When bartenders from the United States migrated to Cuba seeking jobs during the Prohibition era they brought cocktail culture along with their shakers.

In Havana, at established watering holes like El Floridita—where expatriates like Ernest Hemingway would seek respite from the city’s sultry heat—they found expert cantineros who were already mixing local rum with fresh fruit juices. As the 1930s gave way to the war years and then the 1950s, a distinctive Cuban rum highball-on-ice canon developed and solidified.

Of the resulting daiquiri-Cuba Libre-mojito triumvirate, the mojito stands above the others as the quintessential Cuban cocktail. Unlike the others, its honest mélange has remained untainted by bottled mixes, Coca Cola, or Spring Break excess.

The traditional mojito consists of five ingredients: white rum (in Cuba it’s Havana Club), cane sugar, fresh-squeezed lime juice, sparkling water, and muddled mint.

Yet it took a trip to Havana and a tour of mojito hot spots to understand how this simple mixture can express so much more than the sum of its parts.

Here are five ways to savor Cuba’s signature cocktail:

Classic

Hemingway is said to have declared that he liked his daiquiris at El Floridita and his mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio. And in Havana, there’s no arguing with the ghost of Papa. Especially if you ask the hundreds of mojito-swilling tourists who jam up the tiny street in front of the bar during daylight hours.

La Bodeguita del Medio claims to be the birthplace of the mojito, but the cocktails origins remain a spirited topic of debate. (Photograph by jvc, flickr)
La Bodeguita del Medio claims to be the birthplace of the mojito, but the cocktail’s origins remain a spirited topic of debate. (Photograph by jvc, flickr)

So I went at night, instead. In the dusky shadows of La Habana Vieja, the city’s old town, you almost feel like Hemingway is alive. Perhaps he’d still feel at home at the storefront bar, like I did.

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