Why has the drink made popular by Hemingway become a saccharine repository for sodden mint leaves in Seattle? The mojito recipe of cocktail guru Dale DeGroff, formerly of New York's Rainbow Room, employs only one ounce of simple syrup. But many Seattle barkeeps use much more (and won't admit it). "What kills drinks most is that bartenders tend to overpour their mixers," explains Ryan Magarian, senior beverage associate at Kathy Casey Food Studios and Liquid Kitchen in Seattle. "The more sugar, the easier it is to put it down. . . . To most people [a mojito] is like refreshing, minty limeade." What's more, "from a bartender's perspective, sugar will also hide a lot of misproportioning."
"They are using a lot of simple syrup instead of soda water," says Matt Dickinson, manager of Tini Bigs on Denny, about the mojito phenomenon. "And maybe they are using a sweeter rum." Dickinson isn't defending his establishment's drinks: Tini Bigs doesn't even serve mojitos. "We don't generally carry fresh mint." (Excuses, excuses.) Quite different from Waterfront Seafood Grill, where upward of 100 mojitos ($9) made with Bacardi Silver, are served on a busy weekend night. "It's the Coca-Cola generation," explains bartender Joe Shlichta: "We Americans have sweeter palates."
The sweet flavor is "more than anything masking the alcohol," concurs Mandy Park, general manager of Queen Anne's retro Mirabeau Room—though she adds that "our bar caters to young professionals who often like fruity, girlie drinks." They must be doing it right: the Mirabeau's mojito ($7), made with Cruzan rum, is one of the lounge's top drinks.
Although most bars seem to be mixing their mojitos on the sugary side, few will fess up to it ("It would be admitting you make bad drinks, " says one bar professional who declined to be identified.) By contrast, "our customer base prefers them tart," says Stephanie Rowlands, manager of ¡Barocho!, a Latin-inspired restaurant in Belltown. "We probably do 50 a week," she says: the classic ($7) made with Bacardi Select, and a raspberry version ($9) made with Cruzan raspberry rum.
Maybe simple geography is at the bottom of it. Seattle is one of the farthest points from Cuba in the United States. But that doesn't mean that Hemingway would approve of what we do to his favorite cooler. Nor should you. Next time, tell 'em to go easy on the syrup.