MxMo XXXI: Nineteenth Century Cocktails — The Mint Julep

This month’s beroman-numeraled cocktail throwdown is brought to you by Dinah The Librarian Sanders and Joseph The Lawyer Gratz, at Biblio.us, where they cleverly plead the 21st. This month’s decree excited me and filled me with trepidation at the same time. We are requested to produce for your entertainment and refreshment a libation from the Nineteenth Century.
Now, I likes me my older, classic cocktails. After all, the Pegu is hardly a spring chicken in the cocktail milieu. But it ain’t old enough for this test. My first trepidation was that I would be unable to work in my obligatory Pegu reference in this Mixology Monday post….

Ummm.
I think you just did.

Ah! Of course. Thanks.
My real worry concerned the fact that I don’t have the vast historical and encyclopedic knowledge of some of my cocktail blogging colleagues. I didn’t know if any of the drinks I know or currently wanted to try were of appropriate vintage. Fortunately, I found the exact book I needed to help me out on Amazon.com: The Flowing Bowl – 19th Century Cocktail Bar Recipes.

Ten bucks says five more bloggers bought this book when they saw this month’s challenge!

No bet! But let me take a moment for a micro book review. The Flowing Bowl is an exact reprint of the original typeset from 1898. The pages are tiny, and the language is… er… opaque. It is darned hard to find what I was looking for, which was informative recipes. Such recipes are only a small part of the book, and they are curiously arranged. There are huge sections on various boozes, as well as beer and wine. It is an interesting view into what and how people drank a hundred years ago or more. As an historical piece of evidence, it is a great buy. Don’t get it for the drinks recipes. I will insert a too long excerpt of one particularly entertaining bit from the chapter entitled Strange Swallows, which lists several things that people drink that were beyond comprehension to the author:

Plain Water, whether fortunately or otherwise, comes under the heading of Strange Swallows. It is still consumed in prisons, and other places where sinners and paupers are dieted at the expense of the ratepayer…. “Plain water,” wrote a celebrated Mongolian of his day, “has a malignant influence, and ought on no account to be drunk.” More especially if it be Thames water. (Upon seeing such water under magnification at an exhibition,) I counted three boa-constrictors, a few horrors which resembled giant lobsters, and a pair of turtles engaged, apparently, in a duel to the death. Three ladies… were carried out, swooning.

Anyway, the book did give me what I needed, which were the names of many drinks that were eligible for today’s extravaganza.
I went through a bunch of ideas before I decided to go with the classic Mint Julep. As a child of the Deep South, I feel almost obligated to love this drink. The problem is that I have simply never had one that I really much liked. So this weekend gave me the opportunity to try to whip one up myself that I could happily imbibe and recommend.

Now, ever since I read Jigger, Beaker and Glass: Drinking Around the World by Charles H. Baker, Jr., which I reviewed here, I’ve been fascinated by Baker’s discussion of the once upon a time Julep Wars between Kentucky and Maryland over the base spirit in Juleps: Bourbon or Rye. I therefore decided to make parallel Mint Juleps, each pair differing only in using Maker’s Mark Whisky in one, and Old Overholt Straight Rye Whiskey in the other.
I used no single source for my mixing. I combined several books, some dim memories, and an episode of Good Eats that I fortunately still had on the TIVO.
I also fortunately have juuuuust a titch of mint growing out in the back yard….

So, what’s in a Mint Julep? Well, at its heart, it is whiskey, sugar, mint, and ice. For the hip kids out there, that pretty much makes it a brown Mojito. Some recipes call for simple syrup, but I think that granular sugar helps abrade the mint leaves, releasing more flavor. I elected to use some nice cane sugar cubes I have lying around.
So first iteration:

  • 2 oz. Whiskey (see above)
  • 8-10 mint leaves, torn.
  • 2-3 sugar cubes.

I muddled the sugar and the mint thoroughly, then added a tablespoon of hot water to help dissolve the sugar and release more mint oils. I put this mixture in the glass, filled it with ice, then stirred in the whiskey. I stirred slowly until the glass frosted. I garnished with a few unbruised leaves. Voila: A basic mint julep!
I tasted. Um.
Baker suggests in his book that rum makes a good addition, so long as no one from Kentucky or Maryland is present. If you are from either of those great states, please consider moving on to another MxMo post. We don’t allow gunfire here at the Pegu Blog.
I then added about an ounce of Pusser’s Navy Rum. I’ll take a moment here to note that I did not crush my ice. The cubes from my ice maker are pretty darn small as is, so I hope the purists out there will forgive me. If you have crushed or shaved ice, I would strongly recommend using it.
I tasted the second round. Better, but it still seemed a bit like a Stinger on the rocks, without the depth.
In rooting around with other recipes, I actually noted that the Flowing Bowl calls for using Brandy instead of Whiskey. I added a generous splash (about 3/4 oz.) to both mixes.
I also wanted to add a bit of… something else to it. A common garnish called for in more advanced Mint Juleps, especially in the older recipes, is sticks of Pineapple as a garnish. Well, I don’t got no stinkin’ Pineapple right now. Pondering what I could possibly use to shake things up a tiny bit, my eyes lighted on my little bottle of Orange Flower Water I have sitting on the bar. I added a little more than 1/4 tsp.
And again I taste. Well now!
No longer a dull Stinger on the rocks, this version caught my fancy. Here is a beverage that would cool you off, slake your thirst, and knock you on your ass. Just the thing for a lazy August afternoon in the heat, with chairs to be sat in and lies to be told. The next time I see a likely looking Pineapple, I’ll be trying these again. Please be sure to check out the other Mixology….

