22. Mint julep

29 Aug

Jupiter, you know, broke the jug that contained the nectar of the gods when some fellow had given him a sip of a julep.

— Opie Read, A Kentucky Colonel (Chicago: Laird & Lee, 1890), p. 20.

“What are you Rebels fighting for, anyway?” . . . “We are fighting to protect our mint-beds.”

— Alexander Hunter, Johnny Reb and Billy Yank (New York: Neale, 1905), p. 194.

Mint julep! Mint Julep! thou  maketh me glad, / To find I can’t get thee it driveth me mad. / Mint Julep! Mint Julep! thou joy of my land, / Thy flavor is pungent, delicious and grand!

— H. Antoine D’Arcy, “Mint Julep”, The Face Upon the Floor, and other ballads (New York: The Author, Green Room Club, 1918), pp. 56-7 (p. 56).

The mint julep, once invariably apostrophized as the “nectar of the gods”, is one of the most venerable and iconic of all American mixed drinks. This summer cooler,  “with the thermometer at 100°, one of the most delightful and insinuating potations that ever was invented”, as the British traveller Frederick Marryat excitedly wrote in 1839, has been around since at least the eighteenth century and maybe even longer [Frederick Maryat, A Diary in America, with remarks on its institutions. Part second (London: Longman, 1839), vol. 1, pp. 117-18]. Its origins are, in the words of the poet Clichy, lost in the mists of time; but over a hundred years ago the Baltimore Sun did some digging and turned up the memoirs of one John Lane (Salem, 1649), where reference is made to a drink compounded of “mint herb and heating spirits, which is grateful to the palate when cooled in a stone jug at the spring”. The same report also pointed to a local item in the Boston Gazette of 17 August, 1697, in which a “drowneded [sic] man was known to have drunk several goblets of a mixture composed of Hollands flavored with mint before he fell off the wharf” and ought thereby to serve as “an example to those who have lately formed the habit of imbibing with too much frequency what the publikans [sic] and tavernkeepers call mint dewlip” [Baltimore Sun, 11 September, 1899, p. 9].

Although the mint julep was known throughout the south, and even, as we’ve just seen, in New England, it appears to have been born in Virginia. At any rate, it was closely identified with the Old Dominion. Another early British tourist to the recently lost American colonies, John Davis, observed with interest the local alcoholic habits and explained that a julep was “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning” [John Davis, Travels of Four and a Half Years in the United States of America, London: Edwards, 1803), p. 379]. In his travelogue the New York poet Charles Fenno Hoffman has a bartender say that “we Virginians think there is nothing between a long ride and a late breakfast like a julep” [A Winter in the West, vol. 2 (New York: Harper, 1835), p. 262]. And Marryat, again, passed on this worldly wisdom: “They say that you may always know the grave of a Virginian; as from the quantity of juleps he has drunk, mint invariably springs up where he has been buried” [Marryat, p. 126].

The nineteenth-century (Virginian) mint julep was a very different drink than the version known today: it was made with rum and/or brandy or rye whiskey. Marryat, for example, reports that the “real” mint julep was composed of equal parts “peach and common brandy”.  Then there’s this jokey little news item, which ran in the Baltimore Sun in 1838: “Important to lovers of mint juleps. The Delaware State Journal says that the Brandywine was frozen over on Monday night” [2 February, 1838, p. 1]. Sixty years later, however, we’re treated to a detailed prescription for the Virginian thirst-quencher in the promisingly titled novel Juleps and Clover (1898).  As the story opens, Howard Lee finds himself just inside North Carolina and resolves to cross a wild river because just beyond it “lives a Virginia lady who can make the finest julep in the South” [M. Vaughan Wilde, Juleps and Clover (New York: Fenno, 1898), p. 5]. And how does a Southern lady make a julep? We find out soon enough: “First off, you know, she takes a long thing glass, in her pretty hands, and while she’s looking around for the sugar bowl, she bruises a sprig of mint in the glass carefully throwing out the crushed leaves afterward. Then with her great-grandmother’s silver spoon, she stirs half a tablespoonful of fine sugar, with just enough water to melt it. Two sprigs of mint next go against either side of the glass, stems down, and to hold them in place, she fills the glass two-thirds of crushed ice. After that, comes half a jigger  of your best brandy. Next, the same quantity of fine old Jamaica or St. Croix rum. Now drop into this nectar of the gods, a strawberry or two—wild ones if possible, their odor is finer than the tame—a bit of pineapple, half a slice of orange with the peel left on; then take two long white oat straws, and while you consume it slowly, return thanks to the Giver of all Good” [pp. 42-3].

How about one more example? This one involves rye:

The Mint Julep of Old Virginia

“Virginia may be dry in spots, but this is not one of them,” said the old-fashioned Virginia host, sniffing the mint he had just brought in from his garden.

“Sit there and I’ll show you how to make a genuine old time Virginia mint julep, like father used to make.

