Mojito madness, or Evolution of a recipe

Seems like it must be time to post a recipe, so let’s start with the it-drink of the day, the tall drink of water from Habana, the much-loved, often poorly-made Mojito.

I don’t know if the claim is valid, but this one claims to be the ur-recipe, “the one Hemingway himself enjoyed at the Mojito’s place of birth: La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana, Cuba” (copied from

  • 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
  • Juice from 1 lime (2 ounces)
  • 4 mint leaves
  • 1 sprig of mint
  • Havana Club white Rum (2 ounces)
  • 2 ounces club soda

Place the mint leaves into a long mojito glass (often called a “collins” glass) and squeeze the juice from a cut lime over it. You’ll want about two ounces of lime juice, so it may not require all of the juice from a single lime. Add the powdered sugar, then gently smash the mint into the lime juice and sugar with a muddler (a long wooden device pictured below, though you can also use the back of a fork or spoon if one isn’t available). Add ice (preferably crushed) then add the rum and stir, and top off with the club soda (you can also mix the club soda in as per your taste). Garnish with a mint sprig.

** Optional ** While the following isn’t the authentic original Bodeguita del Medio Cuban recipe for a mojito, some people will take half of the juiced lime and cut into into four wedges to add to the glass. Another variation is to add Angostura bitters to cut the mojito’s sweetness, which is a popular version in Havana hotels although not the true Bodeguita recipe. Some Cubans also use “guarapo” in place of the powdered sugar, which is a sugar cane syrup available in some supermarkets or online Latin grocery stores.

So there’s nothing particularly wrong with this recipe, but it doesn’t work all that well, and I think the proportions are off. As with most drinks, you really want about a four-to-one ratio of booze to whatever (someday I’ll post on my grand unifying theory of cocktails), so make that a whole lime to 4oz rum and figure it’s a recipe for two drinks. Another problem is that even powdered or superfine sugar isn’t easy to dissolve in cold liquid, so you’d be better off using simple syrup. I’ve never had Havana Club white rum, but I have found that–contrary to my usual principle that better (and darker) rum makes a better (if uglier) cocktail, in the case of a mojito you really do want the cheap white stuff, so let’s assume that part is fine. But the real problem here is in the muddling: muddling is only so effective at drawing out mint flavors, and unless you muddle maniacally, this recipe is going to produce an insufficiently-minty mojito in my opinion.

Cut to the next candidate: the recipe I surreptitiously copied down while waiting for my to-go order at an estimable local Mexican restaurant when I spied it on the back wall, just barely legible thanks to some damn fine work by my ophthamalogist. This one is all about practicality: how do you make a muddling-intensive drink consistently good, quickly, on demand at a busy restaurant? Well, clearly you work ahead and make a mint simple syrup, of course! Here we go, and this one is for a pitcher, not just a wimpy pair. Since I didn’t exactly have permission to copy it and I’m about to criticize it, I’m not giving away which restaurant it was, but if you own that restaurant and would like to claim and/or defend your work, use that Comments link down there at the bottom of the article!

A certain restaurant’s mojito
Mint syrup

  • 4C water
  • 2C suqar
  • half bunch mint


  • 9oz Bacardi
  • 4.5oz mint syrup
  • 4.5 oz sweet and sour mix
  • 12 mint leaves
  • ice, soda

Let’s deconstruct this one. First, I should probably explain the method, which wasn’t printed at the back of the bar but which is not hard to infer: boil water, sugar, and half a bunch of mint until mixture is reduced by approximately half. Cool and store, refrigerated, in a meticulously clean glass jar. To make the pitcher of mojitos, pull that jar out and dump a healthy dollop in the pitcher. Add an equal dollop of sweet and sour mix. Add a dollop of Bacardi twice as big (and here I can endorse the rum choice–Bacardi white is far from my favorite rum, but it’s just the thing for a refreshing mojito). Mix. Add decorate mint leaves. Now fill almost the rest of the way with crushed ice and top with soda. Get a runner to rush it out to the table and turn your attention to the next customer’s margarita needs.

