The Best Mojito in the World

[mojito] recipe porn

The Prologue: Here’s Your Fucking Mojito

As a bartender, I’ve always hated mojitos.

The very word “mojito” has the power to make me shudder. More often than not, I have to fight the urge to say “here’s your fucking mojito” when I drop one off. I know bartenders who have purposefully made horrific mojitos so they won’t be asked to make another — Splenda instead of sugar, Branca Menta instead of mint, etc — and I have celebrated these people as heroes.

I grind my teeth at the dictional and ontological contortions involved in the question, “do you have mojitos?,” and can’t help but scowl at the flinching apology face everyone always gives when they order them.

I really hate mojitos.

The weird thing is, it’s mostly vestigial. There was a time when it was the most annoying drink a bartender would be asked to make, but now it doesn’t even crack the top 20. And yet. Hate.

I can mutter about them them all day, however, and it will have no bearing whatsoever on their two eternal truths:

  1. Whether Havana in July or Manitoba in January, they will be ordered in all occasions until the end of time.
  2. Unlike a Long Island, or Tokyo Tea or Scooby Snack or any of the other drinks favored by that particular cohort, mojitos don’t suck. At all. Mojitos are, actually, intrinsically delicious.

Point #2 can be a problem all its own — if precision isn’t required to make a good drink, it’s too easy to be satisfied with good and not reach for great. And this is where our story begins.

The History:

I wrote it all out, but then erased it because I honestly don’t care. The mojito, like a whiskey sour or Tom Collins, isn’t invented so much as inevitable: mint grows where limes and sugar cane grow, and soda water because it’s damn hot outside. If, as a culture, you’ve got all that stuff and you never think to put them together, I’m sorry but you don’t get to come out to play.

Just know this: it’s from Cuba, and it shows up in print in the 30s. If you need more history than that, David Wondrich does the best job, as usual, here.

The only interesting thing is the etymology: mojar is the verb “to make wet” or “moisten,” and in Cuban Spanish, “mojo” means “sauce.” So a mojito is “a little sauce” or “a little wetness” which, if you remember that “dry” also can mean “without alcohol,” starts to make some sense.

The Good vs. The Great:

That Good vs. Great thing has always been my problem with mojitos. My recipe was fine, and certainly gets the job done, but I wanted better. And I thought, a few weeks ago, maybe I’d feel better about the drink if I knew, without a doubt, that my mojito was so goddamn delicious that that it would force people to stop and take notice. To tap their friend on the shoulder and say “you’ve got to try this.”

[mojito] three glasses

So I did experiments. A lot of them. And after at least 30 iterations spread over two weeks, I dialed in what I believe to be the best mojito recipe in the world, and in the process became tediously familiar with every ingredient, and all their variations.

The Principles:

I am operating under the assumption that the mojito is, first and most, a refreshing drink. That means it can’t be too sweet, lest it be cloying, nor too tart, or the mint won’t come out. It should be shaken — all the built-in-the-glass recipes, even over crushed ice, were too viscous.

It’s important to note that 95% of the drinks I made were good, and so some of this inevitably falls to personal taste. But following these principles, I set out to find the best.

The Players:

[mojito] ingredients

Rum. Limes. Sugar. Mint. Carbonated Water.

RUM: Flor de Cana 4yr silver rum

Use a Spanish style, clear/silver/white rum. What’s Spanish style? It’s an oversimplification of course, but if your rum is from a Spanish speaking country and/or is called “Ron,” it’s Spanish style. It will be light and clean. And probably <$20, which is even better.

An identical side-by-side with Flor de Cana (silver), Banks 5 (silver), Plantation 5 (amber), and El Dorado 15 (dark) yielded not just a winner, but an obvious winner. While Plantation 5 makes my favorite daiquiri, the unavoidable caramel/spice notes in aged rums have no business in tall, refreshing drinks. I love the funk of Banks 5, but it distracted the palate here. With the El Dorado one, a little more rum and less soda would’ve made a handsome drink, but a mojito it ain’t.

[mojito] rums

I then tried Flor de Cana, a 40%, fairly standard Nicaraguan rum, against the robust Caña Brava,at 43%. I earnestly expected Caña Brava to be the winner, and it was close… it seemed better at first, but after a minute and a little more dilution Flor de Cana surged ahead. To be clear: they were both deliriously good, but my guiding principle was refreshment, and in the end the extra ABV points on Caña Brava took away more than it added.

[mojito] lemon hart 151Just for kicks, I tried Wondrich’s recipe of floating a little Lemon Hart 151 on top. Still delicious, but it takes a clean drink and confuses the flavors. Not an improvement.

