Over the past few months, the PUNCH “Ultimate” crew has tackled one classic summer cocktail after another, going in search of the quintessential Gin & Tonic and Margarita. With Labor Day fast approaching, the staff gathered to grapple with one more liquid landmark of the warmer months: the Mojito.
The Top Three
The Mojito has a dual reputation. To the drinking public, it is a dependable refresher that can be reliably fallen back on at any hotel or resort bar—or any place within walking distance of the beach, really. From the bartender’s point of view, the drink is an unwelcome house guest, the kind you have to clean up after when it outstays its welcome. That’s the running gossip, anyway. But is it true? Part of the mission of PUNCH’s “Ultimate” tasting series is to question the conventional wisdom that clings to classic drinks. So we asked: Do bartenders really hate making Mojitos?
“It’s a funny drink for me,” admitted Tristan Willey, one of the guest bartender judges at the tasting. “It seems like it’s a pain in the butt to make. But it’s not a challenging drink to make. I hate making them. But are they that hard to make?”
Lynnette Marrero, another judge, who makes plenty of Mojitos at Brooklyn’s Llama Inn, didn’t think so. “Sure, it makes your tins messy,” she said, “but just as much as an egg drink.”
Frank Caiafa, formerly the bar manager at the Peacock Alley bar in the Waldorf Astoria hotel, and another judge, pointed out that it’s not the drink itself that is difficult work. It’s the fact that you rarely make just one. “It’s a viral cocktail. By sight, it lights up the tables,” he said. “No one hates making the first Mojito—it’s the sixth.”
Willey agreed. “Once one goes out, you’re ruined.”
Originating in Cuba, a drink something like the Mojito (rum, mint, sugar, lime juice) has been around for centuries. It’s still strongly associated with Cuba, but today can be had in just about any country. Its current spate of popularity in the United States has roots in the 1990s, when the drink—along with other Latin libations and cuisines—suddenly became modish and was served everywhere, from Miami, with its large Cuban population, to New York at places like Asia de Cuba, to California. The bar at the San Francisco restaurant Enrico’s, an early-’90s cradle of modern mixology, was particularly instrumental in boosting awareness of the drink, with bartenders like Paul Harrington and Dave Nepove turning out hundreds of Mojitos nightly. The cocktail has never faded from the American scene since.
A good percentage of those millions of Mojitos served annually, however, are not very good, the panel suspected. “There are a bunch of subpar Mojitos,” declared Marrero.
“It’s pretty easy to make a bad Mojito,” agreed Willey, who suggested that most examples of the drink were probably drunk out of a Solo cup. The misfortunes that can be easily visited on the highball are many, the judges agreed, including too much club soda, leading to a watery drink; an insufficiency of ice, robbing it of the desired chill; and both not enough sugar and too much sugar, making for an anemic or syrupy drink, respectively. But the most common villain may be the most vital ingredient.
“Mint can be so finicky,” observed Willey. “One bad leaf and the drink is bad.”
PUNCH associate editor Chloe Frechette suggested that all those possible deficiencies may not be of great concern to the average Mojito lover. “I don’t think people who drink Mojitos are adventurous drinkers,” she said.
Perhaps. But those indiscriminate people weren’t at our tasting table. The judges searched among the dozen entries, many of them hailing from bars known for their dedication to rum, for a good balance of flavors, attractiveness in presentation and solid iciness. A number of Mojitos were soundly criticized for arriving too warm, owing to both the choice of ice (crushed ice was most common, but not seen in all the recipes) or the build instructions (some bartenders called for the drink to be shaken, while others had it built in the glass).
The tasting began unpromisingly, with a couple Mojitos rendered too thin and weak by too much club soda and too little sweetener. A few recipes tossed Angostura bitters into the mix, often as a visual accent atop the crushed ice. The judges largely felt the bitters were an unorthodox ingredient that upset the equilibrium of the drink. The latter half of the tasting, however, produced a few clear winners, with top honors going to Jelani Johnson of Clover Club in Brooklyn.
Johnson likes a true Cuban rum in this cocktail, preferring Havana Club 3 Year. Knowing that that product is not readily available, he opted for two ounces of Flor de Caña 4 Year, along with one ounce of simple syrup and a three-quarters of an ounce of lime juice, which he likes to hand squeeze in order to get some oil from the skin into the drink. The build begins with the mint leaves being gently muddled in the syrup. An unusual move that perhaps pushed Johnson’s drink into the top spot was his mix of hand-cracked Kold-Draft cubes at the bottom of the drink, which helped hold down the muddled mint, and crushed ice at the top, “to keep it cute.” The drink was topped with a lavish tuft of mint. The panel liked the blend of ices and the richness of the rum, and found the drink to be refreshing, crisp and cold.
Tied for second place were Mojitos from Erbin Garcia at the Caña Rum Bar in Los Angeles, and John De Piper from Sally Roots in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Garcia’s recipe, which was built in the glass, asked for muddled mint, two ounces of Plantation 3 Star, one ounce of lime juice, three-quarters of an ounce of simple syrup, a single dash of Angostura bitters and one-and-a-half ounces of soda water. (In this case, the bitters escaped the judges’ attention, as it was minimal and fully integrated into the overall drink.)
De Piper’s Mojito was shaken briefly with a few pieces of pebble ice and then strained into a glass filled with more pebble ice. The ingredients included two ounces of Real McCoy 3 Year rum, one ounce lime juice and—in its most singular feature—a sweetener blend of three-quarters of an ounce of cane syrup (De Piper prefers either Rhum JM or Petite Canne) and a brown sugar cube. This led to a slightly sweeter Mojito—and one that was deeply colored, owing to the brown sugar—but with great flavor and body.
Also singled out for approval were the Mojitos of Austin Hartman of Paradise Lounge, in Ridgewood, Queens, who called for three different rums; and Sarah Morrissey of Frenchette in Manhattan, who used Banks 5 Island rum.
If you live near any of these places, the panel’s advice was to beat a path there before the summer is out. “It’s a hot weather drink,” reminded Caiafa. “The first hot day you order one, and the last hot day you order one.”