years old and working as a messenger for the US Army communications branch. He stated in an official affidavit that his boss asked the bartender to mix Bacardi rum with the newly imported coca-cola, which intrigued a group of soldiers sitting in a nearby booth, they ordered a round for themselves and thus the cocktail was born. Rodriguez later became an executive at Bacardi, thus bringing into question the truth of this claim as possibly just a marketing ploy. A more plausible story is the Cuba Libre was invented at a popular restaurant El Floridita in Old Havana to celebrate Cubas independence day. Either way, the Cuba Libre has added to the growing cocktail culture and vibrancy of the people the world over.      

A Mojito A Day Keeps The Dr. Away?

Originally, the Mojito is thought to have started when a rough rendition was used medicinally by Taino in the Cuban area. The Tainos are referred to as hybrid Amerindians, who hail from the Venezuelan Orinoco valley. They were expert sailors and colonized much of the western Caribbean, including Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and Puerto Rico. As Spanish conquistadors inter-married with Tainos and also African slaves, that were brought to Cuba to work in the sugarcane fields, this mixing of bloodlines created a tri-racial culture of creole. 

The natives may have introduced the first version of the mojito to different explorers of the time. In the mid-1500s, an English explorer named Sir Frances Drake, and his ship crew were in the Cuban area exploring. Many of the ship’s crew members were ill, as they were suffering from dysentery and scurvy. When Drake ventured onto the tropical island looking for supplies, he left the island with ingredients, which included crude rum, lime, sugarcane juice, and mint, and with the knowledge of how these ingredients could benefit the sick crew members. The drink was then named the Drake and considered an antidote for curing common diseases found amongst ship crews.

Cuban Culture

The Evolution of Cuba

As the land became settled and developed by colonists, sugarcane plantation populated the island. A large population of African slaves were taken from there home and brought to Cuba through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. A theory suggests that they used the Mojito ingredients to cover the foul taste of a crude version of rum that was prevalent during the time. It is thought that the name Mojito came from the African term “mojo” meaning to place a spell, but this is disputed among other urban legends of the time.

When the United States entered the Prohibition Era of the 1920s, Havana Cuba became a hot spot for cocktails, and it attracted Americans who were looking to continue their party lifestyles. This caused a huge increase in the popularity of Mojitos among Americans visiting Havana to escape the prohibition. The Mojito was introduced to American classic novelist, Ernest Hemingway, in 1928 while he was in Havana visiting a local bar. It quickly became one of his favorite drinks and he inspired many more to love it.

Nuevo Latian Dining

The Mojito made a comeback in the 1990s with the Nuevo Latino dining movement in cities across the country, but especially in Miami, Los Angeles, and Texas. Florida’s large population of Cuban Americans had long been experimenting with different Latin cuisines and the emergence of nuevo Latino dining was born.

A “celebrity chef” of the time in the Miami food scene was Douglas Rodriguez, he opened Yuca in 1989 with a focus on upscale Cuban cuisine. Chef Rodriguez quickly gained notoriety winning Chef of The Year award in Miami. Yuca, which is an acronym for Young, Urban, Cuban-American is still to this day blending Latin flavor profiles and ingredients in a modern way.  In 1994 Rodriguez looked to spread the Mojito and his newly termed Nuevo Cuisine to New York when he opened Patria, which quickly won three stars from The New York Times. His early restaurants were thought of as a laboratory of Latin food and culture. 

A growing emphasis on fresh, local and seasonal sourcing fueled the spread of Nuevo Latin cocktails and food. The Latino population continued to grow and settle in more and more regions of the U.S. A kind of Latin fusion cuisine emerged, combining dishes from practically every country in the Western hemisphere with classic cooking techniques and locally available ingredients.

The Mojito and Cuba Libre were not yet household names, but cocktail enthusiast in every part of the country welcomed the opportunity to try new Latin drinks. Today restaurants that serve authentic versions, continue to gain prominence.

Mixed mojitos bar

Mojito Magic

The magic behind this cross-culture drink origins is rooted in the Caribbean, where Mojito ingredients are plentiful. Sugarcane plantations and lime groves are bountiful in this tropical region and have a lengthy history. It was discovered that sugarcane juices could be fermented into an intoxicating liquid that produced euphoric effects, but the taste was horrible. A type of mint, known as Yerba Buena, also grew in the area and was fresh and aromatic, as well as the wonderful citrus taste that it provided when mixed with other elements. Combining these ingredients was a logical progression that landed today’s Mojito.

