Fuel to the mojito fire

Hi all, i thought i’d post the following piece that has been a work in progress for some time regarding the Mojito. The drink has got to be one of the most discussed, argued, pained over drinks so i thought i might throw in some more stuff!

I wrote the following in an attempt to draw together some information from various angles regarding spirits history, the drink, the sugar industry, the slave trade and the rise to popularity of the Mojito. Happy reading!

You may have picked up by now that I have a certain disdain for the idea of an original drink.  There are certainly drinks which are linked to a certain point in history, after which they become ‘named’ as the Bloody Mary, the Old Fashioned or, indeed, the Mojito.  However, this should not be considered their only point of origin.

When Bartenders create cocktails, they look for inspiration.  Seeking out older methods and recipes from classic cocktail books or picking up techniques and styles from their travels is the way that most Bartenders advance their skill and recipe repertoire.  What shame is there then in admitting to the point that when inventing a cocktail, you are likely to have drawn inspiration from some previous drink and given it your own twist?  Also, and I would say more importantly, drink styles have evolved over time to suit the tastes and palates of the world’s cocktail consumers and it is not likely to end there! So to vary a drink is not so much theft but rather, refinement and evolution.

The most exciting aspect about the potential for inventing new drinks is the exciting arena of the world spirits and alcohol market.  Never before has there been such an active and blossoming selection of fine spirits and alcohols with new products hitting the shelves on almost a weekly basis.  Although some of this is awful, in fact quite a lot of it, there are some wonderful and exciting products coming out which blur the traditional boundaries of spirit production:  Single Malt Vodkas, Commercial White Dog (unaged whiskey), Aged Gins.

What I’m getting at here is that the skill of the Bartender and the beauty of the craft is the combination of technique, style and execution together with what is available and in the market place.  Now we are lucky enough to have so much at our fingertips, but what of our alcohol enthused ancestors looking to mix up something a little more tasty?

Well the reality is no different from how it is today.  Except for the fact that when something new and exciting came about, its impact was far greater and more exciting because the range of available spirits was more limited and of low quality due to a lack of refined distillation technique.

Pirates, Rum and Rose Water

Sugar and Spirits

Sugar based alcohol was far from an original concept.   All alcohol starts with sugar and yeast, pure and simple.  The earliest references we have to fermented beverages include sugar based wines and beers.  The Aztec, Persian, Egyptian, Greek, Babylonian and Chinese cultures all have references to a sugar based alcohol in their relative histories and treat this product with great respect and desire, deifying it and offering it up to the gods.  This alcohol was raw and very basic, made from massacred sugar cane left in a pot with a natural yeast for months on end and simply strained into a cup, and dates back to well over 500BC.

In old Mesopotamia, in the latter half of the 8th Century, an Arabic version of this sugar alcohol became popular following the steps taken by Arabic Chemist, Abu ibn Hayyan, and later Al-Kindi, to refine their distillation technique and separate ethanol (potable alcohol) from the complex compound produced in natural fermentation.   The spirit produced would find it’s best comparison in Arrack.

Sometime later, in South America, alcohol production was similarly basic but without the knowledge of distillation and purification of the end product that had been developed in the west.  Sugar was left to ferment from its natural state until it was as strong as possible, the resulting liquid being very vegetal and acrid in flavor and of minimal strength.

It was the Portuguese, in the 16th Century, who came to conquer South America who brought with them the technique of distillation that had now spread widely across Europe.   The introduction of Sugar Cane farming to Latin America came with Christopher Columbus who first planted it in the fields of Haiti. As the Portuguese noblemen from the motherlands had to take up residency in these alien environments with little reserve of alcohols that they were accustomed to, the local production of a palatable spirit was vital in order to keep the Captains of the new colonies happy and willing to stay!  Cachaça in its most basic format was born and the settlement and expansion of the Western Empires in South America continued.

In the 18th Century, Sugar impacted the world like an atomic bomb.  Following the establishment of slave trade routes between Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, the desire to produce sugar was overwhelming.  European settles and traders, with the British being the worst culprits of all, wanted to farm and produce more and more sugar cane.  However, it required a lot of man power.  To produce enough sugar for the greedy, lavish appetites of Europe who by now associated sugar with wealth and success, the slave trade went into overdrive, transporting some 50,000 people as slaves a year to work on the plantations of Central and South America.

The production of sugar requires the crystallization of the raw sugar cane material.  A byproduct of its production is molasses, a thick, sticky substance, rich in sugar, very bitter and with an intense roasted coffee and licorice flavor.  At first, the sugar producers were seeing this as waste and simply dumping it into the sea.  Due to the volume of sugar being produced, the amount of this waste was huge and it was only a matter of time before some entrepreneur would try to find a way to reuse this waste.  They knew Cachaça but it was seen as unrefined.  The production of something with more weight, sweeter and more akin to the French Brandy and Scotch whisky that they had become used to was the aim and with a little ingenuity, these molasses became Rum.

Aromatising Spirits

The notion of adding something to spirits to make it taste different, again, is not a modern invention.  From what we have seen here, the spirits produced were of a very low quality with bitter and acrid flavours.  Not exactly enticing to the palate.  To enhance the flavor of these alcohols, spices and herbs were added to take away the acrid flavor of the product.  The idea of flavouring or ‘spicing’ alocohols is an old one and can be seen in the history and make up of many products – think of Vermouth with wormwood and other botanicals, Chartreuse, the Amaros like Campari, Fernet. How, though, is this potentially related to the mojito.

