The Mint Julep: “The Zenith of Man’s Pleasure”

Late 19th Century journalist J. Soule Smith famously wrote an ode to the Mint Julep in which he dubbed the cocktail “the Zenith of Man’s Pleasure” and “the very dream of drinks,” amongst other (arguably) hyperbolic claims of greatness. Today, Mint Julep guru Chris McMillan recites this poem at Bar Uncommon in New Orleans before he serves up his world-famous version of the cocktail. McMillan, who is lauded as possessing the charm of bartenders of old, says of the Julep, “each sip is different from the one preceding it. Few drinks have that multidimensionality, building to the crescendo—which I think is the payoff of the Julep—of the bourbon and the mint together,” Indeed, the love affair of the mint and bourbon is highlighted in Smith’s poem. He writes:

It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings. The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips its infant leaf into the same stream that makes the bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

The gurgling creek in Smith’s poem evokes an old legend of the Mint Julep’s U.S. origins in which a wayward wanderer was searching for water for his Bourbon on the banks of the Mississippi. When he found an abundance of wild mint growing there he added a little to his tincture and, voila! Mint Julep. This old wives' tale begs the question where does the beguiling Mint Julep find its great beginnings? 

Like many cocktails, the origin of the Mint Julep is disputed - its genesis shrouded in legend. The etymology of Julep is julab - Persian for rose. Merriam Webster defines Julep as 1. a drink consisting of a liquor (such as bourbon or brandy) and sugar poured over crushed ice and garnished with mint 2. a drink consisting of sweet syrup, flavoring, and water. In fact, the first recorded Julep is thought to be a simple concoction of water and roses. Stanley Clisby Arthur, author of Famous New Orleans’s Drinks and How to Make Them, dates this drink back to 1400 AD.     

The drink gained popularity in colonial times as a tonic. Aristocrats would often begin their day fortified with a Mint Julep, which they sipped delicately in bed. The libation was credited with curing stomach ailments and fighting off disease. It came to be recognized as a symbol of wealth and prestige, a form of conspicuous consumption if you will. The drink required a silver-serving vessel – a coveted and costly possession - ice, which was a luxury item, and a trustworthy servant (one who would not steal the silver or the Bourbon) to produce and serve the drink appropriately, dressed in an Irish white linen to keep the vessel cold but the guest's hand warm. 

J. Soule Smith states in his ode “he who has not tasted it has lived in vain.” So do yourself a favor and try a Julep before you kick the proverbial can (or silver cup). May we suggest mixing one up this weekend during the 2017 Kentucky Derby which airs Saturday at 2:30pm ET. According the official website, 120,000 mint Juleps are served each year at the event requiring 10,000 bottles of bourbon, 1,000 pounds of fresh mint and 60,000 pounds of ice. But first, a few suggestions from Mint Julep Master Chris MacMillan:

  • Use a metal mug – it’s better for conducting cold
  • Don’t over muddle the mint! Instead, gently press the mint leaves to release their oil, covering the sides of the mug. Over muddling releases the bitter components of the leaves.
  • Hand crush ice with a Lewis bag and mallet for perfect consistency (and to look profesh)
  • Coat the mug with a small amount of sugar while muddling but finish the drink with the simple syrup on top. “I like to put the sugar on afterward, à la Soule Smith, so you don’t have to get to the bottom of the drink in order to get to the reward,” Says MacMillan. You can adjust the amount according to your personal preference. 
  • Slap the mint before you garnish the drink! It releases more of the oils. 
  • Wrap it up…with a napkin, as this is the traditional way the drink is served. 

With these tips in mind, here is a basic recipe for a Julep:

2 1/2 oz. bourbon
1 oz. simple syrup
12-15 fresh mint leaves
Crushed ice
Tools: muddler, Lewis Bag, Mallet (if you’re feeling fancy)
Glass: julep or Old Fashioned
Garnish: fresh mint sprig dusted in superfine sugar

Place the mint and 1/4 ounce of the simple syrup in a julep cup or Old Fashioned glass and gently muddle, working the leaves up the side of the glass. Loosely pack the glass with crushed ice, then add bourbon and drizzle remaining peach syrup on top. Garnish.

For a variation on the drink, use a rose or peach infused simple syrup. Both are a great twist on the classic.

Gretchen Skedsvold
Cinco de Drink...uh, Mayo

Often confused with Mexico’s Independence Day (September 16), Cinco de Mayo commemorates the Mexican army’s David v. Goliath victory over the French at the Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862...only to be defeated a year later by the French and overtaken by three years of French rule. 

While in Mexico, Cinco de Mayo is a ceremonial holiday mostly observed with military parades (and not a day off from work), in the United States, the day has become associated with the celebration of Mexican-American culture, in part due to hype from commercial interests like restaurants and beer companies...and the avocado industry? 

Try this conversation piece out at your next cocktail party: had Mexico not defeated the French in Puebla on May 5, 1862, France may have gone to the aid of the Confederacy in the U.S. Civil War and the United States' destiny would have been different. Just don’t bring up Andrew Jackson. 

And speaking of cocktail parties, here are a few drinks -- beyond the old stand-by margarita -- we like for the occasion:

Oaxaca Old-Fashioned

1 ½ oz tequila
½ oz mezcal
1 tsp agave nectar
2 dashes angostura bitters
Orange twist (garnish)

Stir all ingredients over ice, then strain into a coupe. To garnish, flame the orange twist over the drink, then drop it in.

