Rite of Spring
Making a proper mint julep is all about heritage and hospitality
(A certain little girl in my neighborhood is suspected of engaging in the same practice.)
For others, though, May Day occasions a trip to the local mint patch to see how the crop is progressing. With the Kentucky Derby practically upon us, it's time to think about mint juleps.
Julep culture has never been more precisely described than it was in 1937 when a certain S.B. Buckner, Jr., explained the process of making a mint julep to an acquaintance who had requested the recipe. "A mint julep," he wrote, "is not the product of a formula. It is a ceremony, and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought."
The process itself, described in glorious detail, can be found at the Buckner family Web site: www.thebucknerhome.com, where S.B. Jr.'s descendents have been kind enough to share with the general population the old man's description of the ceremony, which counts among the great culinary dissertations of all time.
"Go to a spring," he writes, "where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes."
Obviously, any other recipe for a julep would be an inferior rendition, lacking in the careful attention warranted by so venerable a drink. But a multitude of other versions awaits anyone willing to search for a more direct approach to making the cocktail.
According to Chris Morris, a master distiller for Woodford Reserve Bourbon, the julep is "a mixture of water, sugar, mint leaves and good American whiskey." Morris says the julep was originally "the spirited equivalent of coffee in today's society. It was the ultimate picker-upper, an energizer, and just the drink needed to get your morning started. When the farmers woke up for a long day on the farm, they fixed themselves a mint julep. One sip and POW! The farmers were ready to face the long and arduous day."
Yikes! One sip and I'd have to go back to bed.
Kentucky lore holds that horse trainers, like the farmers, had a mint-julep habit a habit they were happy to share with spectators at horse races. Over time, the mint julep made the transition from a quick morning drink to a sipping cocktail suitable for the aristocracy. The spectators would arrive at the track, order a mint julep, then sip on it as they watched the races. The mere creation of the drink became something of a ritual.
"Every person had their special touches, their secret ingredients and their preference in strength. These recipes were family secrets," said Morris, "and many fights erupted over the proper way to create a mint julep, the best bourbon whiskey to use, where to find the mint, how much ice to pack, and what kind of cup to serve it in."
By now, most of those old arguments have been settled. The proper way to create a julep was pretty much firmed up in S.B. Buckner's celebrated letter. As for what whiskey to use, it's either Morris' own Woodford Reserve Small Batch Bourbon or Early Times Kentucky Whiskey, both "official bourbons" of this year's Kentucky Derby.
Where to find the mint is all worked out, too. One grower, Bill Dohn, is the official supplier of the herb to Churchill Downs, where more than 80,000 mint juleps will be served on Derby Day. As for the cup, well, not everyone has a silver julep cup, so Brown Forman, parent company to both official bourbons, commissions a large number of commemorative glasses for the occasion.
If you can't make it to Kentucky this year, you might settle for a trip to the Frontier Room Bar in Belltown, where bartenders will be serving up some killer juleps in real silver cups.
Greg Atkinson is a contributing editor for Food Arts magazine and a culinary consultant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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