"YOU WENT FAR afield when you printed a recipe for a mint julep obviously concocted by a misguided Yankee."
So begins a letter from Robert Talbott of Monkton. The letter is one of several objections I have heard since my mint julep recipe ran in this space last Wednesday. Some objections came by mail, some came electronically, some messages came the old-fashioned way. Namely, people stopped me on the street and told me what they thought.
The reaction both surprised and delighted me. I was surprised because I had thought that the days of rhetorical battles over how to make a mint julep had ended. National surveys have been reporting that fewer folks were drinking hard liquor. Since the main ingredient in a julep is whiskey, I figured that the annual publication of my mint julep recipe served as a reminder of the gracious past.
"Oh, mint juleps," I imagined chardonnay-sipping readers thinking when they come across the recipe. "Grandpa used to make those."
So I was amazed when shortly after last Wednesday's newspaper hit the doorsteps, my mint julep recipe started coming under attack. At the same time, I was delighted. The fuss meant people still cared about the julep. And it meant that the practice of comparing various versions of the mint julep, a competition that had virtually died out, could be revived.
The strongest, longest and funniest objection to my julep recipe came from Talbott. "Three glaring errors," he wrote of my recipe. That recipe called for mixing mint leaves with 2 tablespoons each of club soda and powdered sugar, then filling the julep cup with crushed ice and bourbon.
"First the best julep is made from rye whiskey, not bourbon. ... Second, Seltzer or any other water in not an ingredient. Third, the sugar involved is granulated, not powdered.
"Now on to equipment," Talbott wrote. "Primary is a length of wooden dowel of the sort sold for closet rods. This should be six to eight inches long and cut square on the business end. Drill a small hole near the other end and thread a length of string which can be twisted into a loop for hanging. Hang this tool in some out-of-the-way spot. Make certain that everyone in the household knows not to touch it. Don't meddle with my muddler, you warn.
"Your muddler is as important as a brush to Rembrandt or a baton to Toscanini. With it you will create art. However, it must be seasoned. Perhaps the best way is to stand the working end in a small snifter of whiskey until the odor of wood has disappeared. And never, ever wash it.
"The last bit of equipment," he continued, "is the cup. The metal variety known as the "Jefferson Cup" is best. ... A proper julep cup will acquire a definite pewter gray and be dignified by scratches and dings. You can obtain a good number of these at yard sales where they have been disposed of for becoming what the owner must have seen as ugly, but what you will see as gracious and mature."
Talbott also had definite views on julep-making technique. "Have on hand," he wrote, "a large quantity of finely crushed ice, rye whiskey, granulated sugar and mint leaves. Put one sugar shell (roughly a lean tablespoon) of granulated sugar and four or five mint leaves in the bottom of the cup and muddle until the mixture is uniformly green and the mixture clings to the bottom of the muddler. The sugar, you see, is the grinding agent of the mint. Add a small amount of whiskey and work into the mixture until the muddler comes clean. Pack the cup with ice and fill to the brim with whiskey. Swirl several times with a glass rod and garnish with a sprig of mint. If a stirrer or straw (for the ladies) is provided it must be glass, never paper or plastic."
Finally, Talbott offered advice on how to keep track of how many juleps your guests are drinking. "When you are called upon for a refill, don't discard the mint sprig garnish. Add another and, in this way, keep track of who is benefiting from your ministrations. Of course, oldtimers will recognize this trick and throw sprigs away when you are not looking, but it does help keep the neophytes under control."
Besides Talbott, I heard objections from a couple of julep makers I bumped into around town. They not only questioned my recipe, they added insult to injury by telling me to read the competition, a story in the New York Times about juleps. The Times reported the results of a University of North Carolina poll in 1992 showing while lots of folks talk about mint juleps, only about 30 percent of the population has actually sipped one. The piece also touted the juleps made at the Willard Hotel in Washington.
Last week, during a visit to the nation's capital, I sipped a Willardjulep. The good news was that this julep was made with real mint, pulverized ice, granulated sugar, bottled water and good bourbon. The bad news was that the drink came with granulated sugar around the rim of the glass and cost a whopping $6.50.
I prefer to make my juleps at home, with bourbon, powdered sugar and club soda. I have warned Talbott and my other critics to get their muddlers ready, a julep-making competition looms on the horizon.
Pub Date: 5/07/97