FOR MANY in the South or indeed the rest of America, the first Saturday in May is the only day of the year they think to indulge in a mint julep.
As the horses are led from their stalls at Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, thousands upon thousands of mint juleps in commemorative glasses will be sipped on as folks gather to watch “the most exciting two minutes of sports.”
After the Run for the Roses is over, so seems to go the custom of this once iconic cocktail for another year.
But not for everyone.
Many first time visitors to the South order a mint julep at the first bar they see, thinking it the thing to do. Some will order it out of curiosity.
After all, you are in a special place. You have crossed that magical line where boiled peanuts, grits, okra, and sweet tea seem to appear around every corner.
Go ahead, order that quintessential Southern libation. The indifferent bartender will only wince momentarily as he reaches for a room temperature glass. He’ll then drop a few wilted mint leaves along with a packet of sugar and half-heartily stir for a moment. A scoop of melting ice goes in, then a pour of Ye Old Kentucky Armpit bourbon. With a final flourish, he tops the whole thing off with a float of Sprite from the soda gun. That’s what the mint julep has morphed into, a drink only ordered by tourist or drunk on Derby Day.
But not always. My father told me of his time tending bar back in the late 1950s when Southerners still drank mint juleps. He said you needed to be at work 30 minutes early to do your side work before your shift: Muddling mint with sugar and water, making simple syrup, and crushing ice.
You would then prime highball glasses with some of the mint syrup, pack the glass with crushed ice, insert a tall straw, and line them up in the bar freezer. When a patron ordered a julep, all you had to do was pull one out and pour on the bourbon.
One sip from the straw was all that was needed to mix the frosty bourbon together with that fresh sweet mint. This was the great Southern “before and after drink”: It sparked the appetite, soothed the stomach, and kindled an alertness in the imbiber.
Historically speaking, the julep predates the invention of bourbon and its kissing cousin, Tennessee sour mash whiskey. Ostensibly, the julep was a muddled mint cocktail with crushed ice and any alcohol at all, i.e. gin, rum, whiskey, rye, brandy or cognac.
It fits into a small family of cocktails called a smash, including the Old Fashioned, mojito, and the caipirinha.
Traditionally in the Old South, a julep was prepared and served in a heavy silver cup. Early custom had it that a true Southern Gentleman traveled with his own custom julep cup.
Further mystique says that a servant would only handle the cups wearing linen gloves so as not to disturb the frost on the chilled silver with fingerprints.
Here’s how to prepare a true Southern mint julep from those gentler times: Place 10 to 12 leaves of fresh spearmint at the bottom of a heavy pewter or silver cup. Add a sugar cube (the early measure for the proper amount) or one teaspoon of sugar. Use a wooden muddler to crush the sugar into granules and pulverize the mint, or lacking that tool, the end of a spoon. Add a scant measure of fresh water to complete the syrup.
Pack a metal cup with crushed ice along with a silver straw and place in the freezer. Ideally, wait for at least half an hour for the metal of the cup to chill through. Remove properly chilled cup from the freezer (linen gloves optional), pour on your bourbon of choice and garnish with a fresh sprig of mint.
Sip through the straw and enjoy centuries of tradition, history, culture, and a lost sense of good taste.