Hey! Wait just a cotton-picking minute here!

What?

You’re not done yet!
What about the Rye versus Bourbon thing?

Oh, that.

Yes, that!
What difference did it make? Which is better?

The Rye is better.

You are such a bastard!
How about why? Why is the Rye better? And have you noticed that no one makes Mint Juleps with Rye anymore?

Yes, I had noticed that. I also that no one drinks Mint Juleps anymore, except when already drunk and wearing funny hats on Derby Day. They have become the Kentucky equivalent of Pat O’Brien’s Hurricanes. Today’s Julep has devolved to a mixed drink, rather than a cocktail. And it’s only drunk as a seasonal oddity; a one day a year eggnog. And since few homes or bars even have Rye on a regular basis, you never see it used for the (very) occasional Mint Julep.
And that is a shame. I’m sure much of the difference is personal preference here, but I think the Rye makes for a more complex and interesting cocktail. In each and every variation I tried, I thought that the Bourbon version was duller and sweeter than the Rye. Bourbon has that characteristic caramelized overtone about it, and when combined with the sugar in the Julep, it drowns out the minor notes of the cocktail. The Rye version of the simple Julep I tried first was at least drinkable, the Bourbon version might as well have been a chilled glass of Southern Comfort. By the time I got to my final recipe, I thought both were good, but the Rye version was more interesting to drink, and was much more refreshing. It left the mouth feeling fresher and cleaner, and that is a result that I think you’d want for a summer tipple like this.

DOUG’S MINT JULEP

  • 2 oz. Old Overholt Rye
  • 1 oz. Pusser’s Navy Rum
  • 3/4 oz. Cognac
  • 1/4 oz.tsp. Orange Flower Water
  • 2 large Sugar Cubes
  • 8-10 Fresh Mint Leaves

Muddle sugar and mint thoroughly, add one Tbs hot water and stir. Add small or crushed ice and other ingredients. Stir slowly until frost forms on the outside of the glass. Garnish with more mint leaves or a stalk of mint if the plant is young.

Exit Question: The traditional garnish for a Mint Julep would also include a stick or two of Pineapple and an Orange Wedge. Would including these make the Bourbon version better than the Rye?
Bonus Exit Question: Would including the Pineapple and Orange wedge make this pretty much a Tiki drink?
No go and enjoy all the other offerings from this month’s Mixology Monday.
Cheers!

About the author

Doug

I am 48 years old, married with two young daughters. My interests are tennis, reading, computers, politics, and of course cocktails. I run a murder mystery party business that caters to both corporate and private events, Killing Time, murder consultants.

7 Comments

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  • I drink probably two or three juleps a week, and I’m only in my early 20’s, and do not live anywhere near the South. The drink is very much alive!!

    I will definitely try the Rye version, that sounds intriguing. More importantly though, the whole cocktail is immensely better if you take the time and effort to do it right and actually make simple mint syrup on the stovetop. Mix approximately in equal parts with whatever whiskey you’re using, and use a huge amount of very small bits of ice, and a straw. You should also be able to smell the mint sprig, which means it shouldn’t be drowning in the drink. That might explain a lot of the subtlety disappearing if the mint smell is underwater (and if the bourbon fumes are filling up your non-crushed ice glass).

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  • Gavin,

    The mint simple syrup sounds interesting.
    I think part of my problem is the pineapple spears, or lack thereof. I just think the drink needs something extra to brighten it. When I do it, the mint sprig is certainly clear of the drink, and free to be fragrant. But mint is not my favorite flavor or even aroma in ordinary circumstances. The mint works here for me, but I want a little something else.

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  • I just stumbled across your site, and I completely second Gavin’s recommendation about the mint-infused simple syrup! As a Louisville-born girl now living in NC, I’ve had quite a bit of experience making juleps that are authentic enough to be called a mint julep, while still drinkable enough for my julep-virgin friends to actually try and enjoy. It really does come down to quality/quantity of the simple syrup. Spend 10 minutes making it the night before (make sure to use plenty of mint!), let the flavors mingle in the fridge overnight, and when you use it the next day, your julep will be have a much more complex mint flavor, and the “brightness” that yours lacked. Also, drinking out of a frosted, sterling julep cup gives you a metallic tang that adds something to the flavor of the drink as you sip it… sounds crazy, but very true. Anyway, good luck on your experimentation! (pineapple’s too sweet, btw, although I don’t know about with rye)
    PS- I’m in my early 20’s, too, and at least a few of my friends and myself order one of these whenever we go somewhere with a moderately-competent bartender… YUM! :)

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  • I know I’m late to the party, but if you’re going to go the rye route, I would strongly suggest the use of Jim Beam rye in place of dear, old Overholt.

    It is a much smoother and more flavorful whiskey, with a delicious aftertaste.

    Try it with a really good ginger ale, spiked with some freshly ground ginger for an eye-opening change of pace!

    Best wishes!

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