Hemingway and Mojitos

Hemingway and Mojitos


Mark Rose

According to several Hemingway and Mojito-related websites, American writer Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink was the Cuban mojito. Some claim he is the one who made mojitos popular.  This is believed to be largely based on a marketing campaign by the Havana bar where he drank them – together with a probably forged hand-written inscription on the wall of the bar professing the author’s love for the drink.  

The mojito, however, is a sweet rum-based drink and actually contrary to Hemingway’s preference for dry alcoholic drinks. Also, the inscription on the bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, is likely a forgery, according to a handwriting expert consulted by a Hemingway historian interviewed for the website in which this information was featured. It also needs to be remembered that Hemingway suffered from diabetes in his later years, thus he avoided sugary drinks.  

Hemingway, though notorious for his drinking, didn’t drink while he wrote.  He says famous American author William Faulkner did.  During an interview, he said: “Have you ever heard of anyone who drank while he worked?  You’re thinking of Faulkner.  He does sometimes – and I can tell right in the middle of a page when he’s had his first one.”  So even though it’s rumored he would take pitchers of martinis to work every morning, Hemingway denied it.  

Another website is written by an author who says he’s pretty sure the mojito was not Hemingway’s favorite drink but can’t historically prove it.  The wall inscription in the Havana bar, written on a now framed piece of butcher paper, says “My Mojito in La Bodeguita My Daiquiri in El Floridita.”  

That little inscription, accompanied in the bar with a hanging sign that says “signed by Hemingway,” launched a torrent of rumors that the drink was Hemingway’s favorite and made ‘La Bodeguita’ a lot of money from tourists flocking to it, as well as other watering holes in Havana, Key West and Miami, who wanted a taste of the famous author’s ‘favorite drink.’

Hemingway also wrote a lot about what he drank, so that a lot of his characters in the various locations of his many novels drank the drinks he had drank there.  

The same site says the rumor was a publicity stunt concocted by a Cuban journalist friend of Hemingway’s, Fernando Campoamor, together with the bar’s owner.  They allegedly hired a calligrapher to forge Hemingway’s handwriting, and the little joke grew into a big lie.  And a great many pesos, it seems.  

The information surrounding this says the plot was hatched following Hemingway’s death, and the perpetrators were sure the author wouldn’t mind, but would rather see the humor and value in it.     

The mojito drink itself is one of Cuba’s oldest drinks.  The word mojo is African and means ‘to place a little spell.’  The well-known rum company Bacardi traces the drink’s roots to 1586, when the explorer Francis Drake and his pirates tried unsuccessfully to sack Havana for its gold.  

Though the conquest failed, Drake’s associate Richard Drake is thought to have invented a precursor mojito cocktail known as El Draque, which was made with a crude forerunner of rum called aguardiente, plus sugar, lime, and mint.  It was at first used as medicine.  In the mid-1800s when the Bacardi Company was established, the recipe was altered and the mojito gained popularity.  At that point, the aguardiente was replaced with rum, and the Draque renamed a mojito.  

Some dispute this saying the drink was invented by African slaves working in the Cuban sugar cane fields.  

Hemingway did drink them at La Bodeguita del Medio, though his favorite drink was the daiquiri. And Pierce Brosnan as James Bond drank them in the 2002 movie Die Another Day, which was set in Cuba.  Mojitos also made an appearance in the Miami Vice movie.  

The drink is made in a highball glass filled with ice, an ounce of rum, two tablespoons of simple syrup (which is sugar and water dissolved together) limes and spearmint leaves.  

Hemingway had further adventures; he consorted with bootleg rumrunners, partook of extensive prohibited liquor, and was himself a bootlegger during Prohibition in the 1920s.  It took effect when the writer was 21, while he was serving in the ambulance corps in World War 1 Italy, drinking various “potent potables.”

When he came back to the States, he appears not to have been worried about the alcohol crackdown.  He wrote to a friend that America “isn’t such a bad place now with the exception of the coming aridity.”  During Prohibition, he either lived in a place that didn’t have it (Paris), or didn’t recognize it (Key West).  

Key West has never felt the restraint of prohibition or gambling laws.  It has more saloons than you can shake a well-rounded stick at,” Hemingway wrote.   He moved there by 1928.  It was sparsely inhabited and used occasionally by American tourists on their way down to Cuba or the Caribbean.  

The famous author bought bottles of bootleg Scotch from a man he befriended, Joe “Sloppy Joe” Russell, who made trips between Key West and the Havana harbor.  He outsmarted the customs officers, waiting to make the 90-mile journey until those officers were tired of waiting for them. When they were found out, they simply stopped waiting to be cleared to leave, loading the liquor into their boat at a different place.  

Hemingway ended up doing bootlegging himself and made a small killing from it.  He made a deal to borrow Russell’s boat, and went to Havana, managing to get 600 or 700 cases of cognac from a dealer.  It cost them 40 cents/bottle in Havana, and he sold them in the U.S. for $3.50 each.  He and Russell met at a secret location called Playa de Jaimanitas.

According to some, that’s how Hemingway made enough money to visit Europe and Africa.  The skeptical Hemingway historian who wrote about this says he believes the story but that Hemingway is likely stretching the truth because it doesn’t seem likely that he would’ve been able to squeeze 600 -700 cases of cognac on the 38-foot boat while crossing the Gulf Stream and making the 90-mile trek, which took about 10 hours.

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