The Mojito’s simple, refreshing combination of rum, lime, sugar, and mint has become a favorite among poolside and city-dwelling bar-goers alike. It’s a drink that’s meant to be playful, according to Los Angeles-based former bartender Yael Vengroff. After all, some things are meant to be just that — simple and enjoyable to make and to drink.
In this episode of “Cocktail College,” host Tim McKirdy talks with Vengroff about her approach to the Mojito, along with the ingredients and processes she uses to create her take on the classic cocktail. Plus, the two explore Vengroff’s current ventures, including a newly released canned Mojito cocktail she created in collaboration with Aaron Polsky’s LiveWire Drinks.
Tune in to learn how to make the perfect Mojito.
Yael Vengroff’s Mojito Recipe
- 2 ounces white rum, such as Casa Magdalena
- 1 ounce fresh lime juice
- 1 ounce simple syrup
- ½ dash Angostura bitters
- 6-8 mint leaves
- Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker and muddle.
- Add a small amount of crushed ice and shake until cold.
- Dump into a cold Collins glass.
- Top with crushed ice and garnish with fresh mint.
Check Out the Conversation Here
Tim McKirdy: Welcome to VinePair’s “Cocktail College.” This is your host, Tim McKirdy, and we are coming at you today from the East Coast and the West Coast because we have Yael Vengroff joining us. Yael, welcome. How’s it going for you today?
Yael Vengroff: Yo. We’re doing pretty good over here. It rained yesterday. That doesn’t really happen in Los Angeles, but everything’s back to normal today.
T: It’s raining here today in New York, so I feel like we’re in sync. That’s a good start. Today’s topic is the Mojito. I think this is one that a lot of people are going to be interested in because this is a very popular drink. This is definitely popular with consumers and people that go to bars. Is this a popular drink with bartenders, or is this one of those drinks that you hate to make?
Y: It’s really not a big deal to make a Mojito, but I do think that it has gained some notoriety over time in terms of being a really frustrating drink to make. There’s an old joke about just saying you’re out of mint or dumping the mint in the trash can.
T: Yeah. It’s definitely one of those ones that you probably end up making a lot. Is it also one of those drinks where someone will order one and then a ton of other people will say, “Oh yeah, a Mojito. Great idea.”
Y: I think that’s what’s frustrating about the Mojito. It’s the sheer volume of them. Mojitos get frustrating when you have to make tons of them.
Yael Vengroff’s Mojito Recipe
T: One of the themes of this show, with some other drinks that we’ve spoken about in the past — whether they’ve been the topic of the episode or the conversations have gone that way — is how even something like a vodka soda deserves your respect and time if someone’s paying money for it. I think that’s very much true of the Mojito. I’ve had other bartenders tell me before that it might be a pain, but there are ways that you can make this a great cocktail. I’d love to get into those ways with you.
Y: I feel like the crux of the Mojito is really simple. It’s an elongated Daiquiri on crushed ice. Depending on who you talk to, it can be made with or without soda. I like to throw a half dash of Angostura in mine to really spice things up. It should be fairly straightforward, simple, and not over the top. That’s the other thing that starts to drive people crazy. When you start to bring in all these flavors of mojitos and purées that are messier than just the mint itself, like a passion fruit Mojito. A basic Mojito, for me, is straight Collins spec of two, one, one. That’s an ounce of lime, an ounce of simple, and 2 ounces of white rum. I do a half dash of Angostura and six to eight mint leaves, muddled. I whip-shake my Mojitos, so I shake it with a few pellets of crushed ice. Then, the whole thing just gets poured into a glass. For me, it’s not really messy. I don’t have to strain anything. It’s just being dumped right into the glass. Some people just really don’t know how to use crushed ice properly. That becomes an intimidating factor to them. Maybe they work in a bar where they don’t have a crushed-ice machine, and they have to crush ice by hand or what have you. That can be obnoxious. For those people, I would say to just shake with your ice and dirty dump right in. You’re probably going to need to add a little bit of club soda just to get your dilution up. Otherwise, I don’t add soda. I just top mine with crushed ice and then garnish it real nice. It shouldn’t be that difficult.
