Here it comes, the first Saturday in May. That means the annual running of the thoroughbreds at Churchill Downs, known as the “Run for the Roses” or more commonly as the Kentucky Derby. With the race will come the slew of rookie mint julep orders. Some years ago I had an experience that defined the weekend.
“I’ll have a mint julep thing,” said the bubbly blonde at the bar. She had recently married into money and was in the process of trying to add culture to her repertoire by purchasing it, sort of a Pygmalion thing without the Higgins guy and all the work.
“Put it in a soda glass and make it sweet,” she said her blue-green eyes sparkling.
Since this was before the advent of the Mojito, we had no fresh mint available; luckily our chef had some growing in a box on the back patio near the outside storeroom. I picked four or five sprigs and raced back to the bar. Luckily this was not the busiest place on the planet and I had time for these flights of fancy. I gathered some crushed ice from the cook’s line and set to work.
I mashed the mint with the crushed ice added a liberal dose of sugar syrup, some Southern bourbon, shook it up, poured it into a soda glass and topped it with sparkling water.
She took one sip and wrinkled her perfect little nose.
“This tastes terrible,” she said. “ I hate whiskey and this tastes just like minty whiskey.”
Of course it did, because that is almost exactly what it is.
The julep began its life in theArabian desertas a rose petal infused drink with no alcohol. Hundreds of years ago the nearby Persians picked up their neighbor’s tradition, substituting mint for the rose petals and the mint Golâb was invented. Since mint has been known as a refresher, or pick me up, since ancient times, the Golâb soon became sort of an early morning kick-in-the-pants drink essentially filling the role of today’s double shot of espresso. Golâb (which reportedly means rosewater) soon became jolâb and made its way toEngland. Anglicizing it to “julep” the term came to mean a sugar flavored syrup featuring many different flavors, although mint was still heavily favored. By the 1800’s American southerners were known to enjoy a mint-flavored beverage mixed with spirits in order to fortify themselves for their morning chores.
About this time Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr. (grandson of the famous explorer Clark, known to school kids in the tandem of Lewis and Clark) decided to import a British horseracing tradition to his nativeKentucky. Settling on the track at Churchill Downs (named for his family members) the horse race started out as a mile and halfer for 3-year-old fillies and geldings (ouch) and eventually was reduced to the mile and quarter that it now encompasses. A two-day festival grew up around the race. The two-day buildup to what is now called “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, reminds me of some weekend getaways that I’ve been on.
Searching around for some sort of signature item the mint julep soon found its way into the hand of the spectators, only now being fortified exclusively with Southern bourbon. With that marriage the classic American Mint Julep was born. Today it is estimated that over 150,000 spectators attend the event and that approximately 80,000 juleps are consumed, some are probably even enjoyed. Traditionally the julep was served in a silver or pewter cup that is held by the top and bottom only. Today’s Derby julep is still made with crushed ice, however the venerable drink has now been reduced to souvenir cups and Early Times Whiskey (the official whiskey of the Derby). The silver cups are still available at various sites online with antique sets on Ebay running into the hundreds of dollars. However, there are certainly no restrictions for making the drink with better bourbon (or even Canadian whisky) and in any kind of cup that you feel like at your own home.
The Mint julep has entered heavily into pop culture as well, Singer songwriter Dan Fogelberg wrote a song titled Mint Julep for the 1980 running of the Derby. James Bond shares a julep with arch-villain Goldfinger in the movie of the same name. It plays heavily in Francis Ford Coppola’s Finian’s Rainbow and is featured in books as varied as The Great Gatsby and Robert A. Heinlein’s Space Cadet. Even cartoon character Bart Simpson has been known to salivate over a julep.
I, on the other hand, tend to side with my culturally disadvantaged /economically advantaged blonde friend. I don’t care for the Mint julep; minty whiskey just doesn’t do it for me. If I am going to drink whiskey I want it straight and strong. Speaking of doing it for me, I prefer my blondes sweet and bubbly, but then that is another story entirely.
Jeff’s favorite cultural icon’s recipe for Mint Juleps
For some reason Bob Dylan decided to get in on the mint julep thing. Here is the recipe he described in Episode three of his Theme Time Radio Hour.
“First up, you take four mint sprigs, two and a half ounces of bourbon. I’d put three. A tablespoon of powder sugar, and a tablespoon of water. You put the mint leaves, powder sugar and water in a Collins glass. You fill the glass with shaved, or crushed ice, and then add bourbon. Top that off with more ice. And…I’d like to garnish that with a mint sprig. Serve it with a straw. Two or three of those, and anything sounds good.”
That probably includes a Jerry Garcia guitar solo.