The Kentucky Derby is a great excuse to enjoy a Mint Julep once a year, especially when I’ve been able to coax a clump of our mint in our hoophouse to grow early enough to include it. It was a beautiful sunny early spring day, and we enjoyed our frosty juleps with our neighbors Liz and James alongside crackers and yogurt cheese mixed with the other herbs from our hoophouse (chives, tarragon, and chive blossoms) watching Barbaro rocket round the final turn for a true stretch run and win.
Bourbon: An Introduction
from Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking, published in 1985 by The University of North Carolina Press
Whiskey in etymological meaning takes its place alongside aquavit, both meaning the ‘water of life.’ Technically, it is a highly alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented grain. In the American South the abundant grain was corn, and thus came corn whiskey. Thomas Amy wrote of corn in 1682 that the Carolina settlers “have lately invented a way of making with it good sound Beer; but it’s strong and heady. By maceration, when duly fermented, a strong spirit like Brandy may be drawn off from it, by the help of an Alembick.” The name Bourbon came about later. Elijah Craig’s mill in Georgetown, Bourbon County, Kentucky, furnished ground corn for a liquor called Bourbon County whiskey, and the name soon was applied to all whiskey distilled partially or wholly from corn. Today, the mash must be 51 percent corn to carry the name Bourbon. The term sour mash refers to yeast used in fermentation; no less than one-fourth of the yeast used must come from a previous fermentation. It is analogous to the sour-dough bread process, and its adherents are equally loyal. (Tennessee whiskey is not necessarily made from a majority of corn mash; wheat or rye may predominate, but it is always distilled in Tennessee.) Two famous southern drinks are based on corn whiskey: one, the julep, draws on the English heritage; the other, Sazerac, on the French.
Juleps have a long history coming from the English “cup” tradition of serving mixed alcoholic beverages flavored with cooling seasonings such as mint, lovage, cucumber, or fruit in the summer. These were especially welcomed during the long, hot months of the American South and were naturalized by the adoption of corn whiskey. Mint, which grows so easily and reliably, gained preeminence as the flavoring. A man more pugilistic than I might insist on one classic formula for the mint julep. I would rather offer un Marseillais a few hints on Bouillabaisse. The recipe here makes a good julep, the one I favor, and I’ll let it go at that! Later, the mint julep was reintroduced to England by a South Carolinian, and Oxford celebrates that good fortune with a Mint Julep Day each June.
The Sazerac reflects the French influence in New Orleans, combining the Mediterranean taste for anise and the southern penchant for corn. A flavored sugar cube is found at the bottom of this cup, as it is in many New Orleans drinks, the most famous being cafe brulot. Bitters were eagerly adopted by the Creoles, the French always ready for yet another digestif. This thoroughly hybrid drink, the Sazerac, was the specialty of the famed St. Charles Hotel and, according to legend, took its name from a celebrated bartender.
Yields 1 julep
2 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. water
6 to 8 mint leaves
finely crushed ice
2 oz. bourbon
Recommended equipment: A silver goblet or tumbler (approximately 7 oz.)
Combine the sugar, water, and mit leaves in the bottom of a silver goblet or tumbler. Crush the mint gently with the back of a spoon [ed: the proper term for this is to “muddle”]; it is not necessary for sugar to dissolve. Add approximately 3/8 cup dry, finely crushed ice and pour the Bourbon over. Do not stir or shake, but let stand a few minutes until the container frosts over.
Herbsaint is the locally produced, New Orleans version of Pernod
1 tsp. Herbsaint or Pernod
1 lump of sugar
3 to 4 drops of Peychaud bitters
strip of lemon zest
2 ounces Bourbon
Recommended equipment: An old-fashioned glass (tumbler, approximately 7 ounces)
Put the Herbsaint or Pernod in the glass and rotate until interior is completely coated with the liqueur. You may pour out the excess if desired. Put the lump of sugar in the bottom of the glass and splash the bitters over it. Crush the sugar with the back of a spoon, add a strip of lemon zest, and fill glass two-thirds full with dry, crushed ice. Pour the Bourbon over, give the glass a twirl, but not a stir, and serve.