Can the Mojito’s Reputation Be Saved?

The mojito has an image problem. Drew Lazor on the rise and fall of one of Cuba's most famous drinks, from Hemingway favorite to club cliché, and the crew of bartenders trying to rehabilitate it.

A drink order should never double as an apology. But when you’re craving a mojito, one of the most reviled cocktails in bartending, saying sorry seems to come naturally.

At Honeycut in Los Angeles, managers Dave Fernie and Mary Bartlett recently experienced this phenomenon first-hand, when a friend hedged a request with heavy levels of contrition. Overheated from dancing, he asked Bartlett to prepare him the most famous cocktail to come out of Cuba—white rum, sugar, lime and mint, lightly pulverized and poured over ice. Then he said he was just kidding.

Fernie and Barlett, unironic mojito lovers, wondered why so many people were embarrassed to order the drink. And then set out to reboot the drink’s shot-to-shit reputation.

This month, the two partnered with Bacardi to organize The Mojito Project, a multi-bar charity fundraiser aimed at changing minds. They even cut a mock PSA hipping the unenlightened to the many dangers of mojito deficiency, or “No-jito.”

But a question remains: How did this classic cocktail—one as historically rich as it is refreshing—become such an anguish-inducing cliché that it requires counter-programming?

The drink’s devolution is curious, but it didn’t just go from Ernest Hemingway’s Havana to popped collars and Pitbull concerts by chance. Understanding how the mojito, long adored in both Cuba and America, came to require such ambitious intervention requires a look back at its lineage.

Some cocktail chroniclers trace the mojito’s origins all the way back to “El Draque,” a primitive scurvy-fighting concoction attributed to infamous 16th-century privateer Sir Francis Drake, but other accounts link the drink, in its proto-form, to the slaves and blue-collar workers of 1800s Cuba. These laborers would take their cheap homemade distillate and tamp down the harshness with accessible additions, like citrus, mint and guarapo, or sugarcane juice. “The mojito was a farmer’s drink, sort of the Budweiser of Cuba,” writes Dale DeGroff in The Craft of the Cocktail.

“People butcher [the mojito] on purpose,” says Willy Melendez, a bartender at Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. “I’ve seen people pour nothing but hatred into the shaker tin. And what you put in comes out.”

The countryside drink would eventually go big-city. In his book And a Bottle of Rum, Wayne Curtis tracks the trajectory of the mojito—to most, a Spanish cute-ification of “mojo”—from the fields to the Yankee-friendly nightclubs of post-repeal Havana. La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar in the Cuban capital famous for making mojitos for Hemingway and other celebrities, still does so today, and they’re not the only ones. “If you walk into any Old Havana bar…and hold up two fingers without comment, the odds are favorable you’ll get two mojitos in return,” writes Curtis.

Popular in America for a time, the mojito fell out of favor by the mid-20th century, only to creep back into the stateside consciousness on the crest of the culinary trends of the late ’80s and early ’90s, when modern Latin cuisine came into fashion. Caribbean cocktails were a natural complement to the cooking of chefs like Douglas Rodriguez and Bobby Flay, and the mojito loomed large among them, especially in Latino-populated cities like New York, Los Angeles and Miami. This is when things start to get sticky.

In 1997, Jamal Giles was working at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan’s East Village when a magazine asked him to rattle off a few of the venue’s most popular mixed drinks. His honest reply: cosmos and mojitos. The subsequent article “sparked this crazy mojito-buying madness,” recalls Giles, now the head bartender at Sugarcane in Miami. “A lot of the bartenders were really upset with me.”

Trying to nail down the exact source(s) of this professional consternation is an inexact pursuit—but it all seems to start with muddling. Crushing up the core elements of the drink by hand with a muddler, mainly to release the pent-up aroma and flavor of the mint, might not seem that laborious, but in the context of a packed bar on a Friday night, these steps can quickly cause a drink-making bottleneck.

“It can get rough when you’re five-deep at the bar and everybody wants a mojito. I think that’s why many bartenders are anti-,” says Giles, whose staff at Sugarcane can make as many as 300 à la minute on a busy Saturday night. That speaks to another one of the mojito’s perceived negatives: It’s the quintessential chain reaction drink, meaning the second you mix one, everyone within a half-mile radius is going to want one, too.

The onus would eventually shift from what’s being ordered to who’s doing the ordering. In the period between the late ‘90s and the mid-aughts, the mojito’s gentle profile and thirst-quenching ability earned it a clubby connotation in New York. Joe Swifka, beverage manager and GM of La Descarga, a Havana-inspired bar in L.A. that serves mojitos by the dozens, says,“It got kinda lumped into the quote-unquote ‘martini’ craze, since it was minty and colorful.” Bad news for quality-driven bartenders, since making one properly takes time.

This “frou-frou” vibe, coupled with high demand, posits Swifka, cultivated resentment among the more straight-faced denizens of the cocktail community. (Pre-fab renditions from companies like Skinnygirl haven’t helped much, either.) The result of this maelstrom of irritants?

“People butcher it on purpose,” says Willy Melendez, a bartender at Alma de Cuba in Philadelphia. “I’ve seen people pour nothing but hatred into the shaker tin. And what you put in comes out.” Bartlett, likewise, used to work with a bartender who despised mojitos so much that he would serve them under comically large pillars of crushed ice, to discourage other customers from following suit. And that’s kind in comparison to others’ tactics.

“I’ve heard stories of people making them with creme de menthe and Rose’s Lime, for god’s sake,” says Joel Garcia, a Cuban-born bartender who’s won awards for his mojitos at Ortanique in Coral Gables.

Amidst all of this malice, can this storied drink be restored to the classic-cocktail pantheon like its cousin, the daiquiri, with which it shares a country and era of origin? That is the question at the heart of Honeycut’s mojito initiative, and they’re addressing it with drinking in lieu of discourse. They’ve recruited a dozen other L.A. cocktail bars, including Harvard and Stone, Seven Grand, Las Perlas and the Ace Hotel, to make mojitos the way they’re meant to be made. Encouraging bar patrons to embrace the simple pleasures of the mojito, the Project’s participants hope, will lure bartenders back to the right side of the debate.

“There are so many interviews with bartenders that ask, ‘What’s one drink you wish would go away?’ And they say the mojito,” says Bartlett. “You guys suck—it’s delicious.”