Mint Julep: A Drink for All Seasons

Margaret Houston
by Jonathan Miles - May/June 2008

The mint julep isn’t just for the Derby anymore

Aside from the martini, the mint julep may be the most iconic cocktail in America. There’s not a citizen alive who hasn’t heard of it, which is more than you can say for the Manhattan, the Cosmopolitan, the Sidecar, and the Negroni, all of which outsell mint juleps by a staggeringly wide margin. And that, mind you, is if you can even locate the rare bartender willing to fix you one. So here’s the saloon riddle for the day: If we know and adore mint juleps — “the very dream of drinks,” as a Kentucky newspaperman named J. Soule Smith wrote, accurately, in the 1890s — so damn much, then why don’t we drink them?

Allow me to cut you off before you tell me about your last Derby Day party: Sorry, that doesn’t count. A drink this sublime —“the zenith of man’s pleasure,” Mr. Smith went on — shouldn’t be relegated to sipping just one day a year, like a fruitcake waiting for Christmas. It does not require, as a garnish, a televised horse race and a bunch of Yankees doing Foghorn Leghorn imitations. Nor will I brook the claim that juleps are hard to make. They’re no more difficult than all the mojitos that have been creeping their way north from Miami for the past half decade or so. They’re easier, in fact, since they don’t require a giant sack of limes. No, our weird resistance to drinking mint juleps — let’s cue Mr. Smith one more time, before we call him a cab: “He who has not tasted one has lived in vain” — is owing to something else.

Here’s my theory: The mint julep has become too iconic to merely drink. It’s like the communion wafer of cocktails. For one, there’s all the back-and-forth scuffling among historians and professional “alcohologists” (to crib H. L. Mencken’s great term) about the inscrutable origins of the drink and the proper and properly authentic way to mix a julep — do you leave the mint in or remove it? Must the ice be crushed? And was the actual cause of the Civil War, as the author Irvin S. Cobb posited in 1936, an obnoxious Northerner adding nutmeg to a mint julep? Then there are those silver julep cups that tradition dictates using. They’re intimidating. And it feels downright silly drinking out of one of those while you’re watching the Braves on TV with your other hand nestled in a bowl of Ruffles. (I have a vast collection of those cups, all of them awarded to me for playing the groomsman role in various Southern weddings. In fact, there’s one on my desk as I type this. I keep pens in it.) Owing to all this pomp and kerfuffle, drinking a mint julep, to some folks, can feel too much like an affectation, akin to rechristening the porch the veranda, or yourself the Colonel. That’s way too much cultural pressure when you’re just trying to cool yourself off on a summer afternoon. Makes you want to reach for a Bud and be done with it. Don’t.
 

The mint julep may be sacred in the South, but so is college football, and that doesn’t stop us from enjoying it. It’s not a tuxedo, requiring a special occasion. It’s a drink, a splendid and simple drink, the ideal analgesic to a tough day at work, and the perfect — yes, perfect — counter to the redlining mercury of a hot Southern day. Its central ingredients — mint, bourbon, sugar — do not suffer from clumsy commingling, nor demand engraved vessels, nor mind if you root for the New York Giants so long as Eli is taking the snap. (They will, however, violently boil over if you add nutmeg.) Citizens, it’s high time to reclaim the mint julep from the curators, the purists, the tsk-tsking authenticators and frowning archbishops of Southern culture. Think of it like the blues: It’s swell that all these archivists are preserving it, and it’s great that a microtonal analysis of Robert Johnson’s “Drunken Hearted Man” demonstrates Robert’s debt to Lonnie Johnson, but, really, shouldn’t we all be dancing?
 
MINT JULEP RECIPE

½ oz. superfine sugar
1 oz. hot water
8 mint leaves, plus one mint sprig
2 oz. bourbon

Dissolve the sugar in the water in an old-fashioned glass (or julep cup, of course). Add the mint leaves and press them lightly with a spoon — you want to seduce the oil from the mint leaves, not beat it out of them. Add the bourbon, fill the glass with cracked ice, and stir. Plant the mint sprig in the ice alongside a short straw, and serve.

Yield: 1 serving

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