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"When I come over from Cuba, people see my bags, sure, but they don't see what I keep up here," whispers Jose Galvez, tapping a pate dusted with brown hair and speckled by age. "What I keep here is the secret formula. It is in my brain the whole time. The whole time. And when I finally make it to Miami, then people find out what the real mojito tastes like."
A bold statement. And utterly baffling if you are one of the vast majority who have no idea what constitutes a mojito. The real mojito, the one to which Galvez so passionately refers, was, and still may be, Cuba's most revered cocktail, a libation that sprang from the island's countryside like an immaculate conception and swept into Havana's poshest saloons during the city's besotted heyday. While the daiquiri wooed an international cartel of tourists, the mojito (pronounced mo-he-toe) held a lock on native bar tabs.
Today the drink is a relic of pre-Castro Cuba, a rum-soaked reminder of a vanished playground that simultaneously mocks and gratifies exiles' insatiable thirst for the past. Utterly foreign to American-reared Cubans, who invariably confuse the cocktail with mojo criollo, a lime-and-garlic marinade, the mojito nonetheless haunts Miami, clinging stubbornly to the fringes of bar culture and the minds of those who remember its finest hour.
"In the summer we would go to La Concha, a private beach club, and the bartenders there would line up the glasses, maybe a hundred of them at a time, to make mojitos," Galvez recalls, re-creating the scene in an elaborate pantomime that culminates with him guzzling mojitos two-fisted, and braying. The beverage manager of a dozen local Cuban restaurants, the 61-year-old Galvez is Miami's self-appointed mojito czar. He has spent more than half his life behind a bar. For today's lecture, he is camped at a corner table at Versailles, a Calle Ocho landmark decorated in late Louis XIV kitsch.
"Anybody who tells you they don't know a mojito, they aren't Cuban," says Galvez, his moon face multiplied in the restaurant's endless frosted mirrors. No longer a mixologist himself, Galvez is left to watch, hawklike, as his bartender combines rum, sugar, lime juice, yerbabuena, ice, and soda water in a tall glass, then pops in a shard of sugar cane as a mixer. Back at the table, Galvez takes a sip. "My secret formula," he hisses. "You don't print what you just saw."
Such commands echo through the raspy world of mojito aficionados, where minute recipe disputes balloon into vital philosophical differences. (Should the yerbabuena be added with the sugar or the rum? Or both? Can lemon juice replace lime?) Other deviations seem burdened by the weight of existential quandary. (How much soda water is too much? What are the implications of substituting cubes for crushed ice?)
"The most important thing," Galvez confides, "is to crush the yerbabuena. You have to break up the arteries of the leaf to get at the refrescante." He grinds a piece of the mint between his thumb and forefinger and takes a deep, spirit-cleansing whiff. "They say this herb is a little bit of an aphrodisiac. I cannot guarantee that, but...." His voice trails off, replaced by a nicotine-stained leer. (Among Caribbean folk healers, in fact, yerbabuena - a tropical subspecies of the mint family distinct from the common Wrigley varieties - is prescribed as a cure for everything from flatulence to venereal disease. Sadly, the powers of mentha nemorosa are not thought by botanists to include increased libido, though experts concede the issue has not been studied exhaustively.)
For Galvez the joys of mojitoism have been hard won. Just a year after he arrived in New York, the army drafted him for service in Korea, where his jeep promptly hit a mine twenty miles from the 38th Parallel. His right leg was nearly blown off. Thanks to the ridge of metal pins that traverses his thigh, he can still hobble. After the war Galvez spent seventeen years in Las Vegas, working from bar boy to full-fledged barman at Caesars. Back then Sin City was mostly white trash and he didn't think to serve anything so exotic as a mojito. When he came to Miami in 1971, the secret formula came out of hibernation.
"We used to have trouble finding the yerbabuena. Some people gave up and started using spearmint. Not me. I planted yerbabuena in my back yard. It grew like a weed. `What're you making, Galvez?' they'd ask, and I'd give them one. The mojito's got so much flavor you don't taste the rum. But it sneaks up on you. Then, BOOM." His head snaps back, as if struck by a thunderbolt. Not a bad summation of the mojito's physiological effects, actually, given the rum's tendency to race into the blood stream piggybacked on sugar molecules.
Across the street at the dimly lighted La Carreta, Felipe Cruz, another of Galvez's charges, prepares mojitos in a cell cramped with liquor bottles. Judging by the vintage of his premix - a jug of lime, rum, and yerbabuena, which has clouded with disuse - it's clear Cruz doesn't prepare the cocktail very often. A sparse, bleak-looking man who attends to his work with grinning fatalism, Cruz came to Miami in 1960, the year after Fidel Castro seized control of the Havana hotel where Cruz had worked for twelve years.