“First, you see, I pound my ice. I always steal one of my wife’s best dinner napkins to pound it in. It gives it a flavor that beats this shaving concern they use for ice nowadays.

“Well, sir, having pounded your ice, fill a tall thin glass full of it and put it into the refrigerator. What for? I’ll show you later. Now, in another glass I mix my whiskey—smell the bouquet of that, sir. Fine, isn’t it? My mint which I crush—yes, sir, crush is the word I used—and a little sugar. Water? What do you want with water in a mint julep? This is the old-fashioned way I’m showing you.

“Now, then, I pour the mixture into the tall glass; it melts the ice a little, you see; that’s all the water you need. Then I fill it up with more ice, dash it with the best old French brandy, trim it with a little sheaf of mint on the side—like the what-you-call-‘ems on the new hats, insert one strawberry or a cherry to give it color—and, taste that, sir. Isn’t that the nectar of the gods? A straw? Upon my word! Do you think you are at a soda fountain? What do you want with a straw when you can bury your nose in mint like that? Fragrance and flavor, that’s what.

“How do I get the frost on the glass? Well, partly by chilling it in the ice box and partly by pouring into the chilled glass the warm mixture. I thought you would say it was the best you ever had. Try another, for old time’s sake.”

New York Times, 20 June, 1909.

That report strikes a slightly nostalgic note; the mixer, is, after all, explicitly described as “old-fashioned”. Indeed, by the turn of the twentieth century, according to the Richmond Dispatch, the mint julep was beginning to fall out of favour in Virginia. As the “flower and expression of a way of life that has passed”, it went the same way as the Virginian gentleman with his garden and patch of mint [“Mint Juleps”, Casual Essays in The Sun (New York: Cooke, 1905), pp. 360-3 (p. 360)]. In the meantime, another mint julep from another state had, as it were, taken the laurels. Today, of course, the mint julep is most readily associated not with Virginia but with Kentucky and Kentucky bourbon (although the whiskey made in Bourbon County wasn’t officially known as such until 1840). Despite the antiquity of the mint julep, and the long, older Virginian tradition, the Kentucky claim, persistently pursued, won through and eventually displaced the older julep from the booze-addled American cultural memory.  “There is but one bonafide mint julep,” wrote Lawrence S. Thompson in the 1950s, “and it is as indigenous to the Bluegrass as gin and bitters is to the diet of a London charwoman” [Kentucky Tradition (Hamden, CT: Shoe String Press, 1956), p. 31]. Gerald Carson, the historian of bourbon, agreed. “Of all the compatibles man has discovered in the world of food and drink,” he pronounced, “none excels the harmony with which mint blends into a silver goblet filled with ice, a dusting of sugar and several ounces of mellow bourbon” [The Social History of Bourbon (Lexington, KY: University of Kentucky Press, 2010 [1963]), p.  214].

If the true home of the mint julep was (at one time) a matter for keen debate, the question of how “correctly” to prepare the drink was, and still is, even more controversial. These arguments prefigured all the tedious debates about the perfect martini. Strange that both tipples, for all that they are emblematic of America, or of different sides of America (one northern and metropolitan, the other southern and rural), are so variable from person to person . The editor of the Medical Mirror, who rejoiced in the improbable name of I. N. Love, used a column in his weekly to expound upon the virtues of our refresher in the purple prose that the julep seems to inspire like no other drink. He fantasized about a “mint julep made, not by a gin-slinging, cocktail-brewing, high-ball-rolling, beer-jerking, time-serving hireling, but by an artist to the manner born, capable of putting soul and feeling into the work, who knows by inheritance, or intuition, ‘how to do it’ and is not dependent upon any common vulgar printed recipe, many of which are of such a character as to make angels weep, particularly those born south of Mason and Dixon’s line.” The trouble was, not enough people possessed the necessary savoir faire. Love gleefully quotes a letter written by Dorothy Dix to the editor of the New York Journal in response to some feature on the julep:

DEAR SIR: In common with many others of the Southern colony I read with surprise and horror the recipe given by you in your paper last Sunday, for making a genuine Southern mint julep—that nectar of the gods, sir, that paints fresh bloom on the roses of Paradise, turns old maids into blushing maidens and makes millionaires of us all.

Many a time and oft, sir, has the fair name of the South been aspersed, but never before have such ruthless hands been laid upon one of her sacred traditions as in the brew described by your correspondent. It is a slander upon the artistic taste of the South that every true Southerner will resent. A man might, indeed, offer a gentleman such a drink and escape with his life (for, alas, times are not what they once were), but with his reputation—never!

I beg to call your attention to the formula for the hybrid compound to which your correspondent has sacreligiously [sic] attached the name of “mint julep”.

“Take two sprigs of mint.” Two sprigs of mint! There are things in life which must be done without counting the cost, or else left undone, and making a mint julep is one of them. Any one who would apportion two sprigs of mint to a julep would halve a kiss or take the temperature of love, or carry an accident policy on bliss.

