Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Myth Of The Mint Julep

Everyone's sweet on them as a Derby drink, but it seems any other time, they're hard to swallow

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Cindy Kebbell, lead bartender at the Seelbach Hilton Hotel in downtown Louisville, makes mint juleps from scratch.
(Gary Landers photos)
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LOUISVILLE - The bartender's jaw drops, almost as if her horse stumbled three lengths before the finish line.

"I don't know if I can make a julep, hon," she says, slight panic in her eyes. "We don't have any fresh mint."

It's a hot, thirsty afternoon in mid-April. A time in Louisville they might call the "Week Before the Week Before Derby." But this is John E.'s, a rough-hewn bar and restaurant smelling of cigar smoke and fried frog legs, where trainer Bob Baffert and other horsemen supposedly shoot the breeze before Derby Day, the first Saturday in May. So if any self-respecting saloon in Louisville should be able to make a mint julep outside of Derby week, it should be John E.'s.

Perfect mint julep
The bartender scrambles back from behind a door, carrying a dusty, unopened bottle of Early Times Mint Julep mix, a cloying blend of whiskey and mint-flavored syrup. She dribbles the greenish liquid over ice cubes apologetically.

"Hope this is OK," she says. "Don't really know what they're supposed to taste like. I don't drink 'em."

To the surprise of the rest of the world, this bartender, who understandably prefers to remain unnamed, is not alone in her disdain of mint juleps in Derby Town.

[IMAGE] Bill Dohn, of Dohn & Dohn Gardens, supplies Churchill Downs with mint for the mint juleps made at the track
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For more than a century, the sweet cocktail of mint and bourbon has been the celebrated drink of the most famous horse race. A Derby party anywhere is not really a Derby party without mint juleps.

And to be sure, people drink them in Louisville during Derby week - in bars and restaurants and high-falootin' pre- and post-race functions. On Derby Day alone, Churchhill Downs sells close to 80,000 mint juleps. Even for a crowd of 145,000-plus, that's a lot of minty bourbon.

But if you ask a few questions and listen for that distinctive drawl, chances are the people doing most of the julep drinking are not from loo-uh-vill.

"I don't drink 'em unless I have to " says Julian Van Winkle, a third-generation bourbon maker, president of Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery.

No mint or sugar syrup in his aged, high-priced Pappy Van Winkle bourbon, please.

Early Times, the "official" mint julep of the Kentucky Derby, and Maker's Mark sell the most popular pre-made julep mixes. All you have to do is pour and add ice.

But both brands taste a little sweet and artificially minty - certainly not as good as a made-from-scratch mint julep. The Maker's Mark mix is slightly more potent - 66 proof to Early Times' 60 proof.

The biggest difference between the brands is the price. Early Times costs nearly half as much (about $13.99 per liter) as the Maker's Mark ($26.99 per liter). Another substantial difference: the Maker's Mark Mint Julep is made with bourbon, while the Early Times is mixed with the lesser classification, "whiskey" (in order to be considered bourbon, whiskey must be legally aged for at least two years in new oak barrels).

After this tasting, we're not sure the authentic bourbon in the Maker's Mark mix is worth the extra $13. For a better-tasting and less expensive mint julep, perhaps it's best to make your own.

Where to sip a mint julep in Greater Cincinnati

You think it's difficult finding a decent mint julep in Louisville outside of Derby week? Try ordering one in Cincinnati - any time.

Bartender Kim Brann at Chez Nora (530 Main St.) in Covington uses Maker's Mark bourbon, crushed ice and fresh mint, grown by friends down the street. Brann doesn't always have the mint on hand, but she'll have plenty standing by for Derby weekend .

DeSha's (11320 Montgomery Road) in Symmes Township will serve mint juleps all day Saturday. Bartenders at the Harper's Point restaurant infuse fresh mint into simple syrup for their traditional Derby Drinks, and mix them with Maker's Mark

Mint juleps were probably first served in the early to mid 1700s in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. "Mint julep" first appeared in print in 1803, described as a "dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning." The French word "julep" is derived from the Persian "gulab," a sweet concoction that may have been a vehicle for medicine.

The first mint juleps were made with rum, rye whiskey and other available spirits. Kentucky bourbon whiskey wasn't widely distributed until later in the 19th century.

The tradition of sipping mint juleps migrated westward to Kentucky, and soon became associated with horse racing. In 1816, the Kentucky Gazette mentioned mint julep cups being awarded as prizes at horse races in the Commonwealth. We do not know when bourbon was first used in juleps, but by the early 1800s, many Kentucky farmers owned stills, which they used to make corn whiskey or what is now called bourbon. Later, bourbon became the preferred spirit in mint juleps everywhere.

"My argument is the true mint julep waited for bourbon to be invented," says Joe Nickell, author of the newly released Kentucky Mint Julep (The University of Kentucky Press; $12).