Simple Mojito: How To Make

Ingredients

The basic Mojito ingredients are:

  • 6 Mint Leaves
  • 0.75 oz Simple Syrup (Mojito recipe simple syrup is listed below.)
  • 0.75 oz Fresh Lime Juice
  • 1.5 oz White Rum
  • 1.5 oz Club Soda
  • Garnish: 1 Mint Sprig
  • Garnish: Highball Glass

Instructions

The standard Mojito recipe instructions are:

  • In a shaker, lightly muddle the mint.
  • Add simple syrup, lime juice, rum, and fill with ice.
  • Shake well and pour (unstrained) mix into a highball glass.
  • Top with Club soda and garnish with a sprig of mint.

Spice Up Your Simple Syrup

Simple syrups can be infused with herbs, spices, berries, or anything you like. Although this concoction is amazing in cocktails like Mojito, it can also be used to flavor other drinks, in dressings, and on desserts. Try making a black peppercorn or Juniper simple syrup by adding 1 Tbls of your favorite spice to the basic recipe below.

Simple syrup is one-part water to one part granulated white sugar (1:1). If you want a thicker syrup, just add one-part water to two parts sugar. Gently heat the water and then add the sugar, let the sugar dissolve, and cool the mixture. You can keep it in a glass container inside the refrigerator for up to three weeks.

Sugar Cane Pressed

Classic Mojito Ingredient Facts

Rum

Rum dates back centuries, but its popularity can be traced back to the time when sugarcane plantations in the Caribbean were at their peak. The first distillation of rum and building of rum mills was around the 17th century. Rum is created by squeezing the juice (guarapo) out of harvested sugarcane. The guarapo is boiled, creating molasses and sugar. Molasses are combined with water and yeast, placed in tanks, and allowed to ferment, resulting in a liquid called Vino De Cana. This liquid is then distilled through copper-lined column stills, creating a quality rum product that is ready for distribution.

Rum has a very popular, and colorful history with the United States, including President Washington’s insistence on a barrel of Barbados Rum for the 1789 presidential inauguration. This popular drink was very valuable to colonists and often used for trade, in place of money. Rum has also been rationed on ships by different countries, including the British Royal Navy Sailors. This watered-down version was nicknamed the “tot”. The practice of daily rum rations was finally abolished in 1970.

Sugar Cane

Sugarcane plantations and production in the Caribbean quickly became one of the most valuable commodities for trade throughout the world in the 1500s. This increase not only influenced the Industrial Revolution, but it accelerated the slave trade as plantation owners needed to produce more sugar. The displaced slave population has had a major influence on the culture, cuisine, and products that come from Cuba. The sad reality of this global enslavement has impacted so many families and cultures through our history.   

Lime

Limes are included in the citrus family and grow abundantly in Cuba. They originated in Indonesia or Asia and were brought to the Mediterranean countries around 1000 CE. Limes’ strong flavor and fragrant smell are used in beverages to enhance or better the flavor. Limes also have a lot of nutritional value, and they are full of vitamins and nutrients. This fruit was issued to British sailors, in early times, to prevent scurvy and help maintain their health.

Mint

The mint plant most commonly used for Mojitos is Yerba Buena. Mint started to become a hard commodity to get ahold of because of its popularity as an addition to beverages. Mint has also been used for centuries as an herbal remedy. It can relieve abdominal pain and queasy stomachs, calm stress, and anxiety, influence restful sleep, relieve gas, diarrhea, stomach aches, and it relaxes the digestive tract muscles.

Mojito Infographic

Making Unique Mojito Flavors

Some Mojito flavors that are popular include infusing sweet tea, fruits, vegetables, and different herbs into the classic mojito.  Adding rhubarb, jalapeños, or tomatoes are unique ways to put your own spin. This popular cocktail is proving that it can survive the times with its simple classic recipe, or by adding that wow factor of different ingredients. I like adding coconut milk or water to the classic recipe, or by making a basil simple syrup and using it in my mojito. Where is your favorite place to enjoy a mojito? Let us know in the comments down below.

Interested in The traditions of mezcal? Check out our latest blog post on the history of mezcal.