FOR MOST Kentuckians, the mint julep is sacrosanct, ranking right up there with Secretariat and boys named Jim-Bob as established parts of the state's heritage.
Now comes a claim that the mint julep, the drink that makes millions swoon every Derby Day, has its roots in Southern Maryland. Moreover, the claimant contends that bluegrass imbibers are using the wrong whiskey in the drink. A true julep contains rye whiskey, distilled from rye grain, not bourbon, which is made with corn. So says Bruce A. Perrygo, a 52-year-old schoolteacher in St. Mary's County and a confirmed rye fan.
He made these bold claims in a letter to me, a confirmed bourbon man. He repeated them in a recent telephone conversation conducted from his home in Southern Maryland, where, he says, he likes to sit on his porch, sip juleps and watch fish jump in Combs Creek.
I warned him that in some circles, questioning a man's julep recipe was an insult, the stuff of duels at dawn, the equivalent of a "Your Mama!" insult on a Baltimore street corner.
Perrygo stuck to his story. As he relayed his claim to me, I kept thinking of the reaction his remarks would generate back in Kentucky.
"The modern mint julep," Perrygo said, "seems to have its origins in Calvert County."(Hundreds of honorable Kentucky colonels step off verandas and fall face-first into the bluegrass.)
"Following the American Revolution and the War of 1812, large numbers of Southern Marylanders migrated to Kentucky, where they were given free land," Perrygo continued. "These hardy souls took with them a longing for the good life, and that is how both horse racing and mint juleps got to that state."(In a barn outside Lexington one veteran horse trainer summons a colleague to action: "Boot, get your whip, that Maryland boy needs some schoolin'.")
"Maryland emigrants were distressed to find that rye for making rye whiskey was not readily available, so being a resourceful people, they came up with substitutes," Perrygo said. "In Kentucky it was found that corn whiskey came the closest to producing a true mint julep made with rye."(High in the Eastern Kentucky Mountains, Jim-Bob-Dan hollers over the ridge to neighbor, Jim-Bob-Jim: "Boy, get your squirrel rifle! We're going feuding in Maryland.")
Perrygo concluded: "I have conducted blind taste tests, a very useful way to spend a sultry afternoon, and always the julep made with rye was the winner. Only under the most trying circumstances will a true Maryland gentleman use any alcohol other than rye in his julep."(At the Pendenis Club in Louisville, angry tobacco barons plot their revenge. "St. Mary's County, don't we own that? Let's sell it to the Saudis along with Marlboro stock.")
Perrygo did admit that, when poured straight from the bottle, "rye can be harsh and nasty." But he said that the julep's combination of mint, sugar and crushed ice make it mellow.
Here is his recipe, which he said he will make this Saturday, Derby Day. I can't vouch for it.
I can vouch for my recipe, also listed, which I got from an honorable Kentucky colonel.
Bruce Perrygo's Md. Mint Julep
Rub the inside of a silver (pewter may be substituted) julep cup with one mint leaf, crushing the leaf. Leave leaf in cup.
Pack and fill the cup with crushed ice. Pour thick sugar syrup made from equal parts powdered sugar and water over ice.
Place a large sprig of mint on top of the ice.
Pour a jigger or two of rye whiskey through the mint and into the ice.
Serve with a very short straw that forces the drinker's nose into the mint.
Rob Kasper's Kentucky Julep
6 to 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 the bottom of cup, snipping off excess straw. Place decorative sprig of mint in julep cup within sniffing range of straw.