Here’s another example of Cubans at the forefront of the latest trend to sweep the nation.
Mojito frenzy hits U.S. mainstream
It’s gone from the drink of old Cuba to the hip and trendy. But now mojitos have reached the mainstream.
BY ELAINE WALKER
We’ve been drinking mojitos in Miami forever, but now the traditional Cuban cocktail has hit the mainstream, from Missouri to Colorado.
TGI Friday’s launched mojitos this month at its company-owned restaurants in the southeastern United States. Delta Airlines went national with its Mile High Mojito.
You’ll find Ernest Hemingway’s favorite rum and lime cocktail on menus from Carnival Cruise Lines and Marriott Hotels. Even Colin Farrell is expected to be sipping a Bacardi mojito in next month’s premiere of Miami Vice, which has made the drink its official cocktail.
”The mojito is probably the third most popular cocktail right now and it’s muscling in on No. 2,” said Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail and considered one of the country’s leading mixologists. “Everything Latin is hot.”
While the mojito has a long way to go before catching up with the top-ranked margarita, DeGroff and other experts believe it’s neck and neck with the cosmopolitan.
Don’t have time to ”muddle” the fresh mint leaves, lime juice and sugar for the traditional mojito mixing preparation? Williams-Sonoma and Crate & Barrel offer a mojito mix in a bottle. By next month, frozen Bacardi mojito concentrate will be everywhere from Publix to Wal-Mart.
”Not a lot of consumers are going to make the effort and take the time to make an authentic mojito,” said Paul Nardone, chief executive of Stirrings, a Massachusetts company that makes the mojito mix for Williams-Sonoma, Delta and its own label. “It’s a very intimidating drink. We solve the problem for a lot of people.”
The mojito mix has quickly become a top seller for Stirrings, and it’s not the only one enjoying a spike in sales. Mojito mints are the best selling flavor for Oral Fixation, a mint company whose product is featured at high-end hotels like the Delano. Mint growers like Bill Varney of Fredericksburg Herb Farm in Texas have seen sales double over the past year.
But the one reaping the biggest benefit of the fascination with all things mojito is Bacardi, which has seen rum sales increase about 5 percent each of the past several years, driven in part by mojitos.
For the giant liquor company, whose Cuban roots are intertwined with the drink, that growth hasn’t been by chance. Bacardi U.S.A. marketing executives in Miami have been working since the late 1990s on taking the mojito mainstream.
The timing was right. U.S. Hispanics are the fastest-growing population segment, with buying power expected to reach $1 trillion by 2010. Nuevo Latino cuisine has been all the rage.
It also helps that the cocktail culture has been enjoying a resurgence. As the maker of the top-selling rum, Bacardi’s goal was to see if the mojito could do for rum sales what the martini did for vodka.
”Consumers today are more discerning and looking for more stylish products,” said John Gomez, vice president and group marketing director for Bacardi U.S.A. “The mojito has been able to ride that wave.”
Bacardi started with getting the cocktail into television shows and movies.
SEX & THE CITY FACTOR
Everyone knows how Sex & the City launched the cosmopolitan, so it’s no surprise that’s where Bacardi started. Actress Kim Cattrall’s character Samantha ordered the first one in 2001. Since then, the company got air time for the mojito on movies such as Die Another Day and Bad Boys II, as well as television shows like CSI: Miami and Lost. The latest is Bacardi’s multimillion dollar investment behind its tie-in with the Miami Vice movie.
Another key was getting the cocktail on the menu at the hip bars and restaurants in major markets from Miami to New York and California.
Miami Chef Douglas Rodriguez, who at that time was at Patria in New York City, remembers the day when consumers would come into his restaurant expecting to find tortillas and margaritas. When they found no tortillas and a signature cocktail called the mojito, they were confused.
”We trained people and taught them what a mojito was,” said Rodriguez, whose restaurant ultimately sold 500 mojitos a night. “People were ready for something new. The whole martini revolution has changed the way people drink.”
Bacardi executives think this summer is the ”tipping point” when mojitos really reach the masses. The company this month launched a national mojito ad campaign and next month opens a mojito lounge at Miami International Airport.
The mojito is also evolving in terms of flavor. It’s not uncommon now to find bars offering exotic tastes like pomegranate or ginger.
Mojitos restaurant and bar in Dolphin Mall in Miami has more than 15 flavors, including its most popular, Balsero, featuring coconut rum, blue curacao and pineapple. The bar even takes other cocktails and ”mojitoizes” them by adding sugar, lime and mint.
The best sign of how far the mojito trend has come is Shorty Pants lounge in Lake of the Ozarks, Mo. The bar introduced the mojito last year, but maybe sold five a weekend. This year its sales can run as high as 100 on a busy weekend. ”We still get a lot of people asking what it is,” said Mark Spears, general manager, who first tried one himself on trips to Miami and Key West.
“Once they try one, we get a lot of repeat orders.”
But as the mojito reaches out to places like Missouri, some industry experts believe the trend setters have moved on. In Miami and other markets with a large Latin influence, the next hot thing may be the caipirinha, a traditional Brazilian drink. Rodriguez features caipirinhas and a muddling bar with fresh fruit and herbs at Ola Steak in Coral Gables.
”The mojito is already passé with the in crowd and that’s not a good sign,” said Tom Pirko of Bevmark, an industry consultant.
“It’s becoming better known, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to have lasting power. This is not the next margarita. What we’re talking about is a fashion drink, not something that changes the industry.”