Perfecting the Mojito Ingredients
T: Yeah. Let’s get into those specific ingredients bit by bit. Like you said, it’s a very simple formula. I think the more simple things can be, the more terrible they can become, too, if you don’t give them too much attention. First, this is a rum drink. What are you thinking about when it comes to rum and the Mojito? What’s your preference in terms of style? Obviously, rum comes from so many different places. Also, whether it’s clear versus aged, what are you looking for?
Y: I have a real thing for clear spirits in general. That’s almost always what I use. I do appreciate Cognac and aged rum, but I really have no taste for aged spirits whatsoever. You’ll rarely see me drink them. Do they have their place? Of course they do. Absolutely. I think the Old Cuban is one of the most stunning drinks that calls for aged rum, Bacardi 8 specifically. For those who don’t know, that’s a Mojito topped with Champagne. A Mojito is kind of like a rum version of vodka soda, with mint. I’m joking, but also not really. It should be really clean. It should be really refreshing. For a Mojito, I’m honestly looking for the rum with the least flavor explosion.
T: So, you’re not going down a Martinique rhum agricole route?
Y: Well, I would. I do love rums like that. I do think that those rums have delicious places in Mojitos. Once again, it comes back to the question of, “Who are we making this Mojito for?” In general, I’m probably not going to use Rhum Agricole because I tend to be as un-precious as possible. If I was making that Mojito for myself, then I’d always go for the funky unaged rhum agricole.
T: This is not one of those drinks that we see a lot when it comes to tropical or tiki drinks where people are saying, “What one rum can’t do, three can.” You’re going straight down the middle, keeping it clean, and keeping it unaged.
Y: Oh yeah. In general, I’m trying to keep things really simple.
T: Do you have a bottle that you can recommend that you think really overperforms, or people overlook, or may just not really know about but it’s pretty easy to get hold of?
Y: For us — and this is what we use in the Crystal Shiso Mojito as well, which we’ll talk about later on — I really love Casa Magdalena as our workhorse white rum. It’s really cheap. It’s really freaking tasty in a Mojito and a Daiquiri. It’s a super-mixable white rum from Guatemala.
T: In terms of proof, what proof does that come in at? What do you typically go for? Are you looking for a couple of extra percentage points just because this is a longer drink or are you, again, keeping things simple?
Y: Magdalena is 80 proof. I’m no longer in a place where I care about the proof of a spirit in a drink. Does it taste good or does it not? I’m not really looking for proof when I’m looking at my classics. That’s more of a conversation when I’m creating a cocktail, tasting for balance, and think, “Wow, that’s not powerful enough.”
T: I think that is an important consideration. Ultimately, what’s the most important thing? That it tastes good. You can taste two 80-proof rums side by side, and one might be packed with flavor and concentrated while the other is watered down.
Y: Definitely. Flavor, to me, is the key factor. Of course, proof does factor into that conversation, too. I guess I just feel like Mojito shouldn’t be messed with on that level. I don’t think the Mojito is that intellectual. It’s supposed to be lighthearted and easy-drinking. You’re not supposed to think about a Mojito. I feel like over-intellectualizing the components of the Mojito is the antithesis of what the Mojito is supposed to be.
T: I think that’s a great point. That speaks to one of your earliest points, too. Who’s drinking this and what are they expecting from it? They are not going to want some clarification or molecular mixology with their Mojito. People just want a refreshing drink. Odds are, I’m on a rooftop. Even better, I’m on a beach.
Y: One of my favorite Mojito serves was when I used to just blend a Mojito and top it with beer. It was so tasty. If you want to change up the Mojito in that way, go for it. Be playful about it. But I just don’t really think the Mojito should be over-intellectualized in any way.