“Bruise the mint.” Heresy, sir! Rank heresy! Mint juleps are not for the utilitarian who must get the most out of things. As well murder a butterfly for its brains or rob a lily of the gold in its heart as to bruise mint for its flavor. A julep is no vulgar decoction of an aromatic plant steeped in whiskey, like an old woman’s herb tea. Its charms is its elusiveness—its suggestion of the poetry of Springtime or silver brooks rippling between green banks of mint, or of shady corners in old fashioned gardens where the mint bed offered up perennial incense to the Giver of All Good.

“Then take a jigger of rum and one of brandy.” Shades of the old Virginia gentleman, the Kentuckey colonel, the Tennessee judge and the Mississippi planter preserve us! Rum and brandy—the liquor of the swashbuckler, the sailor, the brawler, the rowdy—in a mint julep! As well try to mate poetry and prose, fire and water, May and December. No, sir! The only liquor of which a genuine mint julep can be made is old Bourbon. Anything else is not a julep. It is an anachronism.

Finally, sir—and this is the crowning offence—your correspondent puts orange peel, strawberries and pineapple in a mint julep, thus degrading it to the level of a fruit salad. The lack of imagination displayed in this is truly pitiable. The perfect julep is perfect in itself, and to weigh it down with the coarse, vulgar, tropical flavor of the pineapple and the pungent oil of the orange peel or the tart impertinence of the strawberry, is to exchange the delicacy of a watercolor painted by an artist for the brazen coarseness of a chromo made by machinery in Germany.

Sir, there is but one way to make julep. Take a long crystal glass, or, better still, a silver loving cup on which the dew will rise as pure as the tears of childhood and as untouched by sorrow. Line it with mint taken with a generous hand, but a hand nicely discriminating, for one sprig too little is not enough, and one too many is too much. Fill the cup almost full of crushed ice on which is a generous spoon of sugar. Add ten drops of water, no more, no less. Then pour over it old Bourbon that holds in its amber the memory of moonlight nights and the woman you toast, the poetry and the romance of waving fields of grain, and singing birds, and all that made the delight of living when the heart was young.

Measure the whiskey in order that you may not get too little, for a julep should be as soft and caressing as love, and as strong as death. Watch the liquid as it trickles slowly over the ice, turning its crystal into gold; then, through a long oat straw, slowly, as befits a libation, quaff, and give thanks to heaven that you are still alive, and that the art of making mint juleps—in spite of false prophets who would lead the ignorant astray—is not a lost art down in Dixie.

— I.N. Love, “Flotsam and Jetsam—By the Editor”, Medical Mirror, vol. 13:9 (September 1902), pp. 484-86 (pp. 485-86).

Clearly, the sort of people who are exercised by such alleged acts of vulgarity are precisely the sort of people who feel compelled to write to newspapers.  Overcome by rising tides of indignation whilst reading a feature in the New York Times, a reader signing himself “Viniaus” squeezed a pen into his clenched fist and wrote: “Isn’t there a mistake in your editorial article concerning the julep? I was always taught it should contain only whisky—good Bourbon—as the liquid addition, and that it should be slowly poured in over the mint and ice and without bruising or crushing the mint with a spoon, or in any other way. But brandy—never” [New York Times, 18 July  1911]. A week later he found a comrade-in-arms, a fellow reader called “Middle Tennessee”:

Viniaus is right about the mint julep. in the first place, none but a barbarian or a New York bartender, which is almost the same thing, would bruise mint with a spoon, ice, lump sugar masher, or anything else in making a julep. A lump of sugar, a spoonful or water to soften it, some ice, then the mint, and atop of that the whisky slowly poured—trickled, almost. But corn, straight corn liquor rather than Bourbon, which is usually about 80 percent corn mash. Brandy? Well, he who would brandy a mint julep is the sort who would bruise the mint. [ New York Times, 24 July, 1911]

So we should tread carefully here, I suppose. Anyway, it’s about time I got round to telling you how I made my julep. I muddled around ten mint leaves in 1/2 oz of freshly made simple syrup, pressing them against the sides of the glass. Next, I packed the glass with crushed ice until it was 2/3 full, poured in 3 oz. of bourbon, followed by another 1/2 oz of simple syrup, stirred, topped off the glass with more ice, and, finally, garnished with a sprig of mint.

Postscript. After skirting the various contentious issues surrounding the mint julep, and setting out the recipe for the house julep, Lucius Beebe, in his Stork Club Bar Book, discloses his own lethal preference: “four ounces of Jack Daniel’s proof bourbon with a float of two ounces of Hines’ Triumph Cognac on top. Officer, please back the patrol wagon nearer the curb; the step is too high for my mother” (Stork Club Bar Book [New York: Little & Ives, 1946], p. 106).


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