Finding an island rhythm with mojitos at Cuba Cuba

A recent trip to Puerto Rico, aka America's funky Latin cousin, inspired me to take a crack at the drinks of the Caribbean. Especially the mojito, the drink of Cuba -- aka America's brother-in-law who never gets invited to the baby showers.

At Cuba Cuba Cafe & Bar in the Golden Triangle, owner Kristy Socarras Bigelow has been serving what she calls Colorado's original mojito since the place opened in 2001. "Growing up in Cuba, they always had them around," she says. "It's just such a cool-looking drink. As soon as it hit the menu, people were loving it." But why did the drink take so long to catch on, and then to prove it had real staying power?

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The time: 2002. The place: the hallowed pages of the New York Times. "Succeeding the daiquiri and the Cuba Libre, this year's round of arcaded Latin nostalgia is being distilled quickly in the mojito, with its gentle memory of rum, lime and mint," William L. Hamilton noted. Once the mojito was blessed by the Gray Lady, its status as the hip drink of the mid-2000s was complete.

For a three-to-six-year period, it was pure mojito mania in the United States. They were fashioned in every fruit flavor under the sun, bottled as premixed drinks, made into cookies and cupcakes, and adulterated with every possible combination of liquors and liqueurs. Muddling-induced carpal tunnel syndrome ran rampant in the bartending community.

Mojito bars sprang up to serve patrons a taste of South Beach decadence. Denver even boasts a holdover from those days: The Mynt Mojito Lounge is still going in LoDo, years after the drink ceased being tragically hip and became another cocktail standby.

For all its associations with flash and glamor, the mojito has relatively humble origins: As with so many other cocktails, no one quite knows who came up with it. As a combination of two of the Old World's most prized commodities -- raw sugar and distilled rum -- it makes sense that an early version of the drink would be called the Draque, after famous explorer Sir Francis Drake. Originally a simple fieldworker's drink, the addition of ice and soda water elevated the mojito to the level of the higher classes.

The mojito also benefits from what's informally called the Hemingway Effect. Along with daiquiris and clipped, masculine prose, mojitos gained immensely from their association with the author. And so did his favorite mojito spot, La Bodeguita del Medio in Havana. This restaurant became such a symbol of the city's tourist economy that it was bombed in 1997 in an attempt to starve the state of tourist dollars. But it's hard to keep a good mojito down.

Here on the other side of the blockade, Socarras Bigelow -- whose parents grew up on the island -- says she'll put her mojito up against any other version out there. Thanks to the inclusion of mint-infused Bacardi Limón rum, the Cuba Cuba mojito has a a complex, multi-layered flavor, not as crystal-clear as the traditional version, but certainly stronger. Socarras Bigelow says the infused rum ensures that you can actually recognize the mint.

"My first bartender and I were messing around with a couple recipes, and we let the mint sit for a couple of hours one day, and you could really taste it," she says.

Socarras Bigelow wasn't even going to put a mojito on the menu, until her father insisted: "Back then, people weren't really drinking mojitos yet. He was like, 'Put it on, trust me.' I said, 'Why is anyone gonna want a mojito in Denver?'"

But more than a decade later, mojito mania is still going strong on at Cuba Cuba. And Socarras Bigelow was gracious enough to provide us with the house recipe, which has been largely the same since the restaurant opened.

Cuba Cuba Mojito Ingredients:

2 oz. mint-infused Bacardi Limón rum (approx.) 1 tsp simple syrup 4 sections lime 10 leaves mint Club soda (To taste)

Muddle lime and mint together in a Collins glass. Add ice, rum and syrup. Top with club soda and garnish with lime. Suddenly, with the spirit of Hemingway guiding you, you're going to write that novel you've always talked about, by God.

With every installment of Coming of Age with 21 Drinks, I'll be featuring a cocktail recipe cooked up by me or the bar itself. Have a suggestion for a place I should visit? Post it below.