I found myself in a conversation the other day with another bartender, about which form of sugar is best in a mojito. I was of the mind raw sugar is preferable in a mojito, Ti’ punch, or mint julep, for the sugar granules will extract the oils from the herb or peel, enriching the aromatics in the completed drink. The counterargument was mint has a strong enough smell, enhancement would be minuscule, and with simple syrup, a more uniform – in both flavor and texture – cocktail will be made.
While the topic may sound banal to most people, it made me do a double take. I realized I had fallen prey to what I had been told, without ever verifying if it was true. It is worrisome to find one’s self at the foot of such a folly. So, I set out, with help of my lovely assistant, to search for a conclusion of my own. The following is an amalgamation of our individual experiences.
I started with 15 pieces of mint in two identical glasses. To one, I added two teaspoons of sugar and a splash of soda water. With a mixing spoon, I stirred both for 20 seconds. A smell test was in order. The raw sugar made the mint smell slightly stronger. Also, the one without sugar smelt green, like a forest and earthy.
After that, two ounces of Havana Club 3 Year, ¾ ounce lime juice, and two ounces soda were added to both. To the one without sugar, ¾ 1:1 simple syrup. Both were filled with crushed ice and stirred until the outsides of the glasses were frosty. I topped up the ice and garnished with Angostura drops and mint sprigs.
The second smell test revealed no difference in aroma. I did start to worry, as this was the crux of the original argument. But what about the taste?
There was a definite difference between the two in terms of flavor. The raw sugar mojito was stratified, beginning with the rum, then mint, sugar and finishing on the lime. The flavors were individually present but strung together, transitioning from one to another effortlessly, reminding me of a bumpy slide in a playground. This is what a cocktail should entail, interwoven flavors that all compliment each other. Plus, with the final note being the lime, I was left refreshed and ready to take another ride. The mint flavor, itself, was more candied, almost artificial, as if a drop of mint essence had found its way into the drink.
The mojito with simple syrup was a polar opposite. Instead of complexity, it existed on a completely understandable single note, a daiquiri with soda and a hint of mint. The cocktail was enjoyable but the mint fell way into the background and the incline of the profile was much less extreme. Even though the components of the drink were muddied, for some reason it finished on the rum or sugar. This made me sip it slower, as my palate felt full. The mint contributed earthiness, a vegetable note that was not unpleasant, but didn’t add the brightness as in the other mojito.
Seeing as at the onset of this experiment, I was concerned about fragrance and gave little thought to flavor, I was blown away. This wasn’t a situation where the two were pretty much the same and we nitpicked the tiny differences. This was noticeable. The raw sugar brought out notes I don’t get when I smell mint on its own; it spread out the mint across the whole spectrum of flavors, the lattice that the other ingredients clung to.
After the mojitos, I had a realization. I had tried my hand at making a crème de menthe a while ago. The book I got the recipe from recommended using mint essence to get the best liqueur but had another recipe with fresh mint. The first step with the fresh mint one was to soak the mint in vodka, and then later add sugar. What I ended up with was a strong green forest smell, exactly like the simple syrup mojito. I bet muddling the mint with sugar and then adding the mix to the vodka would get a final product much closer to what I want, a sharp, tangy, on the cusp of artificial, mint flavor.