What the Internet has done to the mint julep

May 07, 2011

The Internet has crowd-sourced the mint julep, encouraging the addition of alien ingredients to this once hallowed beverage, the signature drink of today's Kentucky Derby.

There was a time, before social media, when hidebound traditionalists mocked any change in the julep's sacred makeup of mint, simple syrup, crushed ice and Kentucky bourbon. Back in the 1920s, for instance, H. L. Mencken suggested using rye instead of bourbon, and his contemporary Irvin S. Cobb, objected mightily. Any man who put rye in his mint julep, Cobb said, "would put scorpions in a baby's bed."

Cobb, a Kentucky colonel, would no doubt rise up from underneath his burial boulder in Paducah if he were to surf the web, as I did recently, and see what some modern mixologists are doing to the elixir ancients hailed as the "zenith of man's pleasure."

Nowadays any performer with access to a web cam seems to have a new-fangled theory on how to make this classic cocktail.

My jaw dropped as I watched a video of a barman on the "cocktail guru" site pour lime juice, bitters and Tennessee whiskey, not Kentucky bourbon, into his mixture. The resulting concoction may or may not taste good, but that, sir, is not a mint julep.

I was shocked when a Louisville bartender named Marco teamed up with a British blonde to show the world how to make an "easy" mint julep: pouring equal parts of bourbon and a mixer called Havana Mojito into a glass, then filling it with ice and tossing in a mint sprig. Where was the love of tradition, not mention a bow to the time-honored practice of muddling the mint?

There was a lack of decorum in these videos. Historically a julep sipper behaves with gentility, at least for the duration of the first round. Yet after a young woman named Hilah made her julep with sugar cubes, she looked at the camera and encouraged fellow imbibers to send her inappropriate comments on her Facebook page. Where, madam, is your sense of honor?

Then came an especially cruel blow: word that the Seelbach Hotel, site of one of Louisville's oldest (and one would hope most persnickety) dispensaries, was serving juleps made with — brace yourself — Earl Grey tea mixed with butterscotch syrup. The South will never rise again if it relies on butterscotch tea for its Derby Day libation.

Thankfully, amid the many nouveau machinations offered on the web there were also julep Gibraltars, sites offering rock solid advice how to prepare the authentic elixir.

One of the best was a clip showing Chris McMillian, a New Orleans bartender. He explained how the mint leaves in the bottom of julep should be massaged, not pulverized, so they emit sweetness not bitterness. He demonstrated how to crush ice cubes with a massive wooden mallet. He expounded on why a frosty silver julep cup, a conductor, is superior vessel to a glass, an insulator. He said that slapping the mint sprig used as a garnish releases its alluring perfume. As he made his julep, this veteran barman recited from memory an ode to the mint julep written in the late 1800s by Joshua Soule Smith, a journalist and later a judge in Lexington, Ky.

The language soars in a passage dealing with making the simple syrup: "Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are, mix it with sugar till it seems like oil."

The ode closes with a lyrical description of how to enjoy the beverage: "Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body, like old bourbon whiskey."

To that I would add, after you have had a few sips, steer clear of the Internet.

Rob Kasper

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