The mint is up and my blood is percolating. I feel positively frisky, at least on the few days that the thermometer has managed to make it above 70.
It is time for the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown. Come half past five Saturday afternoon as the colts canter toward the starting gate at Churchill Downs in Louisville, I will be gathered with the family around the television set in Baltimore, sticking springs of mint into every available glass.
For traditionalists like me, there is only one potable on Derby Day. Namely the real, hot-damn, honey-lamb mint julep. Similarly, I feel the only correct way to make a julep is my way. This is a technique that requires mint leaves, a muddler, a little powdered sugar, secret ingredients, mountains of battered ice, a river of bourbon and a large dose of outlandish behavior.
The powers of this mint julep are legendary. It has been known to give accountants a sense of humor, to give Kansans a southern drawl and to give folks who don't know Secretariat from Mr. Ed a feeling of certainty that they can predict the Derby winner.
Drinking the julep is, in my view, a religious experience. And like many such experiences, it often brings on the urge to take a nap.
Once, for example, a newcomer to my juleps was so overcome by the elixir, that he meandered out to our front porch and began tossing off his clothes.
Since that incident we have moved to another house, and have stopped dispensing juleps to anyone other than next-of-kin. Every once in a while I see the julep-afflicted stripper. He has appeared on television shows where panels of distinguished Washington correspondents alternately shout at each other and lament what is happening to the nation.
I would like to say that I actually remembered what insights my friend had to offer on matters of state. But all I really remember is the sight of his standing on my front porch in his boxer shorts, lamenting that my juleps made him want to lie down.
I have to admit that the julep is not widely loved. At our house, my wife, known in earlier Derby days as "Mrs. Colonel," has joined the ranks of the soda-sippers, our kids.
To me the idea of julep without bourbon is heresy, but lately my ideas seem to be holding less and less sway, especially within my family.
So while I now permit bourbon-free beverages to be served at our house on Derby day, I do require that all drinks have a mint leaf in them, and that everybody pick a horse.
Some rules I won't bend.
This year in addition to my time-tested warhorse julep, I am thinking of whipping up Derby day libations that don't make the imbibers nod off.
There is the "Mint Condition," a non-alcoholic drink made with ginger ale and mint that looks promising. It comes from "The Non-Alcoholic Pocket Bartenders Guide" by Jill Cox (Fireside Books, $7.95)
I am sticking with the old style mint julep. But then again I haven't picked a Derby winner since Riva Ridge in 1972.
3 sprigs fresh mint
2/3 cup boiling water
Infuse mint with water for 15 minutes. Whir in a blender until it colors the water and is finely chopped. Strain, using the back of a spoon to press out liquid. Cool, then chill. Pour into a glass and top with ginger ale.
4 to 6 mint leaves
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons club soda (secret ingredient)
1 sprig of mint
Muddle mint leaves (clobber them up with wooden stick or spoon). Add powdered sugar, add secret ingredient. Let sit, while you pulverize ice cubes. Wrap cubes in towel, place on cutting board, and smack towel with crab hammer. Fill julep cup with battered ice.
Pour bourbon to top of cup. Put in straw, clipped so top of straw touches top of cup. Add spring of mint close to straw so that nose of sipper touches the mint.