This recipe is marginally better than the first one. Why? Several reasons. First, because making a mint simple syrup isn’t just efficient, it’s effective–it really does force the mint flavor out of the recalcitrant leaves and into the drink. It also gives you some cushion against out-of-season mint that looks nice but has no flavor. Second, it makes a pitcher instead of a lousy pair of high balls. Third, the booze-to-lime ratio is moving in the right direction.

However, it’s not perfect. First, it’s too sweet by far–rum is already a sweet booze, and that simple syrup adds a lot of sugar. Second, rushed bartenders don’t get it mixed very well–they’re just dumping liquids into a pitcher and hoping the addition of ice does the work, but some shaking or at least vigorous stirring is needed when you’re blending such unlike viscosities as rum, lime, and simple syrup. Third, and this is really important, what on earth are they doing with sweet and sour mix instead of lime juice??? Well, okay, fresh-squeezed lime juice isn’t the easiest thing to crank out in volume in a busy restaurant, so obviously that’s why they’re using sweet and sour, but sweet and sour is (a) too sweet and (b) not sour. And (c) not lime juice. Not even close. To be refreshing and brisk, this drink needs to bite of real, fresh-squeezed lime juice. Do not accept substitutes.

Enter the third candidate, my recipe, which I will put up against anyone’s, for a batch of four high balls:

Erin’s mojito

  • several stems’ worth of mint leaves, and then some
  • 8oz Bacardi white rum
  • very little superfine sugar
  • juice of 2 limes
  • crushed hard ice
  • club soda

Vigorously muddle mint leaves in rum and sugar and let stand at least several hours if not overnight. Squeeze in lime juice using one of those brutally effective lime squeezers that are effectively a garlic press on steroids. Fill highballs almost full with crushed ice (not the warm, watery kind you get at a fast food joint, the colder, harder kind your refrigerator’s ice-maker puts out). Add rum-sugar-lime mixture to the halfway point. Add decorative mint leaves, but tear them into little shreds with your hands while you’re tossing them in. Top with club soda.

Why is this better? It’s all in the details. First, when you muddle vigorously, I really mean it–vigorously. You might try adding a mortar-and-pestle round-the-sides swirling grind to your choreography. Mint leaves are thin and sturdy, so you really need to beat them up if you want them to release their flavor. Second, you leave it standing in the rum for a while, because the alcohol does the real work. Most flavors worth pursuing are fat- and alcohol-soluble, and you’re taking advantage of that by letting the alcohol break down the mint and get its flavors into the liquid. I got this trick from an article (sorry, can’t remember to cite) about mint julep recipes from all the bourbon distillers in Kentucky, and it’s a great tip. Third, fresh lime in the right proportion. Fourth, tearing those decorative leaves before tossing them in ensures that you get that fresh, just-massacred mint oil hit, especially on the nose, which probably picks up the mint better than our palates do. Finally, cold, hard ice–wimpy wet stuff isn’t cold enough, and it waters down your drink.

Finally, the lazy mixologist’s Atkins-friendly variation. For this one, I credit my friend Sue’s discovery that Fresca makes a good club soda alternative. I haven’t actually tried that, because although I think its grapefruit flavor would probably be a pleasant addition, I’d rather not tamper with the genetics of the drink too much. However, her pointer inspired my experiment, which was a stunning success:

Erin’s heretical diet mojito

  • several stems’ worth of mint leaves, and then some
  • 8oz Bacardi white rum
  • no sugar at all! none!
  • juice of 2 limes
  • crushed hard ice
  • Sprite Zero

Same method. The madness is using Sprite Zero at the end instead of club soda. And why not? It’s a sugarless lemon-lime carbonated beverage! Unlike Diet Coke, Diet 7-Up, and so on, Coke Zero and Sprite Zero have managed to minimize that nasty artificial sweetener taste to the point that even I, a die-hard saccharine and aspartame hater, consider them pretty darned drinkable. I’d rather have the real thing, but these are actually an acceptable substitute. Since the Sprite Zero is going to be adding plenty of sweetness, I forego the sugar in the muddling step, and the balance ends up being just right.