By Jason Wilson
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
My mother hails from the South, and every spring, something deep in my DNA seems to stir.
Or at least that's what I told myself the other afternoon when it was perfectly sunny out and I was sitting inside the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel, drinking mint juleps. My mother's son is as Yankee as can be, so don't worry: This isn't going to turn into one of those sappy paeans to the Old South set to a refrain of "My Old Kentucky Home." You'll surely see enough of that as Derby Day approaches Saturday, along with fancy hats and people drinking bad mint juleps.
"The Kentucky Derby has done more to give this drink a bad name than anyone else," said Jim Hewes, the Round Robin Bar's veteran bartender, who deplores the mass-produced, lukewarm stuff -- full of shortcuts -- that often passes for a julep at this time of year. Hewes crafts beautiful mint juleps based on what reputedly was Henry Clay's original 19th-century recipe, and he probably makes more mint juleps each year than anyone else outside of Churchill Downs.
I happen to love mint juleps, but that afternoon a question arose in the Round Robin Bar, amid the billiard-table-green walls, dark wood and portraits of Buffalo Bill Cody, Eleanor Roosevelt and Walt Whitman. That question: Can the mint julep be saved from the Kentucky Derby?
If those are fightin' words, then fine. That's the thing about the mint julep. The drink, so seemingly straightforward, just causes arguments. I know right now, for instance, that I will get several dozen e-mails this week, politely (or maybe not so politely) correcting the mint julep recipe published here.
"It is a controversial drink, each maker insisting on a particular method with seldom any agreement," writes Collette Richardson in her 1973 House & Garden's Drink Guide.
"In the dark backward of time," writes cocktail historian Dave Wondrich, "the Proper Construction of the Julep, like the Beauty of My State's Women, and the Timing of Pickett's Charge, was one of those topics that an American male with social aspirations was expected to regard as a matter of honor."
Even Clay, the Great Compromiser, couldn't bear it when he arrived in the nation's capital and found juleps were being made with applejack and rum, not his native Kentucky bourbon. And so he demonstrated the proper way at the Willard Hotel.
What I like best about the mint julep is its simplicity: mint, sugar, bourbon, ice. Yet as with the martini and the Manhattan, there are hundreds of competing variations, and most of them boil down to esoteric matters of procedure. Do you add the ice before the bourbon, or the bourbon before the ice? What sort of mint do you use? Do you use branch water directly from the stream the bourbon distillery is built upon, or will a squirt of soda water from a gun work just fine?
Do you muddle the mint with refined sugar, simple syrup, perhaps peach syrup? Do you sprinkle confectioners' sugar on top, or add a little splash of rum? Do you use those precious silver beakers, or just a regular old Collins glass? Those issues can be debated until the end of time.
For me, the most important aspect of the mint julep is that it must be cold.
A mint julep should be so cold that the glass frosts. Don't even touch the glass with those warm, grubby hands of yours; use a napkin or a towel.
You can never pack enough ice into a mint julep. There should be just enough room to slide a bar spoon or knife down the side to agitate the drink till the glass frosts. And then you can always add another handful of ice, snow cone style, on top.
Here are some of my other personal rules for drinking -- and debating -- a mint julep:
· A mint julep is an afternoon drink; never drink one after the sun sets.
· A mint julep is to be enjoyed by itself; never try to complicate it by mixing it with food.
· If you're from the South, no one up North will ever make a mint julep the right way (see Henry Clay, above).
"There's a sincerity to this drink," Hewes says. "There's no bells and whistles with a mint julep."
I agree. Which means maybe I'm not as much of a Yankee as I imagine myself to be.
Jason Wilson's Spirits column appears every other week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.