There is a drink referenced in ancient Arabic (the old area of Mesopotamia – modern Iraq) called a Julab or Golab.  This method required the use of fresh preparation.  Rather than steeping liquid in some combination of herbs, the drink was made using the fresh preparation of Rose Petals.  The perfuming of water was a common thing (see the Complete Distiller Guide mentioned in an earlier blog for a load of recipes for flavoured waters using everything from Pimento to Ambergris, that will cure scurvy, palsies, hysterias), indeed, some such as Rose Water are still commonly available.  The pressing of petals and leaves into liquids gave a freshness and vibrancy which was seen as delightful and of medicinal benefit.

When this method of preparation left the Arabs, Europe took to the same idea but with whatever they could lay their hands on.  Many herbs were used but the most commonly available was the ever invasive and fast growing Mint plant.  The technique was the same – take a few leaves and press them in a pestle and mortar, add a little alcohol and water, then sweetened a little to mask any remaining bitterness. Some of you –will be thinking I’m confusing this with the history of the Julep, but are the two so dissimilar in concept?

The Draquecito and the Mojito

As the Slave trade continued and Her Majesty’s Pirates, commonly referred to as the British Navy, plundered on around the Caribbean, one particular sailor was keen to make an impression.  Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth’s golden boy whose accomplishments include defeating the Spanish Armada and the first circumnavigation of the earth, had stationed himself in Cuba.  In the latter half of the 16th Century, Richard Drake, a Captain on board and a relative of Sir Francis, prepared a drink using the local sugar based spirit, a little mint and some lime juice.  Lime being used to sharpen the drinks taste rather than as an anti-scorbutic.  Although Limes and the term ‘Limey’ are commonly applied to the British Navy, the application of this wasn’t until the end of the 18th Century when an understanding of Scurvy and how to treat it was common knowledge.

This drink then, a combination of sugar based spirit, lime and mint is quickly becoming recognizable as a drink undergoing a huge revival in the past decade.  The Draque (or Draquecito), so named after Drake (which in Spanish means Dragon, quite apt considering the impression he would have made on the locals following his pirating antics in South America) became popular in the early 19th century.  There references to the drink in most South American countries and it’s spread can only be attributed to the spread and influence of the Navy and it’s celebrated hero.

Free Cuba!

The Mojito as we know it today is quite different.  As the Rum trade built up and varying styles of Rum emerged, the Mojito underwent a transformation.  The ice trade started and had it’s first success in the first half of the 19th century in the hot climates of South America where refreshment and relief from the heat was most desired.  The addition of ice to beverages was found to make them more palatable, with the reduction in temperature easing the burn of alcohol on the palate making alcoholic drinks much more thirst quenching.

So how does this drink suddenly become the Mojito…?  Sadly, as with most drinks of great repute, we have little hard evidence of when, where or why the drink became named the Mojito.  However, what is significant is how the drinking trends changed in South America and specifically Cuba.

In the second half of the 19th Century, Cuba was in a period of turmoil.  Following the abolition of the Slave Trade in 1835 and a movement by the US to annex Cuba some 20 years later, Cuba was fighting for its independence.  By 1935, Cuba had finally acquired independent governmental control over its own country and the economy started to grow.  The island as a place of independence and free thought was popular among students, artists and entertainers and its tourism trade grew.  Bars sprung up all over Havana.  Most notably, Sloppy Joes, La Bodequita and the Florodita were popular hangouts and it was here that the Mojito started to appear on drink menus.  The most famous advocate of the Mojito, Ernest Hemingway, drank in all 3 of these bars but was the friend and fishing companion of one Joe Russel, owner of Sloppy Joes.  The earliest recipes that exist for the Mojito come from Sloppy Joes Bar Manual in the 1931 and 1936 editions and later in respective menus from Bodequita and Florodita.

The importance of the Mojito lies in the cultural factors that surround its invention.  From its roots as a style of preparing a drink in Mesopotamia, it has come a long way to become the drink we now lovingly sup on a hot summers day on the terrace.  What differs the Mojito from its predecessors is the refinement of its preparation.  The development of better quality spirits and the availability of ice coupled with its availability in the idealistic, free retreat for free thinkers that cuba had become meant that the Mojito came about at the right place, and at the right time.

Moving Forward

The origins of the Mojito are often confused with the Mint Julep.  Although they are both related to previous techniques, due to the fairly recent historical invention of Bourbon, the Julep must really honour its roots in the Mojito and its predecessors.  But should that be the end…?  As a drinks making technique, like the generic application of the Sour to almost anything, the Mojito style can apply to almost any spirit but should be handled with care.

I have listed below a recipe for what I consider to be the a great Mojito, but make your own and decide for yourself.

The Mojito

In a highball glass, lightly muddle (mint doesn’t need much work, think pressing rather than muddling)

10 Leaves (at least 1 inch in length) Lemon Verbana mint

1 Spoon Caster Sugar

2 Spoons Rich Simple Syrup

Then Add

30ml Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice

60ml Lightly Aged Cuban Rum (Havana Club 3 yr works fantastically well)

Agitate ingredients through crushed ice, top with more ice and top with soda.  Garnish with a few mint sprigs, brushed to release their aroma.


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