On Mint Juleps and Margaritas
A true Kentucky Mint Julep, from The Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, KY
In social settings, regardless of what city I’m in, one question comes up repeatedly as soon as I reveal that I hail from the Bluegrass State.
“Do you drink mint juleps?”
It could be the third Thursday in November, and for some reason all anyone wants to talk about from that moment forward is the Kentucky Derby and its ubiquitous cocktail. Inevitably someone in the crowd either makes “the best mint julep” or knows someone else that does. Sidebar conversations tend to break out at that point over whether the julep should be “strong” or “sweet”, whether the mint is incorperated as an essential element or used more as garnish. It’s no wonder there is confusion among outsiders over how to make a proper mint julep. Kentuckians can’t agree on the correct preparation either. Books have been written on the subject. It would not surprise me to discover a thesis at the University of Kentucky has been written on “The Psychological and Social Aspects of the Proper Preparation of the Mint Julep Cocktail”, such is the level of diverse opinion on the subject.
Only one ingredient is agreed upon by all parties: you must use Kentucky bourbon. In days long ago, specifying a “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey” meant you were asking for quality. As time passed and distilleries in other states closed, usage of the specific designator “Kentucky” declined as it was unneeded – over 95% of the world’s bourbon was made in Kentucky so one did not need to declare a preference for “Kentucky” over others. However, in recent years boutique bourbon distilleries have sprung up from coast to coast, and there are now bourbons hailing from New York, California, Texas, Colorado and all points in between. Truthfully, a few actually aren’t that bad. You won’t find many places around here serving those other bourbons, but if you happen to be outside of the Bluegrass State on Derby Day, I would strongly advise you to make sure of what you’re getting when you order, lest you find yourself deceived by a bourbon whiskey wanna-be. If you are in Kentucky, however, you needn’t worry or bother – we wouldn’t serve you anything else anyway.
The first sticking point in the preparation of the mint julep is usually the sugar, the level of sweetest in the drink being in direct proportion to the perceived stature of the person consuming the cocktail. In Kentucky we like our tea sweet, our bourbon – not so much. While there is nothing wrong with a sweeter julep per se, all I’m saying is ask for it at your own risk. Being Southern in nature, we won’t laugh in front of your face, but that won’t keep us from talking about you behind your back.
It is in the usage of the Mentha spicata where the argument really starts to build up. I have suffered fools making juleps with peppermint rather than spearmint, evidently under the impression that essence of candy cane goes well with a fine whiskey. I have also been witness to heated conversations bordering on violence over whether one should muddle, bruise, press, crush or simply garnish with the mint. I even know one bartender who advocates for “spanking the mint” in his juleps, leading one to make all sorts of sadomasochistic jokes over the cocktail. My opinion is that one should never, under any circumstance, muddle or otherwise aggravate the mint in such a fashion as to cause it to break into little pieces destined inevitably to become stuck between one’s teeth while consuming the cocktail. An especially unattractive outcome if you are a lady. Unlike some purists, I am also not adverse to using a mint infused simple syrup in place of the raw sugar and fresh mint (although fresh mint as a garnish is still required). There are just so many opinions on the subject I rarely bother to make a mint julep at parties for fear of causing a full scale argument that detracts from the evening. Kentuckians are decidely opinionated on the subject, which is why I also don’t go out of my way to point out that the mint julep, according to reliable sources, was invited in South Carolina. So much for tradition.
(Watch the You Tube video above of Mixologist Chris Evans of the Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, KY make his version of a mint julep for The Bourbon Review, or the video from Epicurious showing a different preparation of the cocktail.)
This year the first Saturday in May is not only a celebration of the Kentucky Derby, but by falling on the Fifth of May is coincidentally also the Mexican commenmoration of the victory over French forces at the Battle of Pueblo. A relatively minor holiday in Mexico itself, in America it has become the cross cultural celebration of Cinco de Mayo. With the date of the Derby fixed for living memory on the first Saturday in May, it’s certainly not the first time the race and Cinco have shared the spotlight (it’s happened 7 times in the last 40 years). In fact one of the most famous thoroughbreds of all time launched himself into history on the fifth of May. The year was 1973, and the horse was Secretariat. Maybe this year’s contenders can draw inspiration from the memory and accomplishments of Big Red.
The quandry facing the celebratents in 2012 however will be the desire to enjoy both mint juleps AND margaritas on the same day, a stomach churning and dangerous cocktail proposition if ever there was one. It is a tried and true aphorism that one never mixes brown and white spirits in the course of an evening. Who the poor soul was that first tried this and became determined to pass his painful wisdom on to the rest of us, history does not reveal, but ask any fraternity brother and he’ll vouch for its validity. To drink anything other than bourbon on Derby day is sacrilege in these parts, but one does not neccessarily have to give up the margarita in the name of tradition.
Let’s start with the margarita’s origins, which can be desribed as murky at best. W. Park Kerr of the El Paso Chile Company has related his version, handed down from his own father, which has the drink originating in the 1940’s at a place called The Kentucky Club in Juarez, Mexico just across the border from El Paso. Given my Kentucky heritage – my family has hailed from here since the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, that’s the version I’m going with (see Kerr’s The Margarita Cookbook, published 1999). In Kerr’s book, the recipe for The Kentucky Club Margarita is straight forward: 1-1/2 oz Tequila, 1 oz lime juice, 1/2 oz orange liqueur.
A little creative thinking will reveal that the basic ingredients of the margarita and the whiskey sour are almost identical. Since the basic elements have a natural affinity in other combinations, without too much experimentation, it is relatively easy to come up with a bourbon margarita, which I of course couldn’t resist doing (see my Steeplechase Tailgating page for the menu from our Kentucky Bourbon Trail tailgate party in 2006). I was honored by having a co-worker use my recipe as the official drink of his wedding reception, the tailgate party having been the first date between him and his new bride. Whatever I thought of the drink, the rest of the crowd loved it.
The Kentucky Margarita
- 5 oz orange juice (preferably a sweeter juice rather than a tart one)
- 5 oz pineapple Juice
- 2 oz Blanton’s Single Barrel Bourbon
- ½ oz triple sec or Cointreau
- Squeeze of fresh lime juice
Fill a shaker with ice and add all the ingredients. Shaker vigorously then strain and serve in rocks glass over ice (salt the rim first if you like). Garnish with a lime slice.
So, where does this leave us, in between mint juleps and margarita’s? That all depends on whether you want a mint julep margarita or a margarita julep. Somewhere among all the ingredients above and their various combinations, is the makings of a recipe that I’m sure you will find to your liking. However, I won’t be the one to give it to you. Being born and raised in Kentucky, with a family heritage dating back in these parts to before Kentucky was even a state, I was brought up with a different palate. At the end of the day, I have always found myself agreeing with the late Henry Watterson of Louisville, the former publisher of the Courier-Journal newspaper, who was ever so specific is his recipe for “the perfect mint julep”:
“Waterson insisted that two glasses should be used for the mint julep. The bourbon should be poured into one, and the mint, sugar and water into the other. “Then throw that out”, he urged, “and drink the whiskey!” ” from Colonel Joe Nickell’s The Kentucky Mint Julep (2003)