T: Over-intellectualized. I think that’s a great way to put it. Next component. Do you want to talk about mint or simple and dial a little bit more into those? I will try not to get too intellectual here, but what are your considerations there? What are you thinking about?
Y: Not brown mint.
T: I used to work in kitchens, and we would have our fresh herbs out for our mise en place, for service or whatever. We couldn’t always keep them in the fridge. What’s the best way to keep those fresh and on hand, but not going into the fridge every time you need them? Or, is that just what you’re supposed to be doing?
Y: You can blanch your mint, which is what some people do. I have never personally had time for that. Other than that, I would just say that it really depends on length of service. The mint should be able to last. I like to keep it face down in the water, with the stems up. I’ve seen people do it both ways. Every time I see people put the stems down, the mint looks bad, though. I just put it face down in ice water. I’m sure for all you science-y, culinary folks out there, that’s probably incorrect, but this is what I do. That should be fine for a six-hour shift. When it comes to shifts that are longer than that, or shifts in environments where it is a lot warmer inside or you don’t have AC, then you’re going to start to run into issues.
T: Next step. Simple syrup is 50/50, one to one, whatever you want to call it. It’s very simple, right? Don’t overcomplicate that.
Y: Yeah, that’s the way to do it.
T: Lime is one of the major components of this, too. Fresh is best. Anything else that you would like to discuss there?
Y: No. I like lime juice. It’s tasty.
How to Avoid Over-Diluting in the Mojito
T: Briefly, can you talk us through your preparation again and maybe a little bit more about ice? I feel like this is a drink that I worry about being overly diluted. That’s the one thing I worry about if I order a Mojito, is that it might be watery. That ties into ice, so can you tell us about that?
Y: I tend to always play the muddled ingredients into my shaker first before I do anything. Some people are going to swizzle this cocktail, in terms of their technique, and will build it in the glass. I whip-shake it, though. I put six to eight mint leaves in the bottom of the shaker. I then add a little baby dash of Angostura, as I mentioned. Then, I add an ounce of lime juice, an ounce of simple syrup, and 2 ounces of white rum. I’m going to muddle that and add four or five pellets of crushed ice into the shaker. I whip-shake it, and then dump all of the contents in. Give it a little swirl before you dump it into the glass so that all the mint goes into the bottom. At that point, I really think that the key to making crushed-ice cocktails is making sure that you have everything that you’re possibly going to need to go into that drink done and ready before you start adding the ice. That’s the minute that things start to get really tricky. Quite honestly, the instant that I’m done with the whip shake and the drink is in the glass, I put the straw in. If you try to put the straw in later, you’re just going to mess up the beautiful work you’ve done. So, I put the straw in. Then I start adding crushed ice until I’m about an inch from the top. Then I add the garnish. Then I make the dome on top and really pack it in. Then the drink just needs to get run as soon as possible. If the server’s not around, run your own drink. Hopefully you don’t get a diluted Mojito from that.
T: Are you not topping with soda? I know that’s optional. Some people are doing that, but you’re not.
Y: I don’t. I think that crushed ice has no business talking to Mr. Soda.
T: I agree with you there. Again, it’s more danger of dilution. That is one thing I’m trying to avoid all the time. In terms of glassware, does pulling that out the fridge, cold, help? Do you have time for that, given how many you might sling on any given Saturday night?
Y: I usually tell everybody, “If you have time to get a cold glass, get the cold glass. If you don’t have time to get the cold glass, don’t get the cold glass.”
The Future of the Mojito
T: I think that’s great advice. In terms of where it stands today and throughout your career, what have you seen with the trajectory of the Mojito? Is it as popular today as when you started? Is it something you want to put on your menu, or are people going to order it regardless, so you just want to avoid that needless hassle?
Y: I think that this is a regional question. If you talked to a bartender in South Beach, they would have a much different answer than a bartender in Toronto or San Francisco.
T: What masochists in Toronto are drinking Mojitos? I guess it probably gets nice there in summer.
Y: They might drink them. I feel like sometimes, beverage trends tend to make little sense. It’s super easy for bars to sell rum, in general. When it’s sold, it’s typically in the form of a Mojito. Sometimes, I’ve been really successful with selling rum by making it a super-decadent beverage with a cool name, but that was kind of a luck-of-the-draw type of thing. I don’t tend to write classics onto my menu. Most classics, I think, are a given. If you’re writing a whole menu of classics then yes, I think the Mojito deserves some recognition. I would probably do something a little bit more interesting, though, like an Old Cuban or something like that.
T: I think that perfectly leads into something that I was going to ask you as well. This may meet you halfway here. If you are going to have one on the menu, but you don’t want a standard, classic old Mojito on there, how good is it to put a Mojito riff on the menu? That’s going to be a drink that many people know, but at the same time allows you to give some of your personality on the menu, too.
Y: Yeah. That was the idea with the Crystal Shiso Mojito and its origination. It was a draft cocktail at Genghis Cohen, which was an American Chinese restaurant I was working on a few years ago. I really love to do things either the “wrong” way or a different way. Part of that rascal quality for me is messing with people’s heads. I was thinking about Crystal Pepsi and how hilarious it was. Somehow, that led into this idea of this Crystal Mojito made with shiso leaves instead of mint. I don’t really think of cocktails anymore in terms of just technical compilations of ingredients that taste good. At this point in my career, I’m thinking about a cocktail as its own brand, or a cocktail as its own entity. I’m thinking about what the cocktail itself has the power to do. This was a big eye-opening moment for me with LiveWire. We all have cocktails that we’ve created throughout our lives that have actual staying power and that have actual canonical star quality. Not all of us live in New York City, though. Not all of us have access to the PR greats. Not all of us have writers like Robert Simonson around. There are plenty of people out there that are creating these drinks that have a lot of lasting power and that do deserve contemporary fame, but don’t get it. Not that that’s the goal when I’m creating a cocktail, but it’s also kind of the goal. How far can this drink go? The menu doesn’t have to be the end. When I’m thinking about creating things, I’m thinking much less about these technical moments and more about questions like, what does the name say about this drink? How is the appearance? How translatable is this to an audience? I’m thinking about all those things that make a brand a powerful brand. When I’m creating something that’s not meant for an obscure audience, I’m really trying to distill that down into something that could be easily read in a magazine.
How Yael Launched an RTD Canned Mojito
T: That’s awesome. You mentioned the Crystal Shiso Mojito, which I would love to talk about. This is now a creation. You’ve worked with Aaron Polsky and LiveWire drinks to bring this drink — that you had created before —into canned form and ultimately did something like you said. The menu doesn’t need to be the end for drinks. As a sidebar, how many drinks have we seen out there that have gone on to menus, become very famous, and the bartenders never made any money out of it? I think that’s crazy. Ultimately, liquor brands might make money out of it because they’re doing RTD versions now. What Aaron is doing, and what you’ve done with Aaron here, is taking a proprietary creation and giving it a whole new lease of life via this packaged can form. I think that’s incredible. To link to our earlier part of the conversation, you can’t make a riff on something if you don’t know how to make the original well and instinctively from muscle memory. If you haven’t made it a thousand times, why are you even going to start trying to make a riff on something?
Y: Yeah, I would say that’s a very good point.
T: I think this is also a theme that runs through Aaron’s LiveWire drinks. You can make something and tell the person who’s consuming it that, “Actually, this is just a riff on a Margarita.” If you put that in the name, people know instantly and they’re probably going to be a bit more receptive to it. I think there’s a lot of that going on in LiveWire, and that’s very smart. Go the way of the riff, but I think it’s very smart to also have that drink that people recognize.
Y: Yeah, That’s actually something I don’t typically do. I’m such a B-sides type of gal. I hate pop music. I hate the popular songs. I hate the obvious. I’m always going for obscure references or what have you. In general, I’m always picking some really ridiculous, obscure name for drinks. I don’t typically go that route. I confronted myself with the question, “Do you want to name this after your favorite Grimes song to fill your own ego and sell zero? Or, do you want to name this after what it actually is so people will understand it.” That was a pretty obvious choice.
T: Yeah. I think that’s a smart idea. This show is all about helping people make better drinks, whether they’re enthusiasts or just starting out in their career. It might seem antithetical to talking about getting cocktails in a can. Here’s the other thing, though. After every single episode, we get so many comments from people saying, “The thing that sucks is that I’m not in New York, so I don’t get to taste this person’s drink that they’re talking about, or I’m not in New Orleans and I can’t try it.” That’s what I love about LiveWire. People can hear this and realize, “Wow. I can go and try Yael’s Crystal Shiso Mojito.” Can you tell people that are listening that they get to visit you in L.A., but if they’re not able to do that, where can they find your stuff and LiveWire?
Y: You, my friends, don’t get to visit me wherever I’m working because I do not work behind a bar anymore. You have to drink the Crystal Shiso Mojito in a can, because otherwise you’re not getting a drink from me.
T: Even more impetus right there to go out and buy them. Where can people go find LiveWire and find the Crystal Shiso Mojito?
Y: You can go to LiveWireDrinks.com and order LiveWire directly from the website. We are currently in California and New York in terms of my cocktail, specifically. LiveWire also exists in Louisiana and Texas.
T: And the rest of the states very soon. Taking over the country.
Y: Coming up soon. I’m personally most excited about Texas. That’s where I’m from.
T: You’re a Houston gal.
Y: Yes, I’m a Houston gal. It was really exciting. My friend Lindsey Rae works for the company as well. I just took a trip back home and went out to have a drink with her. We went downtown. I was outside on a phone call at 11 p.m. working on this music festival. I walked back inside and Lindsey was sitting at the bar, drinking a shot of Montenegro, and she had a Honeydew Collins in her hand. Joey Bernardo, who made that drink, is my best friend and has been for so many years. To see that part of him actualized was so cool. I’ve also brought Joey to Houston with me. He’s stayed at my house. He’s met my parents, my sister, and my whole family. We’ve guest bartended at several bars in Houston together. To see his drink make it all the way into the hands of these people in Houston was crazy. What was even crazier was the the one that Lindsey was drinking was the last at the venue. After that one, they were sold out. That was just a really powerful, beautiful moment. People in Houston know Joey’s name because we came and guest bartended a few times, but they could really know his name now.
T: Yeah. It’s awesome. It’s a new frontier. We’re huge fans here at VinePair. We have been since the first release, right up into your current release, which I just tried recently for the first time the other day. It’s absolutely delicious.
Y: Oh, amazing. I did not know Aaron had that trick up his sleeve. That’s great.
Getting to know Toby Cecchini
T: Yael, it’s been so great to chat about the Mojito with you, but also this new frontier of cocktails and basically the next stage of things. This has come to a head over the past 18 months, which I think so many people — if they didn’t already realize it before in the industry — definitely do now. It’s been great chatting with you about that. I would love to finish with our final stock questions to get to know you a little bit more in terms of yourself and some of your experiences in bartending and drinking.
Y: Oh, boy.
T: We’ll be kind. There are no trick questions in there.
Y: We’re good.
T: OK, great. Question No. 1: Which style or category of spirit would typically enjoy the most real estate on your back bar?
Y: Gosh, which bar are we talking about?
T: The kind of bar that you would most like to work in, if you were still behind one.
Y: Mezcal is definitely a huge passion of mine. I absolutely love mezcal. Something that occupies quite a bit of real estate on my back bar that is atypical is eau-de-vies and fruit brandies. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to work somewhere where I’ve had a lot of those. Even at The Spare Room, where the selection was so varied, things had to sell. We had so few seats and it was always very busy in there. It’s really hard to sell something unique to a guest. I think Houston is such a fascinating city where there are bars like Bad News Bar and Anvil, and all these places that are carrying really ridiculously obscure high- or low-end, unique selections. They are selling them because they are getting that face time with their guests. I think that’s really cool. I would say unaged fruit brandies and eau-de-vies are a hidden thing for me. If you know me and you’re sitting at my bar, there’s a very high chance that I’m going to pour you a shot of pear brandy if you ask me for a shot.
T: That’s awesome. I love to hear it. Second question for you: Which ingredient or tool is the most undervalued in a bartender’s arsenal, in your opinion?
Y: Oh my God. Microsoft Excel. I feel like I could have a million answers to this question right now.
T: Excel is a good one, though. We haven’t had that before. It shows you that, at the end of the day, you’ve got to make it work money-wise. Otherwise, what are you doing?
Y: I think Excel is wildly important. For everything, you need Excel. I’m a firm believer in working smarter, not harder. If I knew how to use Excel like I want to, then I would be really powerful. I’ll tell you that much.
T: Love to hear it. Third question. What’s the most important piece of advice that you’ve ever received in this industry, or what’s one piece of advice that stands out?
Y: Care less. I hate that advice, but that piece of advice was given to me. This is kind of an old Houston tale, also. Two of my old bosses and mentors, Brad Moore and Ryan Rouse, owned a bar called Goro & Gun in Houston that’s actually right underneath Bad News. I was sitting with Alex Gregg, who was the manager of Goro & Gun at the time. We were arguing about glassware at 3 a.m.
T: As you do.
Y: Brad walks up. We need Brad to give his weight on this decision for some reason. Brad walks up and we say, “Brad, can you weigh in?” He responded, “I could have less of an opinion on this.” We all just kind of looked at him. It’s funny because Alex and I saw each other recently, and we both revisited that story because we’re both in these positions where it’s true that we care way too much to be as effective as we are “supposed to be.” I’m currently working on how to scale up programs. In order to make things scalable and really achieve excellence, there is a level of caring less that has to happen in order for this whole thing to work. That’s been another really tough pill to swallow.
T: I think that’s some advice we could all take in life, too. Care less.
Y: Yes. It’s a life lesson too, for sure. “You could have less of an opinion on it.” — Brad Moore.
T: Fourth question for you. If you could only visit one last bar in your life, what would it be?
Y: I gave myself a great lead-in. It would definitely be Grand Prize Bar in Houston, Texas, which is a bar that Brad and Ryan own and I worked at. Lindsey, who I spoke about earlier, worked there, too. Joey, who I spoke about earlier, and I have guest bartended there. Grand Prize is a magical place, and it’s home. It’s just the culmination of everything I’ve always wanted in a bar to visit and to own.
T: Yael, final question for you today. If you knew that the next cocktail you drank was going to be your last, what would you order or make?
Y: I would not drink a cocktail. I would drink a wine. I love wine.
T: What wine would you go for?
Y: I would definitely go for something high-acid, really funky, high salinity.
Y: Honestly, I would say that could be any category. I really love some of these chilled reds that kind of fit in all of those categories. I love any kind of skin-contact wine. Something weird and freaky deaky, or something classic that really blows your mind.
T: That sounds wonderful. Yael, thank you so much for carving out the time to chat with us today. I know you’re a very busy person, and your time is much appreciated. I’ve enjoyed our conversation, so thank you.
Y: Thank you. I hope that I meet you one day.
T: We will share a Mojito together.
Y: In the meantime, you can drink my LiveWire can.
T: I’ll be drinking it. I’m going to crack one open now.
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Now, for the credits. “Cocktail College” is recorded and produced in New York City by myself and Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director and all-around podcast guru. Of course, I want to give a huge shout-out to everyone on the VinePair team. Too many awesome people to mention. They know who they are. I want to give some credit here to Danielle Grinberg, art director at VinePair, for designing the awesome show logo. And listen to that music. That’s a Darbi Cicci original. Finally, thank you, listener, for making it this far and for giving this whole thing a purpose. Until next time.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.