The Virginian rises in the morning, about six o’clock. He then drinks a julap, made of rum, water and sugar, but very strong.
– anonymous traveler, 1787.
Some unknown admirer of [Washington Irving's] books and mine sent to the hotel a most enormous mint julep, wreathed in flowers. We sat, one on either side of it, with great solemnity (it filled a respectably-sized round table) but the solemnity was of very short duration. It was quite an enchanted julep, and carried us among innumerable people and places we both knew. The julep held out far into the night, and my memory never saw [Irving] afterwards otherwise than as bending over it, with his straw, with an attempted air of gravity (after some anecdote involving some wonderfully droll and delicate observation of character), and then as his eye caught mine, melting into that captivating laugh of his, which was the brightest and best that I have ever heard.
– Charles Dickens, Baltimore 1842
Oh, what the hell. Coming into Derby weekend, everybody else is piling onboard the julep bandwagon, and considering I’ve been tapping these a little bit myself over the past couple of weeks, I might as well get in on the action.
Whatever action that may be. For a drink that’s been debated to death for generations –its history is full of old stemwinders concerning Kentucky colonels, trickling brooks, pistols under the duelling oaks, the smell of magnolia blossoms and honeysuckle on the Southern breeze, and waves of breathless “fiddle-dee-dees” on summer afternoons– it’s pretty damn difficult to settle on what, exactly, a julep is. Ask most people who have any clue about it whatsoever, and the common elements of “mint” and “bourbon” will be mentioned, but as we see from the anonymous traveler quoted above, the julep as described 220 years ago had neither. In-depth analyses of the julep have been prepared — George Sinclair has an intriguing overview of the history of the julep in print over here — but what all indications point to is a whirlwind of different recipes, with a few basic elements in common.
Which is as it should be, as far as I’m concerned, because with few other drinks do you see as great a degree of attention, humble respect and dedication as is found with the julep. People who subsist 51 weeks out of the year on vanilla vodka mixed with Coke suddenly find religion when Derby day rolls around, planting their feet firmly in various camps regarding the muddling of the mint and the crushing of the ice, proclaiming louder and more boisterously with each drink — some Southern heritage helps, here — that theirs is the only true path toward the immaculate conception of the ultimate julep.
Though perhaps that image is touched with my own wispy haze of julep-induced sentimentality. In the heart of the modern julep kingdom, ghastly concoctions of mint-flavored bourbons, sweetened mint pastes and other assorted premixes are dragging the julep down. And its one-time reign as the regent of Southern refreshers ended long ago, having ceded the title to sweet tea and Coca Cola. While enthusiasts of different stripes draw lines in the sand regarding the proper construction of the julep, the masses are sticking straws into plastic cups filled with syrupy bottom-shelf booze that smells and tastes something like toothpaste. Fiddle-dee-dee, indeed.
Me, I’m just thankful nobody’s calling it the “julep-tini” (and if you know of someone who is, please keep it to yourself. I like to live in blissful ignorance when it comes to such things). While refusing to be dragged into the whole “what’s a real mint julep?” debate, I do have a taste for them. Here are a couple of recipes I’m fond of; I’m not saying they’re the most historically authentic, or the best, or the most adventurous — they’re simply a couple that I like.
- 6-8 leaves of fresh mint, the smaller and fresher, the better (if they’re really small, toss in a few more)
- 1 teaspoon sugar or 2 tsp simple syrup
- 2 ounces — scratch that, 3 ounces — good bourbon, emphasis on the good — I’m fond of Maker’s Mark, W.L. Weller and Buffalo Trace in these; if I’m feeling a little more indulgent, I’ll reach for some Van Winkle
- Ice galore
Gently, very gently muddle the mint in the bottom of a tall glass, taking care to swab the sides of the glass with the oil seeping from the lightly bruised mint leaves. Add the syrup or the sugar (with a few drops of water to help it dissolve), and a little of the bourbon. Gently stir, then fill the glass with well-crushed ice*. Add the rest of the bourbon, and a little more ice so the glass is completely full. Stir briskly until the glass frosts. Top with more ice if needed (if you want to get really decadent, sprinkle a little Jamaican rum over the top), and garnish with a few beautiful mint sprigs. Skewer with a straw, cut short enough so you have to get your face right down in the mint. You can sprinkle the top with powdered sugar if you like, but I always wind up getting it on the tip of my nose and looking like an idiot, so I skip that step. Let it sit for 5 minutes or so before indulging.
As above, but instead of the bourbon, use 2 ounces of nice cognac. After all the muddling, stirring and icing, fill the glass with dry champagne. Decadent and dangerous.
For a lower-octane version for all those people who find bourbon too boozy, you can also make a champagne julep without the brandy — it’s lighter in alcohol, but still incredibly tasty, and has a distinctly festive edge.
* No ice crusher? No problem — while the whole concept of a julep can be thrown askew by using ice cubes, you can easily crush your own ice using a clean kitchen towel and something heavy, like a rolling pin or a sturdy kitchen spoon. Simply wrap your cubes in the towel, place the bundle on the counter and, while firmly grasping your implement, think fierce thoughts. I’ve found a simple visualization of Dick Cheney works wonders to help me convert my pile of ice cubes into a mound of snow.