- Photo by Amy Stewart
"I hear you've got mojitos in there," a friend said, looking down at my tote bag. We were in Blue Lake waiting in line for Mary Jane: The Musical.
"Shhhh. Don't say that so loud, or everybody will want one."
I had more than mojitos in my bag. I had three mason jars filled with the most exquisite combinations of summer fruit and booze imaginable. I figured I had enough for the six of us, plus a few hangers-on, but the last thing I wanted to do was to run out of drinks before intermission.
Once we got settled on the lawn, I started to wish I had brought enough for the entire audience. Some of the beverage choices I saw around me were, quite frankly, embarrassing. The family in front of us dumped a pile of gas station cuisine on their blanket: Whoppers, gummy worms, Cheetos, Sprite, and some horrid industrial beer in a can. A few blankets down I spotted a can of Mike's Harder Lemonade, an abomination previously unknown to me. Of course, there was plenty of civilized wine and microbrew sipping going on as well, but come on, people! This is a giant community picnic for grown-ups! In July! With all the fresh fruit available at the farmers market, there is no excuse not to be sipping the best adult beverage you'll have all year while you're out there on the grass, under the stars, wondering if life could possibly get any better. Scott made the rounds with two jars, whispering "Nectarine or watermelon?" and everybody got very, very happy.
So here's what you're going to do -- quickly, while the fresh summer fruit is at its peak:
First, go out and get the best fruit you can find. Ripe, juicy, almost past-their-prime peaches and nectarines would be a good start. Watermelons or cantaloupes should also be very high on the list. Strawberries will work, but a firmer fruit like a mango might not. You want more juice than pulp for a drink like this.
Get at least a dozen fresh limes as well. No bottled lime juice allowed.
You're also going to need a bunch of mint. If you're not growing it already, pick up a plant at the farmer's market and get that started for next time. You need spearmint, not peppermint, and if you can find it, get a variety called "Mojito Mint," which purports to be an actual Cuban strain, or "Kentucky Colonel," the classic Southern mint julep variety. Grow it in a pot to keep it from taking over, and start a new pot from a runner every few years to keep the flavor fresh, as older plants get a little tough and lose some sweetness.
Now go pick up some rum and, for a variation I'll get to in a minute, some tequila. Mojitos are traditionally made with silver (unaged) rum, but amazing things happen to rum when you put it in a barrel, so I'm in favor of sneaking some dark rum in, too. Do yourself a favor and buy something decent. After all, if you're not much of a drinker, the bottle will last forever, and if you are a drinker -- well, you've made the commitment, so drink good booze. Cruzan rums are perfectly nice, and St. Lucia Distillers has been winning some awards lately, so give them a try. For tequila, I'm drinking a lovely 123 reposado tequila that will make you love tequila even if you've been burned before. If you can't find that, Espolón is also great, and reasonably priced at just over twenty bucks.
If you want to get fancy and you're feeling a long-term relationship with fruity, rum-based drinks coming on, pick up a bottle of Velvet Falernum at the liquor store, too. This is a sweet, spicy syrup that adds a little indefinable something to tropical drinks. Ever noticed how that drink you had on St. Croix never tastes as good when you make it at home? Short of a ticket back to the islands, Velvet Falernum is what you've been missing.
1.5 cups rum
1.5 cups freshly-squeezed watermelon (or other fruit) juice
½ - ¾ cup freshly-squeezed lime juice
½ cup simple syrup (equal parts sugar and boiling water, cooled)
Splash of Velvet Falernum (optional)
30 spearmint leaves
In a one-quart mason jar, combine the mint leaves and the simple syrup. Gently crush the mint leaves with a muddler or wooden spoon. Add the rum, then squeeze the limes directly into the jar, ideally using a hand-held citrus squeezer that expresses not just the juice, but the oil from the rind as well.
Now add the fruit juice. You can either puree it and put it through a strainer, or use a food mill. A little pulp is fine. Add a splash of Velvet Falernum if you've got it.
Screw the lid on the mason jar, shake well, and pour a little into a glass over crushed ice. Add equal part club soda, taste it, and see if you like it. Add more of any ingredient until you've got it right.
Oh, and about that tequila variation: Swap the rum for tequila, cut the lime juice, sugar, and mint in half, and forget about the Velvet Falernum and club soda. Once again, adjust all quantities to taste.
After winding up the year-long North Coast Almanack and taking a little hiatus, I'm back with something new: A monthly column about cocktails and drinking and -- well, vaguely about plants, which are, after all, the basis of all great drinks. I'm calling it The Drunken Botanist, which is also the working title of my next book, due out sometime in 2013. I can always use help with my research, so drop me a note if you've got a booze-related question, comment or conundrum. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.