Some call it the Run for the Roses. I call it an occasion to clean the old stains from a second-tier seersucker jacket and ring the starting bell on the daydrinking season. It is spring again, and it is time to make new stains, over and under a round of mint juleps.
The Kentucky Derby is a pagan ritual centered in Louisville. Dr. Thompson, who sketched an unsurpassable portrait of the event in “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved,” defined it most succinctly in a letter to Pat Oliphant, referring to the first Saturday in May as "the annual horse-shit and bourbon orgy." An awful lot of whiskey-marinated ice has sloshed around at Churchill Downs while the four-legged animals perform on the dirt track and the two-legged sort cavort in the infield and the grandstand. The mob at the Derby—joined by the crowds at house parties, OTBs, and Dixie-expat restaurants around the world—has conspired with fate to make a mess of a great American cocktail.
What a distinctly American mess it is! A mint julep is best when simply prepared, but it is always a complex drink—labor intensive and culturally knotty. For centuries, intraregional beefs have raged regarding its most correct preparation. Mustn’t there have been duels? Isn’t the fantasy of the julep entwined both with its undeniable Southern charm and also the traditions that William Faulkner and Kara Walker and everyone have been trying to tell you about? And all that expensive ice on top of all that!—properly made and patiently sipped, a mint julep is a drink you have a relationship with, a full amusement experience.
In his indispensable Straight Up or On The Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail (1993), William Grimes traces the emergence of the modern mint julep to the Commonwealth of Virginia in the 1800s. Grimes passes along a recipe from the English novelist Frederick Marryat, who toured the United States in the 1830s and set down a native recipe: Put 10 or 12 tender shoots of mint in a tumbler, add a little sugar, and fill the tumbler one third with liquor (a blend of brandies in his case): "Then take rasped or pounded ice, and fill up the tumbler. Epicures rub the lip of the tumbler with a piece of fresh pineapple, and the tumbler itself is very often encrusted outside with stalactites of ice."
People drank these all fucking day long; a 17-hour stagecoach ride in Virginia could involve 10 public-house pit stops. Charles Dickens writes of splitting an enchanted one with Washington Irving in Baltimore in 1842: "Some unknown admirer of his 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 a very short duration." Kentucky's Henry Clay, supporting his constituents, introduced a bourbon julep to the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the hotel’s Round Robin Bar became a steward of the institutional memory of the drink.
Then the Confederacy flared and died. The drink held up through Reconstruction and took root at the Derby in 1875. But in the 1900s, the julep's cultural identity disappeared into a swamp of nostalgia, with its ritual appearances amounting, in Grimes' view, to "a rather strained evocation of the Old South": "The drink reached its nadir in the 1950s, when a shortcut julep reared its head: a cold shot of bourbon stirred with a peppermint stick." Unclean! As God is my witness, I’m not going to lick that peppermint stick. Let us lay down some standards.
But first we must recognize our limits. There is nothing to be done about the situation at Churchill Downs. "The Official Mint Julep of the Kentucky Derby" is a ready-to-serve beverage assembled with Early Times Kentucky Whiskey. Approximately 10,000 bottles of this will be served this weekend. I have three tangential comments regarding this revolting phenomenon.
1) Early Times does not meet the legal definition of bourbon, as it is not aged in new barrels. To be clear, to repeat, it is perfectly acceptable to make a julep without bourbon; you can give rye a try, and you should know that the Georgia Mint Julep relies on brandy and peach brandy. But throwing a big party in Kentucky and failing to put bourbon into its official mint julep is a bit like selling solar power in Newcastle.
2) It once took me eight years to finish a bottle of Early Times left over from a party. I was reading the label incorrectly. Now that I’m older, I realize that when they say Early Times, they mean "olden days"—corn cob pipes on the portico and such. But back then, I drank Early Times exclusively at what were, to my mind, relatively early times of the day to be drinking mediocre whiskey—times like 4 p.m. and 5 a.m. and noon—and I developed an aversion to the brand.
3) I will nonetheless give my probationary blessing to other ready-to-serve juleps. They're a legitimate shortcut for a host intent that his drink taste of mint. (As opposed to the host who, privileging aroma, knows that a mint garnish will do the trick.) It is encouraging to see that bars from Portland to New York to Scottsdale, Ariz., are barrel-aging their own julep in house. See also this premixed mint julep from Maker's Mark, and admire the package’s color-wheel spin on the traditional dribble of sealing wax.
Meanwhile at Churchill Downs, the nobs will be drinking $1,000 juleps made with Woodford Reserve, "The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby." (A portion of that sum goes toward the purchase of a commemorative cup, and there is a charity deal involved, but still I must hope that that customers get at least one free refill.)
There is nothing to be done, but the rest of us can rise up and establish a code of julep decorum appropriate to the 21st century. I've roughed out some notes for a manifesto. Take a look.
CHOOSING YOUR HARDWARE
A mint julep tastes best in a silver goblet of elaborate sentimental value. Yours might be engraved with the initials of a favored great-aunt, for instance, or of a long-vanquished foe.
If you have no such item in your cupboard, consider the following substitutes, listed in descending order of desirability: any other kind of silver goblet, a pewter goblet, a silver cup, a pewter cup that you inherited even though your cousin really wanted it very badly, any other kind of pewter cup, any other kind of goblet, a Collins glass, a highball glass , any other tall tumbler, a white wine glass, a two-handle sippy cup.