LIME: fresh lime juice

This was the least examined part, as there’s nothing even close to fresh lime juice. A bunch of cocktail nerds figured out a few years ago that the enzymatic bittering of juiced limes somehow mitigates a little of the lime’s sourness and that limes juiced 4 hours ago are better than limes fresh squeezed. If you feel like timing your drinking to stay 4 hours ahead of your lime juice, go with God. I wish you all the best.

MINT: 6-8 mint leaves, not muddled, shaken with ice in the drink

This was maybe my biggest surprise in the whole thing. It is gospel in the cocktail world: do not over muddle mint. “If you press it too hard,” they say, “you break the little capillaries in the mint leaf and release bitter chlorophyll, thereby ruining your drink.” I’ve lived by this law for years. Until I tried them side by side. One, I over muddled the mint. The other, gentle pressing. The gently pressed mint barely registered, and to my great surprise, the one I practically jackhammered, where I was expecting bitterness, instead presented a full, delicious mint flavor.

[mojito] over muddled mint

Then I shook the mint with ice, and my god: the mint flavor is so much more pervasive and intense, buttressing every point of the palate. Then I took about 3 minutes and tried to over muddle the mint. I muddled the silly fuck out of that mint, then shook it, and still there’s not a single off-putting note in the drink. You cannot overmuddle mint. Please, someone, prove me wrong.

Then, in the spirit of anti-stone-unturnedness, I tried mega mint: 20 leaves instead of 8. It was, predictably, too much. 6-10 leaves, or one small pinch, is magic.

Oh, and there’s no difference between muddling then shaking, and just shaking without muddling. I tried that too. Save yourself the step.

SUGAR: sugar cane, demerara or muscovado syrup

It’s too much with aged rum, but there’s something perfectly soft and subtle about those molassas flavors when they come from cane syrup, or a demerara/muscovado syrup. They are processed much less than white sugar, and add a rustic layer of personality, like a coat of dust on the harvest jeans.

As we learned with the Southside experiments, fresh mint is always better than mint syrup. But some recipes, like the Employees Only one, double down and use both fresh mint and mint syrup. After all, if mint is good, wouldn’t double mint double your delightment? The answer is no. The mint offers a clean flavor; adding mint syrup only muddies it up.

SPARKLING WATER: highly carbonated mineral water

[mojito] soda water back to backQ Soda and Fever Tree are the expensive good ones, and Topo Chico and Mineragua are the cheaper good ones. You want high carbonation and some dissolved sodium to make the flavors pop. If you want to know why, I did a best sparkling water write-up here.

ICE: crushed ice 

Even when you shake it (and you should), the drink benefits from crushed ice. It’s not strictly necessary, but it keeps the inside cold and well diluted, and the outside frosty. No matter the pace of your drinking, the recipe below will stay good to the end.

The Best Mojito In The World:

Look upon it, barkeeps, and despair.

Mojito
2oz Flor de Cana silver rum
0.75oz demerara or muscovado simple syrup (1:1)
0.75 fresh lime
2.5oz-3oz mineral water
6-10 mint leaves.
Add all ingredients except mineral water, including mint, to the shaker. Add ice, shake to high heaven for 10-12 seconds. Fine strain over crushed ice into a collins glass. Garnish with a mint sprig. Drink. Then find me, and shake my hand.

[mojito] glamour shot

Cheers.

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

First things first, some (I promise) brief history & trivia on the British Royal Navy, scurvy, DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and what any of that has to do with a grapefruit lime cordial I made in my kitchen the other day:

Scurvy is a degenerative and ultimately fatal disease caused by not enough vitamin C. As we can get like 1,200% of our daily C from one glass of orange juice, we in the 21st century don’t often require bravery in the face of scurvy. But to sailors in the 18th century, it was a essentially a plague. In that century, the 1700s, the Royal Navy lost more sailors to scurvy than they did to actual war.

Not that some didn’t have good ideas. One commander, Admiral Edward Vernon stumbled onto something when in he decreed in 1740 that lime juice be added to his sailors rations, originally to make their gross, algae’d water more palatable. Surprisingly, his men thrived while the others’ teeth fell out. There was only one problem with this: the only way to preserve lime juice for long sea voyages was to add it to their daily rations of rum (a shit hot dirty rum at that, which direly needed lime juice’s charms anyway). With their “grog” (rum, water, lime) taken in the morning as medicine, sailors were falling out of the riggings drunk by mid-afternoon. Again, better to do that with teeth than without, so the lime juice stayed.

