It is time to sniff the mint, unleash the muddlers, and start making juleps. That's right, Honeylamb, the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of horse racing's Triple Crown, will be run Saturday. Two weeks later, the racing crowd comes to Baltimore for the Preakness Stakes, and then, in June, on to New York for the Belmont Stakes.
According to tradition, you are supposed to sip juleps on Derby Day, enjoy Black-Eyed-Susans on Preakness Saturday, and toss back White Carnations on Belmont Saturday.
It is a tradition I have tried to honor, but have failed. I don't care for the Black-Eyed-Susan, a forced marriage of pineapple and orange juices and "sweetie-pie" liquors - vodka, rum and Triple Sec. And the White Carnation - made with 1 ounce vodka, 1 ounce peach schnapps, about 5 ounces of orange juice, a splash of club soda and garnished with a strawberry - is too fruity to be viewed as a serious cocktail.
But the mint julep - a joyful union of whiskey and mint - has a long, noble history. And, Lordie, does it taste good! Every year on the first Saturday of May, I make mint juleps. And every year I argue with somebody over the julep recipe.
For instance, Robert E. Talbott, former proprietor of Morton's fine food and spirits shop in downtown Baltimore and now a country squire living in White Hall, Md., has criticized my julep in the past as an "error filled" concoction made by a "misguided Yankee."
This week, as the mint leaves poked out of my garden, I rang up Talbott and renewed our feud.
We debated the different kinds of sugar we use in our juleps. Talbott is a believer in using granulated sugar. "It is the grist of your mill," he contends, saying that the grains of the sugar, and the action of the muddler - a hallowed hunk of wood about 6 inches long - are all that is needed to grind the mint leaves into a sweet paste that is the base of his julep.
I advocate using powdered sugar and club soda, which along with a few artful moves with the muddler, transform the mint leaves into a willing partner of the whiskey.
We argued over the whiskey. Talbott puts rye whiskey, made from rye grain, in his juleps. Rye is the whiskey of choice for anyone who calls himself a true Marylander, claims Talbott, who was born in Baltimore and grew up in Glen Arm. I put bourbon, whiskey made from corn, in my julep because of a promise I made years ago. I got this recipe from a native Kentuckian, John Fetterman, who like most natives of the Bluegrass State, believed that bourbon was the one, true whiskey. When he gave me his recipe, he made me promise that I would never use any whiskey other than bourbon when making his julep. I honor that pledge.
Talbott and I agree on a few, crucial julep-making techniques, including the importance of good muddler maintenance. "Never wash your muddler," Talbott said, warning that a soapy film can cling to the wood, imparting harsh flavors as the muddler works on the mint leaves. "People who have a taste of Cascade on their muddlers," Talbott said, "are people to be avoided."
We also agreed that a successful julep maker also bashes his own ice. The ice that fills up the julep cup has to be the right consistency - pulverized. Ice in this state enables the julep to reach the proper, frosty temperature, and melts at the correct pace, allowing the flavor of the whiskey to come to "full bloom." Talbott told me that zippered canvas bags that banks use to transport money make terrific ice-bashing bags. You put the ice cubes in the bag, zipper it closed, and whale away at the captive ice cubes with a hammer, he said.
It sounded like a better way to bash ice cubes than clobbering them while they are wrapped in a towel, which is what I usually do. So now I have to sashay down to my neighborhood bank and ask the teller to "gimme a bag of quarters, without the quarters." If this ploy works, I'll be bashing my ice a new way this Saturday, as I make my julep and sing "My Old Kentucky Home."
Bob Talbott's Grind-It-Out Julep
1 shell (1] teaspoons) granulated sugar
4-5 mint leaves
Maryland rye whiskey (bourbon as backup)
Put granulated sugar and mint leaves in bottom of medium-size metal cup - a "Jefferson cup" is best. Using family muddler, a 6- to 8-inch-long wooden rod that is never washed, work mixture together until it is uniformly green, and clings to bottom of muddler. Add small amount of whiskey and work into mixture, until the muddler comes clean.
Pack cup with pulverized ice. Fill to rim with whiskey. Swirl several times with glass mixing rod or glass straw. Garnish with sprig of mint.
Rob Kasper's No-Sweat Julep
6-8 leaves of mint
2 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 tablespoons club soda
Place mint leaves, sugar and club soda in bottom of julep cup or tall glass. Muddle mint (press leaves with blunt, wooden instrument). Fill cup with pulverized ice (not cubes). Fill with bourbon. Insert straw all the way to bottom of cup, snipping off excess. Place decorative sprig of mint in julep cup within sniffing range of straw.
Pub Date: 4/29/98