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 Cuba’s capital city and a tour of its 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 in Havana:
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.
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.
The wooden bar? Timeworn and branded by past patrons. But that’s nothing compared to the establishment’s walls, which are quite literally covered in the signatures of former patrons, many famous.
The bartenders? Wearing traditional guayabera white cotton “wedding” shirts and no facial hair.
The mojito technique? Expert assembly line, with precisely four ice cubes in each highball glass. (One bartender I spoke with, Arturo, said he slings between 600 and 800 mojitos a day.) The taste? Minty and suave.
And the company? Excellent. I chatted in English with tourists from Mexico and Puerto Rico, between attempts at dancing to the live salsa band’s energetic renditions of traditional Cuban hits.
I sensed a whiff of controversy at La Fontana, an upscale paladar (owner-run restaurant) with a modern mirror-meets-koi pond atmosphere befitting its location in Havana’s well-heeled Miramar embassy district. Because when I asked the mixologist, Adrian Rivero, where he got his mint, which is sometimes in short supply in the city, he glared at me with the accusatory intensity of a vegetarian who has discovered a speck of meat hidden in the vegetables.
“This is not mint!” he cried, brandishing a bunch of what looked suspiciously like mint from behind his sleek bar. “This is yerba buena. Try it.”
When I chewed a leaf I understood. Yerba buena is definitely more delicate and citrusy than the chewing-gum flavored variety of mint growing in my garden back home. Rivero also adds a dash of hard-to-procure Angostura bitters to his perfectly balanced mojito to cut the sweetness of the cane sugar. Arriba!
Though La Guarida is Havana’s oldest, and arguably its most famous, paladar—located in an apartment where Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) was filmed—I still felt like Indiana Jones as I passed through the massive wooden portico into its grand, dilapidated entrance hall.
As private paladars tend to fly under the radar, it’s useless to look for a neon sign. Lucky for us, there was no where to go but up (and up) the majestic staircase to the top floor and into a lovely rabbit warren of movie-set-worthy dining rooms bursting with crystal chandeliers, burnished silver, etched glass windowpanes, time-worn white linen and mismatched art deco-era chairs.
Only one thing was needed to complete a scene that felt ripped straight from the sepia-toned Havana of yesteryear. A mojito and a cigar. After the steamy climb, La Guarida’s strong, sparkling mojito quenched my thirst like no other of the trip. As for the cigar, this non-smoker did indulge—for the sake of authenticity—in one of La Guarida’s private label Cubans. And it tasted vaguely of chocolate, so I didn’t even cough.
There’s hardly a more poetic place to enjoy a mojito than on a cobblestone terrace at the base of the Torrean de la Chorrera, a 17th-century fortified stone tower on the Havana waterfront.
This is one hyper-local hangout. In fact, I’m not even sure of the bar-restaurant’s name, but if you head to the historic tower, located in the atmospheric Vedado neighborhood, on a sunny weekend afternoon or early evening, and find a seat under one of the parasol-shaded plastic tables outside, you’ll have a fine view of the city’s legendary five-mile-long seaside malecon.
The mojitos are tasty, if a bit watery, but that means your legs will still be steady if you plan to head over to the new Fabrica di Arte Cubano avant-garde art center in Vedado or opt for a scenic stroll back to Old Havana.
Sometimes—no, always—a spectacular view from a history-soaked spot is worth the price of a mediocre drink. Given the 19th-century cannons sunken into the hilltop lawn at Hotel Nacional de Cuba, visitors like me are far from the first to appreciate the site’s strategic location overlooking Havana’s picturesque port.
It’s worth taking time to explore the hotel’s well-preserved interior; an unusual amalgam of Moorish tiles, carved wood, and Cuban revolutionary memorabilia that has attracted a long list of A-listers—from Ava Gardner and Winston Churchill to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara—since the massive grande dame opened its doors in 1930.
After peeking into the hotel’s musty bar, I decided to drink in the atmosphere (and a run-of-the-mill mojito) from a wicker armchair on the terracotta patio as peacocks strutted about nearby. After sunset, I migrated to one of the wrought iron tables on the lawn for another round, made memorable by the echo of the past mingling with the lights of modern-day Havana twinkling down below.