“When the mint is in the liquor and its fragrance on the glass, it breathes a recollection that can never, never pass.” – Clarence Ousley (1863-1948)
The hypnotizing melody of frogs croaking, crickets chirping and a pair of whippoorwills crying in distant harmony signals the beginning of a new season. The air is now delicious with the married fragrances of magnolias and jasmine. From my front porch, tucked deep in the tall timbers where no man-made light intrudes, the moonlight kisses the earth and makes all life vibrant and youthfully renewed.
It is springtime! But, enough of the lyrical rambling about moonlight and magnolias. Let’s get to the good stuff: Mint Juleps. The perfect drink for the perfect season.
The Mint Julep is a classic bourbon drink that excites passion, curiosity, and soothing pleasure. Just the thought of writing about this magical elixir inspires an inclination toward poetic reminiscences, and flowery language in the Faulknerian tradition. Another testament to the concoction’s enchanting appeal, I suppose.
I experienced my first Mint Julep on the most apt of stages: on the infield grass of Churchill Downs, first Saturday of May 1973. The mint-infused bourbon sloshed in my cup as I witnessed a horse named Secretariat gallop into Kentucky Derby lore. Secretariat, of course, is perhaps the greatest thoroughbred race horse ever molded by God’s hand, with the possible exception of Man-O-War – but that is a debate for another day, that would best be had while sipping a tall Mint Julep.
On that memorable day in the Spring of ‘73, I developed two of the greatest passions of my life: horse racing and the incomparable Mint Julep. It was a glorious day indeed, to witness the making of one of the greatest race horses ever, and to be seduced by a formula with the ability to actually improve the enjoyment of bourbon!
A Mint Julep is essentially nothing more than bourbon and a sugary syrup poured over crushed or shaved ice and garnished with sprigs of fresh spearmint. Long before Mary Poppins crooned about a “spoonful of sugar” making the medicine go down, folks below the Mason-Dixon line knew that sugar, paired with mint, made bourbon all the more refreshing and palatable.
American history is replete with tales and controversies surrounding the ceremonial indulgences of this iconic Southern drink.
In 1842, renowned novelists Charles Dickens and Washington Irvin enjoyed an extremely large and well prepared Julep in a Baltimore, Maryland, hotel. Dickens was hooked instantly, and the Julep became his drink of choice for the remainder of his life. Both Dickens and Irvin were enamored of the “mound of ice” and the deliciousness it stored. Dickens later claimed that he never saw Irvin in his imagination without that Mint Julep, “bending over it, with a straw, with an attempted air of gravity!”
In my personal estimation, any ranking of U.S. Presidents would place Theodore Roosevelt second only to Mr. Jefferson – on a scale measuring leadership and fascinating personal qualities. Now, this is only my humble opinion, of course. Should you disagree, perhaps we can discuss the subject someday over a Julep. On the other hand, should you agree, we can certainly discuss it over several!
I love the old Rough Rider, Teddy Roosevelt. He was a man’s man – my kind of guy. A healthy dose of Teddy’s progressive politics would surely serve his Republican party well today!
In April of 1913, Teddy Roosevelt filed a libel suit against the Iron Ore, a local rag from Ishpeming, Michigan. The newspaper’s editors had accused the President of being mostly drunk on Mint Juleps and other alcoholic beverages during much of his presidency. In what must have been Roosevelt’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” moment, he defiantly proclaimed: “ I have never been drunk or in the slightest degree under the influence of liquor.” However, under mounting pressure, under oath, during cross-examination, the old bull Roosevelt finally conceded that mint grew in abundance on the White House lawn and that he did, indeed, “throw back a good mint julep now and then.” Nonetheless, Teddy prevailed at trial, and the newspaper made an official apology, as well it should have.
As one might expect, there are a dizzying number of Julep recipes in circulation. Fierce debates have raged over the centuries, extolling the virtues of various techniques of Julep preparation. Indeed, personalities ranging from backgrounds as diverse as Jefferson Davis, Andrew Johnson, Tennessee Williams, Zelda Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, and Bob Dylan have all passionately advocated for their techniques and special formulas. The following are my personal favorites.
Henry Clay’s Mint Julep
Kentucky statesman Henry Clay was a Mint Julep aficionado. He introduced the bartender at the famed Willard Hotel in Washington D.C. to the drink in the early 1820’s. His recipe has been meticulously observed at that establishment ever since; to this day, the Willard Julep is served just as “the Great Compromiser” instructed. The following is the method of making a Julep in Clay’s own words, as extracted from his diary:
The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.
In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with the choicest sprigs of mint.
Although the Peabody Hotel lobby in Memphis, Tennessee, serves a decent Mint Julep, and Monmouth Plantation in Natchez, Mississippi, is noted for its own Juleps, I have yet to encounter a Julep better than those crafted at the Willard!
The Mississippi Planter’s Mint Julep
Mississippi planter, author, and poet William Alexander Percy, in his classic memorial to the South, and defense of Southern traditions, “Lanterns on the Levee,” provided meticulous instruction on proper preparation of a Mint Julep. Years later, award winning novelist Walker Percy, Mr. Will’s cousin and adopted son, appropriated the recipe and gave it wider exposure in his 1975 essay entitled “Bourbon”:
You need excellent bourbon whiskey; rye or scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly – and here is the trick in the procedure – crush your ice, actually powder it – preferably with a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it in with your hands. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then, settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.
William Faulkner’s Mint Julep Recipe
New Albany native and Mississippi’s favorite son, Nobel Laureate William Faulkner, was also seduced by the magical cocktail. When he wasn’t slugging bourbon neat, Mr. Faulkner would famously have a refreshing Mint Julep on his desk, as he penned some of the most celebrated literature of the Twentieth Century.