It was another 100 years before a young Scot named Lauchlan Rose patented a way to preserve lime juice without alcohol. That was 1867, the same year the Government got wise to the whole citrus business and mandated that all Navy ships give daily rations of lime juice to everyone on board. Rose’s “Lime Juice Cordial” became ubiquitous almost immediately, surviving over 140 years to present day. It pairs with gin to make a gimlet, and you can generally find a crusty old bottle of it behind most bars… But not mine. Rose’s is now owned by DrPepper Snapple Group Inc., and as such is made like a soft drink with the following ingredients: water, high fructose corn syrup, lime juice concentrate, sodium metabisulfite (preservative), natural flavors, and Blue #1. It is, with it’s lurid chemical florescence, precisely the type of saccharine bullshit that the cocktail resurgence defines itself against.

This puts us cocktail people in a uncomfortable dilemma, a kind of paradox of snobbery: you must use a lime cordial (not lime juice) to make a proper gimlet, but you also must use fresh ingredients. So what do you do? Enter: homemade cordial (I added grapefruits for a specific drink I was making; obviously this is not necessary). And what do you know, not only is it cheap and easy, it’s unbelievably good.

Grapefruit Lime Cordial

Step 1: Aquire a bunch of grapefruits and limes, an equal amount of each. I did 8 each, which ended up making roughly 45 ounces of cordial. Which is a lot if you’re using it 0.75oz at a time.

Step 2: Wash that shit. With a vegetable brush. Even organic citrus usually has food-grade wax on it to preserve freshness, and the peel is especially important here.

Step 3: Peel grapefruits and limes with a vegetable peeler, removing all the skin but as little as the pith as possible. Pile the skins into a large-ish bowl. This peeling business is difficult with the limes because of their thin skin, so this first time I ended up zesting them. I’ve since made a ginger/lime cordial where I said to hell with it and just peeled them, and it worked fine. This is good, because I absolutely despise zesting limes, and exponentially so in large amounts.

Step 4: Measure out 3oz of ultra-fine sugar per grapefruit, and dump it into the bowl. I used 8 grapefruits, so I covered them in 24oz (by volume) of sugar. Using a muddler, or potato crusher, or really any hard flat object, muddle (press firmly) the peels into the sugar, over and over. Your goal is to bruise most of the surface area of the peels, then surround them with the sugar. Cover and let sit on the countertop between 1-3 hours, stirring once or twice (if you want).

One of the charming characteristics of sugar is that it is oleophilic, which means that it likes to bond with oil. So for that hour, the sugar is drawing the naturally occurring citrus oils out of the bruised peels. When you come back, you find some thick, brightly citrus flavored syrup. If you were to stop now, it would be called oleo saccharum (literally “oily sugar”) a totally delicious sweetener used in punches and the like. But we’re not stopping now. Oh no. Strap in, friends, and put your juicing pants on.

Step 5: Juice the now-naked grapefruits and limes, and add that juice to the oleo saccharum. Because the size of the fruits will govern both how much peel and how much juice they give, this ratio pretty much works itself out.

Step 6: Add the mixture to a heat. Just a little, well before boil, just enough so gentle stirring dissolves the sugar. As soon as the sugar has been completely dissolved, remove.

Step 7: Strain out all the solids. The sugar makes it thick, so this is easiest done when it’s still warm. My method is to use a pasta strainer to get the big peels, then a tea strainer for the smaller pulpy business, but you do whatever you want. This is America, after all.

The pulp won’t ruin anything, but it’s better without. Step 8: Bottle, and refrigerate. Once it cools down, it’s ready to go.

Step 9:  Enjoy.

It’s sweet and tart, with an unbelievable brightness from the citrus oil. The sugar more or less neutralizes the bitterness from the grapefruit, giving it a candied feel. Add carbonated water for an amazing soda, or mix with pretty much whatever you like.

BONUS COCKTAIL: I made this for the GQ Bombay Sapphire “Most Imaginative Bartender” competition. I would’ve ordinarily stopped at the basic drink, but that “imaginative” part demanded more. Thus the weirdness. It didn’t win or anything but I was still very pleased with it, and it’s been enjoying orders for 2nds and even 3rds at the bar.

Sailor’s Gimlet
2oz Gin
0.75oz grapefruit lime cordial
0.5oz fresh lime juice

You could stop now, but what makes it way better is:

Rinse the glass with Batavia Arrack if possible; if not, an agricole rum or cachaca. If not, a funky rum. If you have nothing, or nothing but Bacardi, go buy better rum.

You could definitely stop now, but what makes it (whoooaaa!) “imaginitive” is:

Also rinse glass with Green Chartreuse; but first, rim cocktail glass with cinnamon, a pinch of sugar, and shaved macadamia nuts.

It works equally well with rum or tequila. Tweak the recipe or your expectations and you don’t need the lime juice. I find the acidity is nice for balance, but do what you like. And if you find something cool, tell me about it. Cheers.