Amanda Berne | Special to The San Franciso Chronicle
Two Mojitos, please.
Mark Edwards, bartender at Habana in San Francisco, smiles and says, “Of course.”
Behind him, rows of glasses are carefully stuffed with mint sprigs. Edwards grabs a glass and muddles the mint. The whole room smells fresh as the fragrance takes over. Next comes an entire lime and a large pour of simple syrup. He fills the glass with ice and tops it with rum—lots of it—and a splash of soda to finish it off.
“We sell 1,000 Mojitos in a week,” said Sam DuVall, owner of Habana. “Mojitos are popular because they are strong, but they don’t taste strong.”
In fact, many Bay Area restaurants are finding the Mojito in high demand. The drink, one of mint’s more popular incarnations, has shoved aside the Cosmopolitanas the drink a la mode. And at each bar, it takes on a noticeably different character.
The Mojito speaks of summertime; something enjoyed on a lazy Sunday afternoon with friends as you fire up the barbecue. Mojitos, as we know them, were born in Cuba in the mid-1800s. The history of the drink changes depending on who tells it, but according to Pepin Argamasilla, historian for Bacardi Global Brands, a similar drink was created by Sir Francis Drake.
MID-16TH CENTURY CONCOCTION
Drake invented the Draque, which used lime, sugar, mint and aguardiente, a sugarcane liquor similar to rum. The Draque gained popularity in Cuba during the mid-16th century when Drake used the island as a gateway to dominate other nations.
Around 1862, says Argamasilla, Don Facundo Bacardi Masso created Bacardi, a light rum, which was easier on the palate than the harsh aguardiente. Mojito, which comes from the African word mojo (a little spell), was the new name for the Draque, and the drink and its name have maintained popularity since.
Mention Mojitos and most people have an opinion on how to make it or where to find the best in the Bay Area. From dive bars in the Mission to trendy restaurants in the Castro, Mojitos are getting top billing.
The ingredients don’t change, but the style does. Some places use granulated sugar while others use simple syrup. Some bartenders muddle the mint, others, such as the owners of Amber Bar in the Castro, find that mashing approach excessive.
Nikole Pearce, co-owner and bartender of Amber, tears the mint into shreds and lets the muddling occur as the mint is shaken with the ice.
“It’s a much less aggressive way to handle the mint,” says Pearce. “People love Mojitos. Most people see me making it and say, ‘I want one.’ ”
Finding a decent Mojito is tough. Finding a great Mojito is near impossible.
Each place serves up an original version, but few really stand out.
“I think that making a good Mojito really shows the skill of the bartender, ” says Pearce.
Three spots in San Francisco are known for great Mojitos: Cha Cha Cha, Amber and Habana.
At Cha Cha Cha, a Caribbean restaurant in the Mission district, the Mojito has a strong mint flavor with a heavy-handed tartness. The amount of simple syrup creates just the right balance to cut through the lime.
“On a busy night, we’ll sell over 100 Mojitos,” says bar manager Jeff Hanford. When Hanford put the drink on the menu five years ago, only a few, if any, would sell each night.
Amber, a bar in the Castro, serves a vibrant Mojito. It is fresh and minty, tart and sweet, and with just enough fizz to tickle the back of the tongue on the way down.
Then came Habana on Russian Hill. The mint was mashed but not obliterated, the rum was plentiful without being overwhelming and the lime was tart, but even. The tall Mojito glasses looked stunning, with jewels of mint suspended in the slightly cloudy liquid. The sugarcane swizzle sticks are the same garnish used at El Floridita in Havana.
“The reason most people don’t get the taste right is that they don’t take the mint off the stems,” says DuVall. “The stems make it bitter.”
“Ours is the original Mojito from El Floridita in Cuba,” he says. “If you’re over there and you drink enough of them and tip well, they’ll give you the recipe.”
HABANA’s “ORIGINAL MOJITO”
This is Habana restaurant’s version of the Mojito from El Floridita in Cuba.
Sugarcane swizzle sticks are available online at [url=http://www.melissas.com]http://www.melissas.com,[/url] and at some Hispanic grocers. Muddlers can be found in many kitchen supply stores; if you can’t find one, simply use the handle of a wooden spoon.
How to make a mojito
12 fresh mint leaves
Juice of 1 lime
1 ounce simple syrup
3 ounces Rom Matusalem rum, or white rum
2 ounces soda water
Sugarcane stick (optional)
Muddle the mint leaves in a 14-ounce glass to release the oils. Add the lime juice and simple syrup. Fill the glass with ice and add the rum. Top off with soda water.
Pour into a shaker and close the lid tightly. Shake vigorously. Pour back into the glass, allowing the Mojito to run down the sides of the glass.
Serve garnished with mint leaves and sugarcane.
PER SERVING: 220 calories, 0 protein, 7 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 13 mg sodium, 0 fiber.
This was deemed the Best Way Mojito by The Chronicle Food and Wine staff in Oct. 2002.
10 to 12 fresh mint leaves
Juice of 1 lime
1 1/2 ounces simple syrup, or 2 to 3 tablespoons ultrafine sugar
2 ounces Bacardi Limon rum
Lime wedge and sprig of mint for garnish
Put the mint in a pint glass, then add the lime juice and simple syrup. Gently mash with a muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon until the mint begins to bruise and its essence rises from the glass.
Put ice in the glass. Add the rum, then fill with soda water. Stir with a long spoon, lifting the mint so it disperses throughout the drink.
Garnish with lime wedge and sprig of mint.
PER SERVING: 235 calories, 0 protein, 27 g carbohydrate, 0 fat, 0 cholesterol, 51 mg sodium, 0 fiber.