Italian cocktails have claimed all sorts of superlatives in the U.S., from the “drink of the summer” (the Aperol Spritz, circa 2018) to the “most viral” (the Negroni Sbagliato, circa 2022) and beyond. In the running for the most popular drinks in Italy, however, the Negroni might have a fighting chance, and an Americano might be what most Italians are actually drinking.
But reach back 20 years ago on the peninsula and all of these drinks would’ve been a hard sell, because only one cocktail was king: the Mojito.
The preponderance of Mojitos at Italian bars is hard to fathom now, both because the profile seems so anathema to what Italy has put on the map for drink-making—especially the emphasis on bitter rather than sweet—and because in a world where cocktail origin stories are murky, we know for certain that Mojitos were born in Cuba, not Italy. Yet ask any Italian career bartender for the most famous, most ordered drink in the years before the cocktail revolution took hold, and there’s no competition.
“The Mojito was famous long before I even started bartending,” says Riccardo Rossi, owner of the Freni e Frizioni bar group in Rome. Julian Biondi, journalist and owner of Fermenthinks distillery, recalls his early days of bartending, in 2006, when muddled drinks were trendy. “The Mojito was the most consumed of all,” he says. Indeed, Michele Mariotti, head of bars at the Gleneagles Hotel, remembers that in the early aughts, “the Mojito was the dominant force in the world of cocktails in Italy.”
How did the combination of rum, mint, sugar, lime juice and soda from across the Atlantic become the go-to for Italians? One reason: It’s undeniably refreshing. Camilla Bellini, owner of Florence wine bar Enoteca Bellini, points out that the refreshment factor isn’t to be underestimated, especially because “there’s a strong connection between beach culture and cocktail culture in Italy, and the Mojito is the perfect drink for the summer weeks spent at the beach.” Italians often take a long break during the scorching months of July and August, setting up seaside and structuring their days around avoiding the heat—a tradition that has typically included a replenishing cocktail as the sun goes down, enjoyed at one of the many seasonal bars that line the coast.
As for the Mojito’s ability to make the leap from summer drink to year-round star, there are also some straightforward reasons: the abundance of mint in Italy meant it was an easy ingredient for bartenders to have on hand, and a familiar one for consumers who hadn’t yet cultivated a relationship with cocktails. Biondi doesn’t discount the popularity of Cuban rum, either, which, like Aperol, was heavily advertised throughout the country and became the favorite base spirit in the late 1980s into the ’90s (see: the Quattro Bianchi). Between the weather, the mint and the marketing push around rum, “the Mojito was a natural consequence,” he says. Soon, Italian bartenders were putting their own spins on the Mojito, from exchanging the sweetener for local honey to swapping out rum for local spirits like mirto.
Thanks to the craft cocktail renaissance, the Negroni and its fellow aperitivo staples have taken over, and the Mojito has gone on an opposite path, toward obscurity. Gone are the days of the Mojito on the beach; the spritz is here to stay. As Davide Campagnolo, owner and bartender at the Florence cocktail bar Manifattura, says, “I can’t even remember the last time I thought of a Mojito.”