Friday, May 11, 2012

Mint Julep: Seduction & Punishment

"As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat."

It all begins with a tale of seduction and jealousy, of sex and punishment. Did you ever think the Mint Julep had such an intriguing origin?

Our journey back in time extends first to ancient Greece, where we find an intriguing mythological tale, the story of Minthe, a naiad, a type of nymph associated with water. There are several different versions of this tale, and I will present one of the most common versions. Minthe was sexually attracted to Hades, the god of the Underworld, but before the seduction could be completed Persephone, the queen of the
Underworld intervened. In a jealous rage, she transformed Minthe into a sweet smelling plant, which became known as the mint.

In another version, Minthe was transformed by Persephone into a small, common plant, which people would simply trod upon. Though Hades could not prevent Minthe's transformation, he was able to use his powers to make the plant aromatic and sweet smelling when it was walked over. Mint would also become a Greek symbol of hospitality, used to clean and freshen tables when guests would arrive.

Throughout history, mint has often been used as medicinal herb, especially to alleviate stomach pain, headaches and more. It became commonly used in tea, and mint tea is still very popular today. It was also used as a deodorizer, by spreading leaves upon a floor where people walking over it would release its sweet scent.

"Of all the compatibles man has discovered in the world of food and drink, 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."
--Gerald Carson

Let us return to ancient times for a moment. The term "julep" is thought to have derived from the ancient Persian word "gulab," which refers to a rosewater scented syrup. The use of rosewater continued on into medieval times and as early as the 15th century, the term julep began to refer to a sweet syrup which was usually used to administer or accompany medicine, to counter the ill taste of the medicine. Juleps may have first become connected to the "mint julep" in the 18th century, though its exact origins remain murky. It seems that originally, juleps were made from a variety of different spirits and herbs, but at some point, mint became the primary herb.

The first known appearance in print of a reference to a mint julep was in 1803, describing a drink of spirits and mint that Virginians drank in the morning. It is unsure whether the spirit was whiskey or not. Soon after that time, people in Kentucky started preparing mint juleps with bourbon, drinking them in the mornings too, and a tradition was born.

"It was quite an enchanted julep and carried us among innumerable people and places that we both knew. That julep held out far into the night."
--Charles Dickens

A mint julep is essentially a cocktail made with crushed ice, mint, sugar or syrup, and bourbon. You can find plenty of recipes online, including many variations on the basic recipe. One simple recipe is a tablespoon of mint syrup with two ounces of bourbon, poured into a cup of crushed ice and with a sprig of fresh mint. There is some debate on whether the mint leaves should be crushed or not in a julep. What is your position?

As early as 1816 in Kentucky, mint juleps were sometimes served in silver cups, as silver frosts up much better than glass. This was considered an aesthetic pleasure, and the drinker tried to hold the cup so not as to mar the frost. When the Kentucky Derby began at Churchill Downs in 1875, mint juleps were served there but it did not became the official drink of the races until 1938. Around that time, they started selling mint juleps in special souvenir glasses, for about 75 cents, partially to stop the numerous thefts of their water glasses from their dining rooms.

In 1987, Brown-Forman made a contract with Churchill Downs to make Early Times Mint Juleps as the official drink of the Derby. To make it easier to prepare, and more consistent, they created the Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, which can also be purchased at some retailers.  Early Times Kentucky Whisky is actually not a bourbon, and is just a Kentucky whiskey. It is aged in used barrels, which is prohibited for producing bourbon. Though in December 2010, Brown-Forman introduced the Early Times 354, which qualifies as a straight bourbon.

"Then comes the julep--the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain...It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers."
--Judge Soule Smith

During this year's Kentucky Oaks and Derby, Churchill Downs served approximately 120,000 Mint Juleps, which required the use of 10,000 bottles of Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, 1,000 pounds of freshly harvested mint and 60,000 pounds of ice. If you wanted a mint julep made from bourbon though, it was possible to get one, except it would strain your wallet to do so.

Since 2006, Brown-Forman, through Woodford Reserve, has been offering The Woodford Reserve $1,000 Mint Julep Cup Experience, a very limited amount of silver commemorative cups containing special ingredients. This year, they offered only 65 $1000 cups, as well as 10 "Prestige" cups costing $2000 each. Each "Prestige" cup is sterling silver, plated in 24K gold and with a diamond studded horseshoe with 43 diamonds, totaling about one carat. All of these special cups sold out.

"It is fragrant, cold and sweer--it is seductive. No maiden's kiss is tenderer or more refreshing; no maiden's touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares, no other liquor soothes you so in melancholy days."
--Judge Soule Smith

While visiting Louisville for the Derby, my first taste of a Mint Julep was at Sway, a bar/restaurant in the Hyatt Regency. Our bartender, Kelly, prepared it using Eagle Rare Bourbon, powdered sugar, fresh mint and a splash of water and you can see a photo of it at the top of this post. It had a delicious taste and was not overly sweet, an excellent start to my trip. My experience with a Mint Julep though at the Derby was not as positive, as I found it much too sweet for my preferences.

I later tried a Mint Julep variation, the Honey Suckle Rose, at the Village Anchor, which you can see in the second photo in this post. Bartender Kyle Tabler won the 2012 Ninth Annual Four Roses Julep Contest with this recipe, which includes Four Rose Single Barrel Bourbon, St. Germain Liqueur, Rose Water, Honeysuckle syrup, Lavendar syrup, Mint leaves and crushed ice. This was another compelling cocktail, a well balanced mixture that was not overly sweet and with a depth of flavor.

"One mint julep was the cause of it all."
--Ray Toombs

So now I am home, with several bottles of excellent Bourbon. Time for me to try to make my own Mint Juleps. Anyone want to help me taste test them?

1 comment:

SommeChick said...

Loved this post, especially the notes about Minthe/Persephone/Hades (my favorite myth of all time)! Definitely got me in the julep mood :)