If you've had a cocktail with rum, sugar, lime, soda and spearmint, it was probably called a mojito. That's fine with me -- I'm no cocktail cop -- but that's not what they're drinking in Havana.
A Cubano would no more make a spearmint mojito than a Kentuckian would serve up a peppermint julep in Louisville, and not expect to get run out of town faster than a Derby horse.
I learned about proper mojitos from an Irish relative who'd recently spent an evening in Old Havana, drinking at La Bodeguita del Medio, the home of the mojito.
Irish told me ribald stories and tales of Cuban hospitality, and I told him mojitos are vile.
"Maybe you're making them wrong," he replied, and produced a napkin with a recipe in the distinct Spanish script of his bartender.
"What's hierba buena?" I asked.
"I don't know...it looks like spearmint, but it's not," he said.
I dwell amongst Puerto Ricans, so I know better than to literally translate Caribbean ingredients. Sure enough, hierba buena is a completely different species of mint, and it ships from Canada.
Irish was correct, spearmint and hierba buena are identical. The difference is the essential oils, which emerge when you squeeze a sprig--the spearmint smells like a pack of Wrigley's gum, while the hierba buena is more herbal, with only the slightest hint of citrus and mint.
And in a mojito? Hierba buena provides a subtle warmth to the drink, not minty, but sultry. The cocktail went from worst to first on my list.
Cultivation of hierba Buena, like spearmint, is easy. I planted them in pots, because mints quickly overrun the garden. Both need well-draining soil, lots of water, sun or partial shade, and just one or two fertilizations per year.
A Cuban Mojito
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 1/4 oz. lime juice (1 key lime)
- a splash of mineral water (Topo Chico)
- 2 sprigs hierba buena
- 1 ½ oz. light rum (Flor de Cana Extra Dry)
- 2 oz. more mineral water
Macerate the sugar, lime juice, splash of mineral water, and sprigs of mint in a tall glass. Add rum, rest of mineral water, and 2 or 3 cubes of ice. Stir lightly with a straw.
Note: Press down on the stems and leaves with a muddler, but keep the sprig intact.
Irish's mojito is dry, but if you want one slightly sweeter, here's another version. Translation: 2 teaspoons sugar, ½ oz. lime, 1 ½ oz. rum, 3 oz. mineral water. If you lack hierba buena, press very lightly on some leaves of spearmint (stems are bitter), for an American mojito.
What did I say about translating ingredients? Cuban limes are a cross of lemon and lime flavors. I'm still calibrating, but 3 parts lime juice with 1 part lemon is best so far, followed by key lime juice.
Many people who like American mojitos enjoy them more than Cuban ones, whereas first-time mojito drinkers and mojito haters definitely prefer the hierba buena. You now have a choice.