Tropical storm Gabrielle is skirting the Outer Banks today, sending us cooling breezes but not a drop of rain.
That makes this evening perfect for drinks in the garden. Also perfect for drinks from the garden. Right now, I’m sipping a classic mojito, packed with just-plucked mint leaves and splashed with the juice of a lime.
According to an article in the Miami Herald, the name of the drink comes from the African “mojo,” which means “to place a spell”—no surprise to the legions who have fallen under the enchantment of this potent drink. Rumor has it that the mojito was “invented” in 1589 when the English navigator and sometime pirate Sir Francis Drake tried but failed to plunder Havana for its gold. To soothe his ire, perhaps, another pirate, Richard Drake, concocted a drink made of aguardiente (“firewater,” probably made from fermented sugar cane juice) mixed with sugar, lime and mint. He named it “El Draque” (“The Dragon”), after Sir Francis Drake’s nom de guerre.
Can this be true? Others claim that the mojito was really invented by African slaves working in the Cuban sugar cane fields during the 19th century. It’s said that slaves drank both aguardiente, and guarapo, fresh sugar cane juice, and the stories may have become muddled—in theory, if not in fact. However it evolved, recipes for the mojito were found in bartending manuals by the 1930s. In Cuba, and again Key West, it was a favorite of Ernest Hemingway who first sampled it at La Bodeguita del Medio, a popular bar and restaurant in Havana.
There are a thousand spins on the mojito, but Bacardi’s classic recipe is a good starting point. I use fresh peppermint leaves from the garden instead of the recommended spearmint, though the latter would also be delicious. The key thing is to “muddle” or crush a dozen leaves gently in the bottom of the glass to release their flavor, before adding the other ingredients. You can buy all sorts of muddlers, including elegant ones made of Honduran rosewood, but I find that the non-business end of a pestle works very well. (That way you avoid any other flavors that may linger on the pestle.) You could also use the plunger from a juicer, a small wooden mallet, or just about any long-handled implement with a flat end that can be inserted in a glass.
Because I love lime, I use the juice of a whole fruit–or two Key limes, if I can find them–instead of the half that Barcardi suggests. And to balance out the flavors, another tablespoon or two of simple syrup. (To be truly authentic, you should use sugar cane juice.) Oh yes, and I substitute Pellegrino for club soda and use a lot less of it.
But in the end, this really is a classic mojito, one that even El Draque would enjoy.
Spellbinding Mojito with Mint and Lime
(adapted from bacardimojito.com)
To make 1 mojito
12 fresh mint leaves (peppermint or spearmint)
Ice to fill the glass
1-1/2 ounces rum
3 tablespoons simple syrup, or to taste (see note)
Juice of one lime, or to taste
3 to 4 ounces Pellegrino (or club soda)
Sprig of mint for garnish
1. Put the mint leaves in the bottom of a tall glass. Gently smash or “muddle” the leaves with a muddler, pestle or other instrument to release their flavor.
2. Fill the glass with ice. Add the rum, simple syrup and lime juice. Stir to mix well.
3. Top off the glass with Pellegrino or club soda. Stir again. Taste and adjust the flavorings, if desired. Serve with a sprig of mint.
Note: To make simple syrup, combine one cup sugar and one cup water in a small saucepan. Stir and bring to a boil. When the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat and set aside to cool. Refrigerate before adding to a cold drink.