It's taken almost a year and three trips down to Puerto Rico, bit I think I finally figured out the secrets of the mojito. I'd been close to the right formula for some time, but just a few short steps--and my own pigheadedness--stood in the way.
My first experience with a mojito was a complete bust; the second was sublime. The first was at the bar at the Marriott in Asheville, North Carolina, where the mojito was the special drink of the day. I'd never had one before but had been hearing a lot of noise about them (this was back when they were first becoming trendy again), so I took a flyer on one. The bartender lackadaisically mushed up some mint in a glass with a bar spoon, added in rum and lime juice, then topped the remaining three-quarters of the tall glass off with club soda from the bar gun. It was watery, vaguely minty, and not at all refreshing.
The second time I had mojito was in the Lobby Bar at the Ritz Carlton in San Juan Puerto Rico. The mojito is Cuban in origin, but San Juan is apparently close enough to the source that they know what they are doing. The bartender used a big wooden mortar and pestle and a lot of elbow grease to muddle up the mint, and the result was a drink that was smooth and sweet and had the most delightful neon green color--night and day from the Marriott version, and one of the best cocktails I've ever had.
I've been trying ever since that first visit to recreate the Ritz version of the mojito in my own kitchen, but with only limited success. My end products were always too strongly alcoholic and never had that deep, beautiful green color--more just bits of mint leaves in a clearish, limey fluid. Even a second visit to the San Juan Ritz and some surreptitious scrutiny of the bartender as he mixed up the drinks left me well short of the mark.
I recently made a third visit to Puerto Rico (fortunately, under the guise of business, so I don't have to fund the research on my own) and, following more ruthless experimentation and extensive reading, I think I have finally got the thing nailed.
In my earlier attempts, I made three critical errors:
- Using a gold rum rather than plain old silver rum
- Avoiding club soda
- Using simple syrup instead of granulated sugar
For #2 (biased, admittedly, by my experience at the Marriott) I assumed that adding soda to a mojito simply watered it down, so I had been leaving it out altogether. After all, I hadn't tasted club soda in the Ritz version--but, it turns out it was there, just in the proper proportion to the other ingredients.
And, on point #3, I was just too full of myself. I had discovered simple syrup quite a while back and had been using it proudly for everything from cocktails to sweet tea. So, I sneeringly assumed that all those mojito recipes I saw that called for a tablespoon (or more) of sugar were just shortcut versions and that the pros would use a splash of simple syrup, and I assumed that it would be best to go a little light on the syrup to avoid a sticky sweet drink.
Wrong again. As it turns out, granulated sugar and lots of it is the key, for when you muddle it with the mint it helps to really break down the leaves and grind out the mint oil and create that wonderful smooth flavor, and the bright green color, too.
So, duly chastised but delighted with my most recent batch, I can now offer up the following instructions for creating what (in my mind at least) is the ideal mojito:
6 -8 large, fresh mint leaves2 T sugar (yes, that's tablespoons: you don't want to skimp on the sugar)3 T rum (or a bit more if you like them strong)Juice of 1 lime2 T of club soda (One of the curious things about mojito recipes is that almost no one specifies how much soda to use. I find 2 T to be about right.)
Add the mint leaves and sugar to a mortar and grind vigorously until the mint is starting to disintegrate and are melding into the sugar. (Someday I hope to acquire a big wooden mortar and pestle like they use at the Ritz, but my small stone version seems to do just fine.) Put the sugar and mint into a cocktail shaker and pour in the rum, lime juice, and club soda. Add ice, then shake until well blended. Pour into a rocks glass, garnish with a lime, and enjoy.
I think the key is in the muddling, so spend a little extra time and really work the mint and sugar together. The result is a drink that is startlingly yummy and perfect for a hot summer afternoon.