The Mojito

Of course there’s a National Mojito Day, and of course it would fall in July. No other month could be more appropriate for a cocktail that defines summer refreshment. But is it really a British invention?

Everybody is familiar with the mojito, right? Arguably one of the few cocktails that has global recognition thanks to its simplicity, taste and position on the cocktail menu at every self-respecting holiday resort anywhere in the world.

Traditionally viewed as a classic Cuban highball, it seems obvious that a drink with a Spanish sounding name, based on the combination of rum, lime and sugar cane simply must be a Latin American invention.

But what if I told you that as well as being credited with bringing the potato, tobacco and existence of California to British attention, Sir Francis Drake is also responsible for the discovery of the Mojito? Stay with me, it’s not as far-fetched as it may seem.

Sir Francis Drake

Drake was a naval captain, explorer, ‘privateer’ (i.e. state-sanctioned pirate) and err, slave trader of the sixteenth century. A highly regarded hero of the Royal Navy at the height of the wave-ruling era of British history. Of course the two things that any student of history can tell you about the Royal Navy are that (a) it ran almost entirely on rum; and (b) it suffered terribly with issues of scurvy, which it eventually resolved by liberal application of lime juice to the extent that ‘limey’ remains a derogatory term for a Brit to this day. Can you see where this is going?

While Havana, Cuba remains the feted birthplace of the mojito, its history can be traced to a drink known as El Draque which earnt its name in 1586 when a Royal Navy boarding party popped ashore in Cuba to ask the locals if they had a remedy for the dysentery and scurvy that was decimating their crew. The South American Indians offered some local ingredients: aguardiente de caña (a forerunner of rum made from sugar cane), lime, sugarcane juice, and mint. Modern medicine would have told Drake that the lime juice alone would have helped treat his sick sailors, but this being the Royal Navy, there was no way that they were going to rely on a non-alcoholic cure to their ailments, so they mixed the lot together, just to be on the safe side.

Naval Cocktails

Granted, this is only one story, and it seems likely, given the offering of the ingredients, that the locals were already drinking this combination, and in any event, the drink wasn’t yet known as the mojito. However, it does give us the first recorded (by westerners) combination of these ingredients. It also serves as a potential starting point for the Royal Navy’s excellent dipsological experiments in the world of ‘medicinal’ cocktails as the service also gave us the Gimlet (prescribed by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Desmond Gimlette to “fortify and immunise” against scurvy), the gin and tonic (containing malaria-preventing quinine) and the pink gin (containing aromatic bitters, a commonly received cure for seasickness).

Modern Mojito

I also had my first mojito after stepping ashore from an ocean-going vessel, albeit in Portugal in the summer of 2008 rather than Cuba in 1586, and while I wasn’t (fortunately) suffering from scurvy or dysentery, I welcomed the refreshing and reviving qualities of the drink all the same. 

We gulped down several that evening as the sun disappeared behind the hills of Portimao, and at the time I was unaware of the history of the drink and its ties to the Royal Navy, but looking back now, it seems fitting that this was a continuance of the long affinity between sailors and the mojito.

Recipe

  1. Gently muddle 10 fresh mint leaves in the base of a chilled highball glass.
  2. Add 50ml white rum, 25ml fresh lime juice and 12.5ml sugar syrup.
  3. Stir gently, then gradually add crushed ice and keep stirring until the glass is full.
  4. Churn well and add a splash of soda.
  5. Top with crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint.