by Binoy Fernandez | May 1, 2013 2:58 pm
Every year, on the first weekend of May, the horses race. It’s the day for Churchill Downs, for floppy hats and sundresses, for an off-white suit, fedora, and pocket-watch, and it’s a day for Juleps. The exact reasons why Churchill Downs adopted the Georgia Mint Julep as the official cocktail of the Kentucky Derby are probably lost to the mists of antiquity, yet, for at least one day a year, the martini requests fall silent, and the nation pays homage to a piece of history.
Consider that when most drinks are inspired by the theater, big screen, a celebrity or sports star, the julep is a drink that inspires poems and passionate letters. It is a drink that defines a time and a culture in American history. F. Scott Fitzgerald makes special mention of it in The Great Gatsby, and, in 1937, S.J. Buckner, Jr. describes, in detail, the steps to craft a julep to General Connor in a letter suddenly cut short because he inspired himself to make one.
We often talk about the copper mug and the Moscow Mule, but before the mule there was the silver julep cup. Oftentimes handed down through the generations where each successive generation adds to the dings and dents, each one containing what is, likely, a forgotten memory.
The version we all know is the Georgia Mint Julep, where we use a good (make sure it’s good), American whisky as our base with muddled mint and sugar. We take out our hammer and lewis bag, powder up some ice, packing it in until we have a nice dome over the top of the cup. We then slip a straw through the fresh mint garnish, wait until we have a nice layer of frost over the silver, and then sip through the straw a veritable nectar even the gods would envy.
So, what’s the deal with this excessively boozy, tasty, libation? Well, if whisky isn’t your thing, fear not, because the julep doesn’t describe one drink, but rather a type of drink. You can use any spirit in a julep: rum, gin, brandy, tequila, even vodka. Almost all julep recipes I’ve come across have a few elements in common, though: first, you want to use a silver cup. The reason why isn’t clear, but, traditionally, a julep always gets served in a silver cup. Second, they all have mint to them, the fresher the better. Third, we always powder the ice. The garnish can include anything from a fresh sprig of mint to a fruit salad.
I generally reserve straws for stirring and doing my taste to make sure I made the drink properly, but this drink must be consumed through the straw. If you sip this beverage as you would any other you’ll have two things happen: the first is that all you’ll get is the booze and none of the mint or sugar, you’ll lose the dimensionality of the drink. The second reason is you’ll get that metallic tang to the drink. The first time I had this drink I couldn’t stand it. It tasted only of bourbon, and finished extremely sweet.
I’ll close this out with a story about how I came to love the julep. It was May 5, 2012, and it was Derby day. Being a bartender I felt compelled to place a bet on the horse I’ll Have Another, and having placed the bet that morning I decided that it was appropriate to fix myself a Georgia Mint Julep. I didn’t have the silver cups at the time, but I did have Collins glasses, and so I grabbed one of those, swung by the Farmer’s Market to get some fresh mint, and fixed some up for my friends and me.
It was a warmish day out, and the powdered ice was frosting the glass nicely, and we were chatting on the patio, waiting for post. Anyway, first sip was off the rim of the glass, as always, and it lived up to expectations: pure bourbon on the palate. Then conversation starts and I’m not paying attention and I sip through the straw. A mistake I do not make most of the time. Oh. My. God. Perceptions transformed, my mid-western drawl became a little southern, stars aligned in the heavens, and I understood! This drink truly is one of the classics, a drink that stands alongside the old fashioned, the Manhattan, and martini. This summer I invite you to try a mint julep.
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