Bitters & Smoke

1 oz. tequila
1 oz. Cynar
½ oz. Fernet-Branca
½ oz. mezcal
Tools: barspoon, strainer
Glass: cocktail
Garnish: grapefruit peel

Add ingredients to a mixing glass and stir with ice to chill. Strain into a chilled glass; garnish.

French 62

The French 75 is said to be named after the French 75-mm field gun, which was commonly used in World War I. Here’s a version with Mexican flair: 

2 oz Champagne
½ oz lime juice
1 oz Tequila (or Mezcal for some smokiness)
1 ½ tsp agave nectar

Combine tequila, agave nectar, and lime juice in a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into an iced champagne glass. Top up with Champagne. Stir gently.

Michelada (for 8)

1 32-oz. bottle chilled Clamato (about 4 cups)
1 32-oz. bottle or 3 12-oz. bottles chilled Mexican lager
1/2 cup fresh lime juice
1 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. hot sauce (such as Tabasco)
1 tsp. Maggi Seasoning
2 Tbsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. chili powder
Lime wedges (for serving)

Mix Clamato, lager, lime juice, Worcestershire sauce, hot sauce, and Maggi Seasoning in a large pitcher.

Mix salt and chili powder on a small plate. Rub rims of pint glasses with lime wedges and dip in salt mixture. Fill glasses with ice, add Michelada mixture, and garnish with lime wedges...and a straw coated with tamarind-and-chile-paste if you can find one.

Gretchen Skedsvold
To Prune or Not to Prune

Spring is upon us; soon vines will be budding and grapes will begin to grow. This pivotal moment is the official start of the growing season for vintners. But vineyard workers have been working all winter to prepare for bud break. In our recent conversation, Oregon-based vigneron and vineyard worker Jessica Miller spoke at length about what winemakers and vineyard hands do in the winter to prepare for spring. “The wintertime is all pruning. That is the bulk of the work. Pruning is pretty much a 9-5 for everybody.” But an immense amount of knowledge and technique is required to prune effectively. Jess’s experiences at Clos Roche Blanche in the Loire Valley, De Moor in Chablis and Inglenook in Napa provide unique insight into this tremendously important aspect of vineyard maintenance.

Jess’s first in-depth experience with pruning was with Julien Pineau, who took over Clos Roche Blanche in 2014. She spent a month working one-on-one with Julien learning the basic elements of pruning. There are two primary techniques used to prune vines. The first is called cane pruning. In cane pruning, workers prune at the head, the “V” that forms at the top of the trunk. This allows canes, the branches that grow from either side of the trunk, to grow anew. The second technique is called spur pruning. Spur pruning preserves canes from previous years on the wire; old vines growing from the canes are removed to make room for new vines to grow. Jess also described a less popular technique called gobelet pruning, which does not rely on wires. The trunk is kept short. Gnarled wood from years of spur pruning remains at the head. From there, vines grow upward in a goblet shape. This type of pruning is better suited for arid climates with less risk of rot.

Vines must be pruned before bud break but the precise timing of pruning is not crucial. While Jess was a cellar intern at Ingelnook in Napa Valley, they ran a pruning trial. They pruned some vines in late November and some in late March. To her surprise, “the phenolic* and the sugars and the acids have caught up by harvest”. The timing did not affect the quality of the grapes. 
However, after bud break, frost can damage the vines. Different techniques mitigate the impact of post bud break frost.  “In New Zealand it’s ridiculous,” recounted Jess, with a laugh, “they get helicopters out there to blow the air around.” For a more fiscally conservative vineyard owner, there are pruning techniques that can help protect against frost. Jess described a technique that she first witnessed in cooler climates in France and that she now sees every day from her home in Oregon, which overlooks 30-50 acres of St. Innocent vineyards where the same technique is employed. With this technique, pruners leave a third cane on the vine, slightly higher than the other two canes. In the case of a late frost, the lower hanging canes will bear the burden of the cold and spare the higher cane from damage. 

In her pruning work, Jess is primarily concerned with trunk disease. She first became aware of the severity of trunk disease when working with Alice and Olivier de Moor in Chablis. The disease had affected 60% of the couple’s vines. Luckily, they came across researchers in Sancerre who had written a manual on how to avoid trunk disease.  “By the way that you prune,” said Jess “you can create a habitat – or not – for trunk disease.” Incorrect pruning produces dead wood and dead wood is a host for trunk disease. There is a common misconception that rain is the primary vector for the disease, however research has shown that it is improper pruning that leads to the three fungi that cause the disease. “In Oregon no one had even heard of it,” said Jess. She has since passed on techniques for preventing trunk disease to others who have come to learn how to prune with her. Recently, she found someone who is willing to translate the manual to English and publish it in the U.S. 

Though pruning fascinates Jess, she says that her favorite part of the winter season is reflection and preparation. “The sun sets so early! You can only work so long in the wintertime. It’s great for farmers because when you have days that are over 12, 13, 14 hours long you tend to work as long as the sun is up so I think that ability to plan in the winter is really nice.” Alas, those days of quiet contemplation are numbered. With spring will begin long days in the vineyard carefully nurturing grapes for a new vintage.  

* One of the most important groups of compounds in wines are phenolics, which are derived from phenol, and are responsible for structure and color in red wines. Tannin and anthocyanin are examples of major phenolics found in wine. 


Gretchen Skedsvold