Havana on five mojitos a day

The quest for the revered Cuban drink takes a surprising turn.

Havana is a stunning city, but let's get straight to the point. I didn't go to Cuba to sit on a beach, or to wander the capital's dazzling avenidas and calles. I went to Cuba on a mission of self-sacrifice, to do all the heavy lifting so that when you go to Havana, or to your own kitchen, you will know exactly what constitutes the perfect mojito.

My research began with a reference beverage at La Bodeguita del Medio, the claimed birthplace of the concoction. Here, as the story goes, with famous boozer and writer Ernest Hemingway as midwife, the revered drink rose frothing from Papa's high-ball. As I later discover, this is commercial hype, but it works around the world. There are dozens of pretenders, from Palo Alto to Prague, but the charm of the genuine Bodeguita is inversely proportional to the number of persons crammed into its narrow confines. When I arrived at noon on a weekday last December, the main bar was crowded with pickled patrons ignoring the Cuban variant of a mariachi band.

Eddy (right), the barman for 16 years, barely had time to explain what makes a good mojito. It clearly starts with the forearms: his are huge from the constant stirring of lime, sugar and mint leaves, of which there must be many. Then soda and finally rum. It tastes good, as the first mojito in Cuba should. But it doesn't transport.

Back at the Hotel Nacional, I try the terrace bar's offering. A tourist special: made for the jet-lagged who need something sweet, wet and alcoholic. Way too much ice. But the view of swaying palms and the overstuffed cushions on the wicker furniture compensate nicely.

Dany, who watches over the booze at the lobby bar at the Hotel Saratoga, agrees. “The Nacional pours them too sweet.” He's been mixing mojitos for eight years, and learned at the Nacional. He adds a dash of Angostura bitters to trim the sugar. He offers another tip: don't fall for the “luxury” version of a mojito made with more expensive Añejo (aged rum). “Añejo is too sweet.” Three-year-old Havana Club white rum is just fine.

I try another one at a paladar, one of Havana's family-run restaurants. Practically everything else — including the Bodeguita — is operated by the state. Not bad. But where's the oomph that made this drink's reputation?

It's not until I'm safely back in Canada that I begin to understand what's missing. Justo, a friend from Havana, comes to Toronto for a visit. He looks at the state of our limes and lemons and shakes his head pityingly. Cuban limes are somewhat, but not quite, like key limes. He sniffs at the spearmint. In Cuba, they use hierba buena, a kind of peppermint. The practice originated with the Spanish soldiers who invaded Cuba and imported the Moroccan medicinal practice of serving mint tea to aid digestion.

But Justo tries anyway. He tells me — I never thought to ask — that “mojito” is a diminutive of “mojo,” an assemblage of Cuban food flavouring prepared in a mortar and pestle. The grinding action on the mint — not just leaves but stem — in the abrading sugar releases a strong fragrance that is missing from the standard bar version. “Bartenders don't have patience for that,” says Justo. He runs a restaurant, he knows. Some crushed leaves rubbed along the rim complete the olfactory experience. I feel like I'm back in Havana. “Most tourists never experience the ideal mojito,” Justo says. “You have to make a friend of the barman.” Start with the standard serving, tip heavily. Return the next night, have a beer, tip heavily. Return the next night and say (in flawless Spanish no less), “Listen, I don't feel like I have had the real mojito experience. Make me one that you would make yourself.”

Then again, that may not work.

In the wee hours on my last night in Havana, I was drinking one last mojito with my Peruvian pal, Jorge, on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional. A waiter passed by, finishing up for the night. He glanced at our drinks and muttered something lightheartedly disparaging. I waited for the translation from Jorge.

“He says he wouldn't clean the floor with that shit.”

I asked what the waiter drank. I didn't need a translation.