Julep puts the sprig in spring

WAY BACK WHEN

Derby's official drink goes down nicely on Preakness Day, too

back story

May 19, 2007|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,sun reporter

It used to be that the arrival of mint in the Maryland spring brought julep season, which was reinforced by the Maryland Hunt Cup and picked up steam with the running of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

And with the big race today at Pimlico, I wonder how many folks will be holding a chilled silver cup from Stieff or Kirk, loaded with rye or bourbon, as the horses barrel around the clubhouse turn.

This is a drink that seems to have a lot of adherents, but I wonder how many folks who say they enjoy juleps actually drink or bother to make them.

My colleague, Rob Kasper, has made and chugged an ocean of juleps during four decades of steady "scientific experimentation" while trying to decide whether he prefers rye or bourbon.

I know the Black-Eyed Susan made with vodka, rum, Cointreau, orange and pineapple juice is the official Preakness drink, as the bourbon julep is for the Kentucky Derby.

The bourbon that flows into those Kentucky juleps is as much a part of the Bluegrass State as the thoroughbreds raised there. But none of the ingredients that make up the Black-Eyed Susan are indigenous to the Maryland Free State.

We don't grow oranges or pineapples here (although that may change with global warming). We don't distill vodka, rum or Cointreau, and even the flower it takes its name from isn't around on Preakness Day.

The black-eyed Susan doesn't make its appearance in these latitudes until the weather is hot and dry in July, long after the name of the Preakness winner is forgotten.

The Belmont Breeze, which Kasper reported last year is the newest entry in the Triple Crown drink field, replaced the White Carnation that had kept railbirds happy for generations at the hallowed New York racetrack, home to the last leg of the Triple Crown.

The Belmont Breeze is made with bourbon or blended whiskey, cream sherry, lemon juice, simple syrup, cranberry juice, club soda, 7-UP, and garnished with a fresh strawberry, mint sprig and a lemon wedge.

The Belmont Breeze sounds to me like an alcohol-fueled fruit cocktail that preppies most likely vacationing in the Hamptons or on yachts anchored in Nantucket harbor would concoct and praise for its health value.

I've only sipped one Black-Eyed Susan in my life, and that was about 20 years ago. It convinced me that the old-fashioned mint julep triumphs over all race drinks. "The mint julep, laden with aromatic bourbon and steeped in nostalgia, tugged at my heart and pleased my palate. After one, I was weeping for my old Kentucky Home," Kasper wrote in The Sun last year.

A mint julep is the perfect marriage of a lump of sugar, a tablespoon of water, 4 mint leaves, 3 or more ounces of rye (or bourbon if you're from Dixie), and a sprig of fresh mint to decorate the cup or glass.

The sugar is dissolved in the water. Add mint leaves and muddle with sugar and water until well mixed. Fill the cup or glass with crushed ice and fill with whiskey. Stir until frost appears on the cup.

Years ago, I asked Andrew W. Merle Jr. -- whose Standard Distillers Products on Lombard Street in downtown Baltimore was the last producer of Maryland rye (Pikesville Rye, in particular) -- about using bourbon in a julep. He replied that it simply wasn't done and "no self-respecting Marylander would ever do such a thing."

"Mint is all very well as a garniture for roast lamb. It tastes all right in toothpaste. But the only time that demand really takes care of supply is julep time," wrote Patrick Skene Catling, an erudite British reporter who worked for The Sun.

"Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves, would put scorpions in a baby's bed," said humorist Irvin Cobb, years ago.

Catling, who had more than a newspaperman's passing interest in alcoholic beverages, reported that it wasn't uncommon for the bartender at the old Southern Hotel to witness Baltimoreans lined up at his bar "demolish 75 juleps by 5 o'clock in the afternoon."

The whiskey of choice, in those far-off years, reported Catling, was Maryland rye and not Kentucky bourbon.

"This drink is equally beneficial to open-hearth furnace tenders, overworked bush-league pitchers, harassed kindergarten teachers -- to anyone, in fact, with a thirst and a will to get away from it all," he wrote in a 1950 article.

James G. Genthner, who has worked for the State Highway Administration for 35 years, and is a longtime fan and collector of Maryland rye, plans to use Woodford Reserve, an upper-end Kentucky bourbon, in his Preakness mint julep today.

"I like the taste of bourbon and plenty of mint. I like them to taste minty," said Genthner, who uses powdered sugar, rather than the granulated variety, and old wooden chopsticks to muddle the mint and water into a simple syrup.

"I only make a few of them during the warmer months due to the time and labor involved," he said. "It's much easier to pop open a bottle of beer on a warm day."

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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