I had really not meant to write about the Kentucky mint julep this year, but I just can’t keep from the subject when the biggest event in Kentucky’s calendar is about to take place: the Kentucky Derby.
Every year I find out some new things that make the julep such a part of the Derby.
Tonight I pulled out a cookbook that has been on my kitchen shelf since 1976, more than 40 years, “Kentucky Hospitality: A 200-Year Tradition,” edited by Dorothea C. Cooper for the Kentucky Federation of Women’s Clubs. It began like this:
“From the Kentuckians” taste for the ‘horsesome beverage’ the famed mint julep. The Kentucky legend is that a boatman made the discovery when he left the Mississippi River in search of spring water to mix with his bourbon and, as a whim, added some of the mint growing beside the spring. the actual date of discovery is unknown, but the drink was adopted by genteel Kentucky society in the 19th century.
“The mixing of a mint julep — a controversial subject than the curing and cooking of a country ham. Traditionally there seems to have been uniform agreement that the whiskey must be straight aged Kentucky bourbon and the water must be cold and fresh from a limestone spring. The controversy about the handling of the mint, whether to bruise the leaves or not, has been the subject of many newspaper columns and a few books.
“The cup in which a mint julep is traditionally served is made of sterling silver (originally coin silver), about four inches tall and three inches in diameter. As early as 1816, such cups were given as prizes at agricultural fairs. A specially designed julep cup has been presented to the owner of the Kentucky Derby winner for the past 25 years. A complete set, with the names of all the Derby winners, is in the director’s room at Churchill Downs.
“The reputation of the mint julep has now spread throughout the world, and it is known as the unofficial Kentucky Derby drink, enjoyed by thousands as the thoroughbreds canter to the starting to the starting gate at Churchill Downs to the strains of ‘My Old Kentucky Home.’
“Recipes for mint julep have been attributed to such noted Kentuckians as Henry Clay, Irvin S. Cobb and Henry Watterson. Soule Smith (1848-1904), a Lexington attorney, in a monograph entitled “The Mint Julep,” gave the most eloquent and poetic description of its preparation. Henry Clay’s recipe, which follows, was found in a diary.
“The mint leaves, fresh and tender, should be pressed against a coin-silver goblet with the back of a silver spoon. Only bruise the leaves gently and then remove them from the goblet. Half fill with cracked ice. Mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels, is poured from the jigger and allowed to slide slowly through the cracked ice.
“In another receptacle, granulated sugar is slowly mixed into chilled limestone water to make a silvery mixture, as smooth as some rare Egyptian oil, then poured on top of the ice. While beads of moisture gather on the burnished exterior of the goblet on the burnished exterior of the silver goblet, garnish the brim of the goblet with choicest springs of mint.” Henry Clay
Now from the cookbook “Kentucky Capital City Cookbook,” edited by Pat Layton in 1982.
Kentucky’s Mint Julep
“No Kentucky cookbook is complete without a recipe for mint julep. Other than election night, Derby Day is the biggest celebration in Frankfort; and the Mint Julep is an important part of the heritage of a Kentucky Derby celebration.”
Make a simple syrup by boiling two cups of powdered sugar and two cups of water for five minutes. Fill a jar with sprigs of fresh mint (crushed) and cover with cooled syrup. Cap and refrigerate at least overnight. Discard mint.
To make one julep at a time: Fill a well-chilled and frosted metal cup with finely crushed ice. Pour in 1/2 tablespoon of the mint-flavored syrup and two ounces of Kentucky Bourbon. Stick in a tall sprig of mint and serve at once.
To make some ahead, prepare as before except omit the final mint sprig. Put in freezer; refrigerator is not cold enough.
Now, today, if you don’t already have a julep recipe, and you haven’t gotten your Derby edition of the “Graphic” save this issue and story until next year and be ready to watch the Derby with a cup of julep in your hands.
And you will find that you love Kentucky even more!
A happy day for you!
Joe Rhinehart can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.