Can’t you just imagine Mr. Bill, pipe in mouth, Julep in hand, as he constructed the complex sentences found in “Absalom, Absalom,” “Light in August,” “Intruder in the Dust,” and “The Sound and the Fury”? Interestingly enough, the complexity of Mr. Faulkner’s writing style did not extend to his Julep recipe:
3 oz. bourbon
1 tsp. sugar
2 sprigs crushed mint (preferably muddled)
My Mint Julep Rules
RULE 1: Enjoy Stereotypically.
Much to our dismay, we Southerners get stereotyped. Sadly, the uncivilized world views us all in one of two ways: Mint Julep-sipping plantation masters or barefoot rednecks. I pay homage to these stereotypes by taking my Juleps barefooted with the sun beating down on my exposed neck.
RULE 2: Sip Ceremoniously.
Never drink a Mint Julep; they are made for sipping! Although Walker Percy would disagree, I believe one properly prepared Mint Julep should last at least an hour. The minty, sugary slush in the last swallow is the best part. I won’t name names, but in 2002, I witnessed someone dear to me drink fourteen Juleps on Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs. If you are, by chance, reading this…you know who you are! Ha!
RULE 3: Chalice Etiquette.
A Mint Julep is properly served in a silver, pewter, or glass container. Any deviation is unacceptable. To have a Julep from any container that is not of permanent value is a sacrilege that cannot be tolerated. It is equivalent to placing plastic flowers at gravesites on Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day. You just don’t do it. Only God can judge you. But, if you pour this majestic Southern nectar into a cup made of paper, plastic, or Styrofoam, He most certainly will.
RULE 4: Respect the Mint.
Never, and I do mean never, garnish a Julep with anything but fresh, young, tender spearmint. A Julep is no place for peppermint, much less any of the newfangled hybrid orange, chocolate and lemon flavored varieties. And, by all means, do not add pineapples, cherries, or any other such foolishness. If you do, either show some respect and call it something other than a Mint Julep, or carry it north of the Mason-Dixon line.
RULE 5: The Seersucker Rule.
Never have a Julep before Easter or after Labor Day. Like seersucker, white linen, and white bucks, the Julep is seasonal. Of course, this rule is subject to exception in the South, and can be amended in the event the heat lingers on into late September – as, thankfully, it often does.
RULE 6: Share the Joy.
Juleps are made for the fellowship of friends. Never drink a Mint Julep alone – unless, of course, you happen to be by yourself.
A Few Final Thoughts
Tragically, the noble Mint Julep is rarely enjoyed these days. The sun set years ago on this most righteous libation. Only on Derby Day are they truly celebrated, and the care with which they are made these days is little more than a masquerading fraud. It is not the sweet sugar, the fragrant mint, the cool ice, nor even the aged bourbon that makes an authentic Mint Julep. It is, rather, the ceremony of preparation, the ritual of sharing, the joy of hospitality, the bonds of friendship, and the anticipation of that “cumulative bliss” that Mr. Will Percy understood so well, that makes a Mint Julep.
Kentucky Colonel Joshua Soule Smith, writing in 1890 summed it up best. The Julep is the “zenith” of man’s pleasure,” said Colonel Smith. “No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maiden’s touch could be more passionate.” The old colonel instructs us to “sip it and dream – it is a dream itself.”
As the time-honored virtues of the past – honor, duty, chivalry, and social graces – faded under pressure from so-called progress and modernization, so, too, did the drink that best epitomized those values. Today, we live in a hurry-up world of ugliness, sin, and sorrow. Perhaps my advancing age has made me something of a cantankerous old curmudgeon, but, dog-gone-it, this world of ours has gone mad! Everything seems demented, deranged, and preposterous.
The current Presidential race is a case-in-point. Donald J. Trump is a narcissistic, misogynistic demagogue. Ted Cruz is a reincarnated Joseph McCarthy, only smarter and, therefore, more dangerous. Hillary Clinton has more baggage than a passenger train full of Ole Miss sorority girls bound for New Orleans. Bernie Sanders is an impractical, starry-eyed, admitted socialist! Yet, one of these charlatans is likely to become the next leader of the free world. Can you believe it?
The Republican Party has finally gone completely crazy, and the Democrats remain inept, predictably weak, and totally out of touch. The Neanderthals in the Mississippi legislature pander to fear, bigotry, and ignorance, while our own Governor shamelessly approves and applauds.
ISIS continues the slaughter of innocence. Radical Islam grows daily. Christians are being persecuted and killed for their faith all over the world. Climate change is a fact. Educational standards are falling while violent crime rises. The world economy is teetering on the brink of collapse. Cancer still kills and new fatal viruses are discovered with alarming frequency. And, to make matters worse, America’s premier singer-poet Merle Haggard is no longer amongst the quick.
Sin and sorrow are, indeed, all around.
Yet, I have learned to cope. I have come to grips with a troubled world I cannot change. Sometimes, the traffic light in my mind turns red. Then, I know it is time to stop, stop worrying.
So, allow me to conclude by respectfully submitting my prescription for coping with our unhinged world. It works for me. Perhaps it will work for you.
Pray to and put your trust in the only One who controls our future.
Take a walk, barefoot, in the tender, new Spring grass.
Plant a garden.
Boil some crawfish.
Smoke some ribs.
Fry some crappie.
Relax for a season. Forget the troubled world for a moment. It’s Springtime! So do as our beloved Southern forefathers did. Fix yourself a Julep. Relish it with friends. And, enjoy this wonderful gift called life!