In honor of the 134th annual Kentucky Derby, which just happens to be happening tomorrow, I am making mint juleps. How could I not? Since I am neither a Southerner, nor have I ever been to Churchill Downs, I very easily could not. But I have lots of Southern friends and often like to pretend I am from the South–especially when I’ve been drinking bourbon. If I drink rum, I like to pretend I’m from the Midwest.
Ah, Magnolia. Ah, Churchill Downs. I’m certain that, had Sir Winston ever visited Kentucky, he would have downed several. Juleps, I mean. In case you didn’t know, the mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938. Prior to 1938, I very much doubt anyone cared about officially recognizing official drinks.
The Julep, courtesy of Merriam-Webster.com: ju·lep
Pronunciation: \ ‘jü-əp\
Etymology: Middle English, from Middle French, from Arabic julāb, from Persian gulāb, from gul rose + āb water (that’s rosewater, in case you weren’t following).
Date: 14th Century
1: a drink consisting of sweet syrup, flavoring, and water 2: a drink consisting of a liquor (as bourbon or brandy) and sugar poured over crushed ice and garnished with mint.
For the purposes of todays post, we will focus on number two. Definition number two, that is.
I am a sucker for a good mint julep, and it isn’t very often one comes across one– especially in California. When I was a young lad living in Los Angeles, my favorite bar/restaurant was called Ports. It had no sign, yet the habitués were congenial. I once asked my favored bartender to make me a julep, but he lacked the necessary fresh mint and therefore refused me. Two warm summer evenings later, I asked again for a Julep and he replied again in the negative. I then produced a large bunch of spearmint, presenting it to him as I would a nosegay. He accepted, sniffed, and made everyone at the bar a julep. And then we started dating.
Until I ran out of mint.
The Mint Julep
Thought it may sometimes seem that the Persians pretty much invented everything, it’s the American South that may lay claim to the mint julep. Sometime during the 18th Century, white people living below the Mason-Dixon line started drinking this concoction of bourbon, ice, sugar, water, and mint. Henry Clay introduced the drink to the swamps of Washington, D.C. in the early 19th Century at the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel, months before the hotel was bought out by the InterContinental chain.
What I enjoy so much about the julep is that it is refreshing, incredibly easy to make, and yet not so simple. There are essentially five ingredients and twenty-seven thousand theories upon how to make one. For an excellent read on what is, what is not, and what might be considered a true mint julep, I encourage you to read Jason Wilson’s story Juleps for the Derby? All Bets Are Off. It made me a very, very happy fellow.
About 8 fresh mint leaves, plus one attractive sprig for garnishing
1 teaspoon of superfine sugar (it dissolves better than table sugar)
3 ounces Kentucky bourbon
a good splash of soda water
Crushed ice, and lots of it
Powdered Sugar, for dusting (I’d never done this until reading Wilson’s article, now it shall be forever part of my Julep schtick)
1. Chill a tall Collins glass or silver julep cup in your freezer for a few minutes.
2. Combine mint, sugar, soda, and half of the bourbon in the bottom of the glass. Muddle gently.
3. Add a few spoonsful of crushed ice and stir. Fill the glass the rest of the way with ice, top off with the second half of the bourbon, garnish with mint, and dust with powdered sugar.
4. Drink immediately, but don’t grab the glass around the middle unless you wish to give yourself away as unrepentently Yankee.
If you now have especially strong feelings about the mint julep, you might wish to join the Mint Julep Sisterhood. Please watch this instructive video. NB: Granny Mae is wearing a snood, which means I must love her, in spite of her toothlessness.
If you have been suffering from the Vapors, I hope this has helped. Enjoy your Derby Day.