Original Cuban Mojito: Hierbabuena or Spearmint?

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UPDATE: a considerably better American Spearmint recipe, after the Cuban Hierbabuena recipe.

My first Mojito was made with spearmint.  The drink was pretty good, but the taste seemed a little bit off.  Maybe it was the wrong rum, I thought, doesn’t mix well with mint.

Weeks later I received a surprise visitor from Cuba, who brought me a souvenir paper napkin with a Cuban bartender’s handwritten recipe from the most popular Mojito spot in Havana.

“What’s hierbabuena?” I asked, “Is that spearmint?

“No. The Cuban mint isn’t very minty,” he replied.

I made him a spearmint Mojito, and he said it was not the Cuban taste. I Googled hierbabuena, and ordered some from a Canadian nursery. The mint has a citrus-like flavor that comes from the stem, whereas spearmint has a minty flavor from oils in the leaves.

Spearmint smells like chewing gum, but hierbabuena has an herbal fragrance with just a hint of mint. The Mojitos they make are completely different, so here are recipes for the Cuban Mojito (hierbabuena) and the American Mojito (spearmint).

Cuban Mojito

  • 1½ ounces Bacardi Superior or Havana Club 3 Anos white rum
  • 1½ teaspoons white sugar (or 1 heaping teaspoon or barspoon)
  • 1/3 ounce (2 teaspoons) fresh Key (or Mexican) lime juice
  • 2 sprigs hierbabuena (preferably with dark stems)
  • 2 ounces and a splash of sparkling mineral water (Topo Chico is recommended)
  • 2 or 3 large cubes of ice

Add the sugar, lime juice, and hierbabuena with a splash of mineral water to a tall glass.  With a muddler or a wooden spoon, press lightly on the stems, rather than the leaves.  Add the 2 ounces of mineral water, then the ice cubes, then the rum.  Serve with a straw, cut off to about 2 inches above the rim of the glass.

If you put 2 teaspoons of sugar in this drink, it’s noticeably sweet. Cubans often add a dash or two of Angostura bitters to this drink, and it’s good!

What Kind of Lime?

Many Cuban and Caribbean cocktails taste better if they are made with Key lime juice. Key limes can be found in Latino markets and most Walmart stores in the United States.

Regular limes aren’t as good in this drink, but they’re good enough.  A better taste, if you don’t have Key limes, comes from mixing 2 parts of lemon juice with 3 parts regular lime juice. Use ¾ ounce of this mix, with 2 teaspoons of sugar and 3 ounces of mineral water.

The Rum

Bacardi Superior is the original rum for this drink, and it’s recommended. Havana Club 3 has a stronger sugarcane taste, and is the preferred rum in Cuba. Gold rum will make a slightly sweeter “dirty mojito”.

This hierbabuena recipe is adapted from La Bodeguita del Medio, the famous bar in Old Havana, Cuba. Click on link below to order hierbabuena from Richters herb farm in Canada.

http://www.richters.com/Web_store/web_store.cgi?product=X4025

Gently muddle the stems, not the leaves.

Spearmint Mojito Recipe

  • 1½ ounces white rum (Flor de Caña Extra Dry)
  • 8 to 10 thumb-sized spearmint leaves (removed from stems)
  • ¾ ounce regular lime juice
  • ¾ ounce simple syrup
  • 1 lime wedge
  • 2 ounces mineral water and a splash of mineral water
  • cubes of ice
  • A neatly-groomed sprig of spearmint, for garnish
  • A dash of Angostura bitters, optional

— Muddle the spearmint, lime juice, and lime wedge in a mixing glass.  Add the simple syrup, rum, and 3 large ice cubes, and shake until chilled.  Pour all of the contents of the mixing glass into a tall glass or Collins glass, and add 2 ounces of Topo Chico or other sparkling mineral water.  Garnish with an optional mint sprig, and serve with a straw.

Do not muddle spearmint stems in this drink, because, unlike hierbabuena, the stems have a bitter taste.

Flor de Cana for American Mojito

Check your local nursery, as some of them are now providing mojito mint.  Note: The Bonnie brand mint being sold as Yerba Buena at Lowe’s and Walmart is spearmint (mentha spicata).  Cuban Mojito Mint is mentha villosa.

Growing Mojito Mint

Like spearmint, hierbabuena (also called hierba buena, yerba buena, or yerbabuena) grows like a weed, and is harder to kill than to grow.  However, there’s a way to get better sprigs.

  • Plant in rich soil that drains well, but retains moisture
  • Use a 10-inch or larger pot.  If planted in a garden, confine the roots, or they will take over the garden.
  • The plants like lots of water, but don’t waterlog them.  Let plants dry out a little before watering again, to develop more flavor.
  • Fertilize every few months.
  • Keep plants cut back to 10 or 12 inches tall, or it will get spindly and ungle.  I keep most of it cut back, except the sprigs I plan on using.
  • Hierbabuena grows best in the sun or partial shade.  In hot summers, it likes morning sun or partial shade.  Planting in pots allows you to move them around.
  • After cutting sprigs, be sure to rinse them before using, or you may get a cute tiny spider in your drink.

If the leaves are chewed up, or have holes, look for little green worms on the undersides of leaves.  They’re hard to find, as they match the color of leaves and stems.

If the leaves on top are curled up, check for tiny aphids, which are tiny and black-colored.  They cluster together at the tip of a few sprigs, so pinch off the affected sprigs and stomp on them. If aphids get overwhelming, soak the entire plant with Neem Oil Spray, and then wait for new mint sprigs to pop up before cutting off the sprigs that had been soaked in Neem Oil.

When white spots or streaks appear on leaves, it’s usually tiny spider mites.  Spray plants with vodka, or 1 part alcohol to 4 parts water, during a time when the plants are in the shade.  The spray will also reveal the mite’s tiny webs. Use Neem oil to stop them from breeding.

To get rid of whiteflies without pesticides, place a bright yellow piece of cardstock or plastic coated with motor or mineral oil, and the flies will be attracted to it and get stuck on it. Use Neem Oil to stop them from breeding.

When the roots fill the container, slice down the middle of the dirt with a sharp knife. Remove 1/2 of the root ball and replant it in a separate pot (give it to a friend) or toss it out.  Fill the empty half of the pot with new soil, then water.

If the whole plant looks raggedy, cut it all back to soil level.  It will grow back. In hotter climates, the temperature will get hotter than Havana in July and August.  Keep the plant in a shady area, and cut back sprigs that look too spindly.

In freezing climates, say Chicago, the mint will grow back in the spring, if it’s planted in the ground and not in a pot. You can also keep a plant indoors, in a south-facing window. The plant will not thrive, but it will live until you put it outside in the spring.

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