[Editor's Note: This post is part of a five-part blog collection about the inspirations for island cocktails served on Isla Palenque. Read the introductory post "The Joys of Mixology" and visit the bottom of this post for all posts in the Island Cocktails series.]
You can mention the names of our “Holy Trinity” of classic Latin cocktails in any bar around the world and you won’t be met with a blank stare – but the same cannot be said of our next three classic cocktails: the Mojito, the Caipirinha, and the Pisco Sour. After providing a little information about the ingredients and history of each drink, I’ve included the recipe we use when mixing these up on Isla Palenque. They appear on the cocktail menu for our resort’s bars and restaurants not only because they’re refreshing tropical cocktails, already ubiquitously enjoyed in their home countries and gaining in popularity elsewhere, but also because they’re very cool, very singular drinks that deserve to be counted among the classic cocktails of Latin America.
Frankly, the Mojito should oust the Piña Colada from the trio of classic Latin cocktails I’ve characterized as “The Holy Trinity”: it bears a rich and storied history, derives as much from the process as the ingredients, and is a beautifully singular drink. Made with mint, lime, and club soda, the Mojito is incredibly bright and refreshing, and oh-so-perfect for a hot summer day, or virtually any day on Isla Palenque or in Cuba, where the drink was born.
The exact history and origin of the Mojito remains a mystery, though it is universally agreed to have originated in Cuba as one of the more intoxicating applications for the guarapo de caña (sugar cane juice) that is still very prevalent in tropical Latin America. By the nineteenth century, the Mojito more or less existed as the 5-ingredient highball we know today.
Equally famous for his drinking as for his writing, Hemingway, named the Mojito one of his two preferred drinks while living in Cuba. The drink has seen a big resurgence in the last decade or two, and is now almost as readily-available in North American bars as popular tropical cocktails like the Margarita or Hemingway’s other tropical favorite, the Daiquirí.
The addition of mint makes the drink somewhat unique, but it’s the sugar and method of preparation that really gives the Mojito its character. While the sugar in a Mojito definitely acts as a sweetener to balance the tartness of the lime with the zip of the club soda and potent flavor of the rum, you can’t just substitute simple syrup like you can with many other cocktail recipes. This is because sugar crystals fulfill an important role in preparation, bringing out the essential oils of the lime rind and mint leaves that give the drink its special flavor.
It starts with a just-picked lime and some fresh mint leaves, which are lightly bruised and thrown into a rocks glass; then, you add the sugar and vigorously muddle it all together in the glass, making sure those sugar crystals really abrade the zest. A wooden muddler is ideal, but a spoon will suffice, especially if you tilt the glass and muddle between the bottom and sides where the angle of the spoon will work better.
After muddling, the remaining ingredients are added one at a time to allow the final element, your fizzy club soda, to bubble through this carefully-constructed cocktail just when you’re ready to sit back and slowly sip one of Latin America’s great signature drinks.
Recipe for a perfect Mojito:
- 2 ounces of white rum (if you live outside the US, I’d suggest Havana Club Anejo Blanco, but even Bacardi will work fine in this drink)
- 2-4 lime wedges (enough to provide about 1/2 ounce of lime juice)
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- 8 to 12 mint leaves
- Club soda
Quarter a small, ripe lime and squeeze the wedges into a rocks or highball glass. Toss the spent wedges into the glass; then, lightly crush the mint leaves between your fingers and throw these into the glass along with the sugar and muddle vigorously for 30 seconds. Pour in the rum and stir to make certain all sugar is dissolved. Fill the glass 2/3 full with ice, and top everything with club soda to fill the glass and give it all a final stir to mix the soda in. Garnish with a sprig or three of mint leaves.
The Caipirinha is a Brazilian drink at the conceptual intersection of the Daiquirí and the Mojito: it’s the liquor-sugar-lime combination of the Daiquirí muddled in the manner of a Mojito. However, unlike the Daiquirí or Mojito, the Caipirinha has something of a “secret ingredient”: cachaça. Cachaça is basically a type of rum in that it is also a product of sugar cane, but unlike rum (which is distilled from a more highly-refined molasses), cachaça is made from fresh sugar cane juice. This gives it a much stronger flavor than rum: almost earthy and grassy. It’s not a flavor many like straight, but when combined with the other ingredients of the Caipirinha, it becomes quite appealing.
While the traditional recipe calls for cachaça, people will sometimes substitute rum. But to me, this is a big mistake: if you substitute regular rum, you lose the essence of the cocktail, and are basically just drinking a Daiquirí with a slightly different preparation.
Recipe for a perfect Caipirinha:
- 2 ounces of cachaça (replace with white rum over my objections, if you must)
- 2-4 lime wedges (enough to provide about 1/2 ounce of lime juice)
- 2 teaspoons of sugar
Squeeze the limes into a rocks glass and muddle the juice, spent lime wedges, and sugar together. Pour in the cachaça, and fill the glass with ice (the muddled limes stay in the glass); stir it all together a bit and then garnish with a twig of fresh sugar cane if you can find one.
The last in my survey of classic Latin drinks is the Pisco Sour. I’m fairly certain it should be considered wholly Peruvian, though I am also fairly certain that about 17 million people in Chile would strongly disagree with me. In any case, let’s ignore that little controversy and just stick with the birth of the drink, via generally accepted history: the Pisco Sour was invented in Lima, Peru in the 1920s. The Peruvian and Chilean versions of the cocktail differ in a number of ways, and while both have their merits, I prefer the Peruvian version by far. Why? Egg whites and bitters.
In addition to its being fought over by neighboring South American countries, there are two good reasons to include the Pisco Sour in our survey of classic Latin cocktails. One is that is uses pisco, a clear aromatic brandy unique to Peru and Chile. The other is that it uses egg whites and bitters, which were both very common in old-fashioned cocktails from the nineteenth century but which lost favor after Prohibition (especially egg whites), and which makes the Pisco Sour a very old-school, classy cocktail. The Pisco Sour is the most obscure of the Latin cocktails I’ve described, but there are some bars in the US where you can order one, and in Panama they are not uncommon at all.
Recipe for a perfect (Peruvian) Pisco Sour:
- 2 ounces of pisco
- 1 ounce of strained lime juice (adjust if required, based on how sour you like your Pisco)
- 3/4 ounce of simple syrup
- 1 egg white
- 1-2 dashes of Angostura bitters
Pour the pisco, lime, syrup, and egg white into a cocktail shaker with cubed ice up to the level of the liquid. Shake the bejeezus out of it, for about 30 seconds; this will get the egg white to foam up nicely. Strain everything into a rocks or old-fashioned glass, then throw a dash or two of bitters on top of the foam. Breathe in the aroma of the bitters and let the foam roll over your tongue as you take your first sip.
A full list of posts in the Island Cocktails series:
- The Joys of Mixology: Classic Cocktails on Isla Palenque
- Classic Latin Cocktails: Part I (The Holy Trinity), Part II
- Vintage Cocktails for the Tropics
- The Tiki Drink