Legend has it that mint was planted outside the club house of Churchill Downs in Louisville so that mint juleps could be served at the first Kentucky Derby, in 1875. In 1939, Churchill Downs contracted the Libby Glass Co. to make colorful commemorative glasses for juleps sold at the race.

Chris Goodlett, curator of the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchhill Downs, who has lived in Louisville most of his life, admits he's never had a mint julep.

Take a poll of Louisville bartenders and caterers, and a majority would agree most of the people who order the drink, around Derby time or otherwise, are tourists.

"You can tell the people from out of town at Derby parties," says Kimberly Jones, a chef-instructor at Sullivan University in Louisville and director of the culinary school's Juleps Catering. "They get all excited because they feel like a julep is the thing they have to drink."

Jones only drinks mint juleps on Derby Day, and only at Churchill Downs.

The popularity of mint juleps is waning, so bars are creating new drinks based on the old one. At the Red Lounge on Frankfort Avenue, they're trying to appeal to the young crowd with mint julep martinis, made with bourbon, vanilla-flavored vodka, orange liqueur, simple syrup (dissolved solution of sugar and water) and muddled mint.

Even at the old and traditional Pendennis Club, downtown, where the staff wears black vests and bow ties, bartender Tom Curley rarely pours a mint julep.

"I tried one once," he says. "But it was way too sweet. And if it was so good, why don't we drink them year-round?"

Excellent question. While they'll serve 80,000 juleps at Churchhill Downs Saturday, track beverage manager Bobby Jones says his crew is lucky to sell 100 juleps any other day at the track.

"They lose some of their appeal after Derby," says Jones, a 37-year veteran of Churchill Downs, who never brings a julep to his lips.

This week, Bill Dohn, the Louisville farmer who has grown mint for Churchill Downs since 1975, will deliver more than 6,000 dozen bunches of the fragrant herb to the track and area groceries. Those mint shipments will drop to fewer than 500 dozen bunches a week after Saturday. Dohn, who does sip a julep or two, guesses much of his post-Derby mint will be used for cooking and iced tea.

He's probably right.

So is this some cruel hoax that Louisville plays on the rest of the world? After all, they drink Manhattans in Manhattan. They swill beer in Milwaukee and gulp vodka in Moscow.

"You can't be a genuine citizen of Louisville unless you drink one mint julep a year," Mike Bosc, vice president of media relations for Greater Louisville Inc., boldly declares.

For most, that duty usually falls on Derby Day, he says. So why don't they sip juleps with abandon the rest of the year?

"Because there are better-tasting drinks," Bosc responds.

The mint julep never will match the popularity of martinis or gin and tonics. But if made properly, it is a fine cocktail - a smooth, balanced blend of bourbon and sweetness. A short straw forces the drinker to snuggle his or her nose into the mint garnish while sipping, heightening the julep experience. On a warm spring day, a julep is quenching and refreshing, at the race track or on the patio.

At its worst, though, a mint julep is overly sweet, artificial-tasting and deceptively alcoholic. Like mouthwash with a serious kick.

Unfortunately, those are the juleps, made in Kentucky and elsewhere, that many remember. It's the reason they'll swear to never drink juleps again, and the reason many Louisvillians will only bravely take an annual symbolic sip.


Practical problems and lazy bartenders are to blame for the sad state of mint juleps. First, as the anonymous bartender at John E.'s pointed out, fresh mint can be hard to come by. Even though mint man Dohn grows and ships it year-round, few cocktails other than juleps (and the recently trendy rum-based mojito) call for fresh mint. So even in Louisville, most bars don't bother stocking mint outside Derby season.

Secondly, many bars don't have finely crushed or shaved ice. This means the bartender has to pound ice by hand, which takes time and effort.

"When someone orders one here, we grumble," says Cindy Kebbell, lead bartender at the Old Seelbach Bar, downtown. "It's a lot of work."

Although they still make the juleps from scratch at the Seelbach, lesser bars take shortcuts - using cubed ice and bottled julep mixes, which taste like mint-flavored whiskey.

"It's the hardest drink to make right," says Bill Samuels Jr., president of Maker's Mark Distillery.

He prepares juleps by infusing fresh mint into bourbon ) and then sweetening it to taste with simple syrup. This method allows the home bartender to make several mint juleps quickly and accurately.

Then there are the purists, the mint muddlers, like Chris Morris, master distiller at Brown-Forman in Louisville. Morris makes juleps painstakingly, one at a time, by muddling fresh mint with sugar and a few drops of his Woodford Reserve bourbon at the bottom of the julep cup or glass. He then adds crushed ice, bourbon and more crushed ice.

Morris will make as many as 100 mint juleps during the two-week period leading up to Derby, but he'll drink only one or two.

"It's kind of like the big hats," Morris says, offering his theory on the short-lived mint julep season. "Women wear big hats to Derby, but they don't wear them the rest of the year. It's tradition."

And made correctly, mint juleps are a Derby tradition that go down easily. Maybe even more than one.

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