A vessel bearing a julep wants to be frosty cold to the touch, so it's essential to offer your guests napkins. Cloth napkins are better for the environment—and, more importantly, your social status—than paper. Linen dabs nicely at the eyes of debutantes indulging irrational crying jags beneath their hat brims.
Flexi-straws are extra-nifty, but this is not a day for those. If there are to be straws, then all shall draw short ones and nuzzle garnishes of mint leaves with appreciative noses.
CRUSHING THE ICE
The ice must be crushed, cracked, shaved, rasped, pounded, pebbled, shattered, otherwise reduced to rubble. You can complete this task with a machine or with a muddler, but my favorite technique involves walking into a bar and politely ordering them to do it.
The most emotionally satisfying method involves clubbing the hell out of your ice with a blunt object while it's inside a Lewis bag, the canvas lining of which wicks away moisture and keeps your ice dry.
Different techniques will yield different textures. For instance, Outing magazine—a lifestyle monthly that was perhaps the Details of the 1880s—believed the ice should achieve the texture of hail. Consequently, its editors recommended a very specific approach: Wrap the ice in "a stout towel” and strike “a few blows against a brick wall." Caveat wall-whacker.
SWEETENING THE DEAL
Some bourbon from stills within shouting distances, some mint leaves from a shady bank of a lazy creek, some water from the dew on the leaves of the mint—the old-school mint julep was mostly a locavore production, yes, but they imported the sugar at significant cost. We are dealing in tradition here, and the gesture is essential. The first thing to put in your julep cup is just a touch of sugar—a pinch of granulated stuff or a dash of simple syrup, maybe just a quarter ounce of sugar for every two ounces of bourbon. Steep some mint in your simple syrup if you like, but know that in so doing you risk bitterness.
SELECTING YOUR LIQUOR
There is no one correct bourbon for julep-making, but I make mine with Virginia Gentleman, partly because it is light and spicy, partly because it is fun to antagonize Kentuckians. To call for Virginia Gentleman is to remind your inferiors that the old Bourbon County—land that now represents a huge swath of Kentucky—once was a unit of Virginia, and that Kentucky as a whole has not amounted to much in the centuries since it separated from the Old Dominion.
Make your julep with any kind of bourbon, any kind of whiskey, any decent liquor at all. Brandy juleps are specially mellow, and you should try one sometime, garnished with a fancy cherry.
One way to celebrate the first Saturday of May in 2012 (and 2018 and 2029 and 2035 and …) is to look to another lost empire. Whenever the Derby is coincident with Cinco de Mayo, whip up a julep that substitutes a reposado tequila for bourbon and agave nectar for simple syrup. Maybe float a little mezcal on top for the sake of the smoke. Risk getting fanciful with the fruit garnishes, like a frivolous gringo on holiday.
If you frequent the kind of bobo saloons depicted on Portlandia and the like, then simply repeat the above paragraph—which is the one authentic recipe for "Slate's Postcolonial Tequila Julep"—to your suspender-clad mixologist. He'll know what to do. Tip generously; that moustache wax ain't cheap.
STIRRING TO FROST
As noted above, a vessel bearing a julep wants to be frosty cold to the touch. How is this best accomplished? I suggest asking a Yankee. I suggest asking a Yankee because when you ask a southerner, you risking getting an answer from the sort of person who gets very mystical about the thing.
Here comes a Yankee, now. It’s Mr. Boston, of Bartender’s Guide Bostons. He tells you to pour half an ounce of simple syrup into your silver cup and then to fill it with crushed ice and to add bourbon and stir: "Stir until glass is heavily frosted, adding more ice if necessary. (Do not hold glass with hand while stirring.)"
Somewhat less direct is the wisteria-addled Lt. Gen. S.B. Buckner, Jr., whose father, later the governor of Kentucky, surrendered Fort Donelson to Ulysses S. Grant. The son once posted a letter to a chum at West Point:
By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glistening coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.
I do declare that the gentleman writes like Foghorn Leghorn reciting Anaïs Nin. I will allow that this style represents an improvement on another florid school of julep-tribute—the kind produced by older white guys who, rhapsodizing about the mint, can get to sounding like Burl Ives playing Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
ROMANCING THE MINT
Minthe was a naiad, a water nymph stationed at a tributary to one the better rivers of hell. One night not too long ago, she saw the god Hades pass in his horse-drawn chariot, and she admired his powerful form. Hades was totally hitting that until his wife, Persephone, blocking on the Cocytus, turned Minthe into a plant.
Julepists get especially weird about their spearmint leaves, their Mentha spicata. A hardline faction largely comprising morons insists that the mint be brutally abused with a muddler. Others more sensibly say “smash” or “crush lightly.” Others yet fetishically discuss “pressing” or “slapping” or “clapping” or “smacking” or “bruising” the mint to awaken its oils. Perverts.
Tell these well-meaning people not to knock themselves out for your sake. Given the option, ask your host merely to garnish your drink with one groomed sprig of new mint leaves. When you’re done with the drink, chew a couple of the leaves, which will do something to mitigate the fact that you reek of bourbon. Wear the sprig on your lapel, if you are so moved, and if your buttonhole doesn’t have better plans. Do what you will. Bring out the nymph.