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Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2009

Kańa Mojito Lounge Takes the Time to Make It Right

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Good things come to those who wait… even at a bar. At Kana (201 W. Mitchell St.), Milwaukee’s first mojito lounge, a little patience is rewarded with bartender Juan Solano’s expertly crafted Cuban cocktails that pack a mighty minty wallop. To not rush its preparation is the distinction between a good mojito and a great one.

From its origins and etymology to the ingredients used in the original recipe, it seems all aspects of the mojito are up for debate. It is such a rudimentary concoction—rum, water, sugar, lime and mint— that it’s understandable why it’s hard to pin down when and where it came from. The Miami-based Mojito Co. is a reliable source for all-things-mojito, from sugar cane, shakers, muddlers and glasses to the cocktail’s seasoned history.

A beverage similar to the mojito existed as far back as the late-16th century, though the mojito as we know it is thought to have originated in Havana, Cuba, in the late-1800s and gained popularity in the 1930s. Legend has it that an officer in the service of Elizabeth I of England added sugar, lime and mint to a viciously strong cane juice liquor called aguardiente to temper its afterburn. He named it “El Draque,” in honor of his cousin and commander, Sir Francis Drake, who in the eyes of the English was a hero who circumnavigated the globe (though in the eyes of the Spaniards, he was a pirate and slaver that made a career of pillaging South America and the Caribbean). Drake deemed Cuba his base island, which is seemingly how the concoction arrived there. Because sugar cane (and eventually the rum distilled from it) was so widely available in Cuba, the island became known for its sweet, rum-based drinks.

Interestingly, it was the daiquiri—also made with rum, lime juice and sugar— that was the longtime drink of choice in Havana. Some suggest the mojito simply evolved from the daiquiri, and bars that served daiquiris eventually offered mojitos. It was at La Bodeguita del Medio, a bar and restaurant popular with intellectuals, journalists and writers (including the great Ernest Hemingway), that the mojito really took off in Havana. Key West, Fla., just a short boat ride away, then embraced the Cuban cocktail. Once in the states, the mojito made its way to Miami, then New York, San Francisco and eventually Milwaukee’s Historic Mitchell Street.

The mojito has gone the way of the martini in that it has ventured way beyond its traditional recipe to include contemporary twists. In addition to new creations available as specials, Kana Mojito Lounge offers a collection of 15 creative and distinct mojitos (all $8) that suit one’s taste for something sweet, mild, spicy or tart. The menu asks, “You dare?” drink the mojito en fuego, a mixture of muddled mint, lime and sugar with Patron tequila, jalapeno juice and fresh sliced jalapenos. On the other end of the spectrum is the potent el blanco mojito, a blend of muddled mint, lime and sugar with Bacardi vanilla rum and Bacardi Limon. Kana’s concoctions are made with fruit purchased at a local market and served in tall glasses garnished with sugar-cane sticks.

To prepare the heart of the mojito—the mixture of muddled mint, lime juice and sugar—in advance helps speed things up at the bar, but it deprives the drink of its true, fresh flavor. Solano gently crushes the mint for each drink using a muddler before adding the alcohol and other ingredients. It doesn’t take long for patrons of Kana Mojito Lounge to know the results are well worth the wait. 

Photo by Kevin Gardner