There's something fundamentally wrong with the South.
Yeah, yeah, we know the obvious stuff. But there's so much more. Waffle House comes to mind, long-winded authors, too. And sheriffs named Rufus, dry counties, fried okra--that sort of thing. Even worse, good old boys suck down mojitos...no, that's a lie. They chug cans of Busch while slewing down the road. City-dwelling types, however, prefer mojitos, invented in freedom-loving Cuba, to their own native concoction, the mint julep.
It's a perplexing thing. The Caribbean cocktail is a frivolous drink, something perfect, in the words of unofficial Dallas drink scholar Ross Martin, "for a girls' night out." Mint juleps, on the other hand, pack enough alcohol in one glass to destroy motor functions and fry those brain things.
"It's 3 to 4 ounces of bourbon with some mint backing it up," explains Danny Versfelt, bartender at Al Biernat's. Mix that with a touch of sugar and a bit of water, pour it over ice, down a couple, and who cares if your editor handed your name to Army recruiters. (Editor's note: It was the Salvation Army.)
"That's the beautiful thing about it," says Reagan Jensen, bartender at Oceanaire. "You can act genteel and still have a huge belt of bourbon."
So why don't people order mint juleps?
Most patrons associate the drink with horse racing's Kentucky Derby, despite its lengthy heritage (a book from 1803 includes a description of the cocktail, and cultured Southern overseers considered it a breakfast drink, perfect for contemplating traitorous acts). Or worse. "Mojitos are associated with Brazil and sex," says Dragonfly's Chris Michael, "mint juleps with segregation."
Ah, heritage. Trends also work against the venerable drink. "Bourbon isn't nearly as popular as it used to be," Michael continues. "Dark liquors in particular have fallen out of favor. Vodka has become the go-to liquor." Indeed, vodka accounts for almost 30 percent of U.S. spirits sales, according to Information Resources in Chicago. Meanwhile, rum, the critical part of a mojito, controls 13 percent of the market.
"Bourbon scares the hell out of ordinary folks who normally equate it with barflies and wicked hangovers," Martin adds.
Moreover, few bartenders have the knowledge or wherewithal to fix one. The Burning Question crew bounced from bar to bar in search of a decent mint julep. The staff at Houston's in Addison couldn't find a recipe, so we settled for beer. At Severine's we ended up downing martinis after bartenders shook off our order. Ziziki's produced one that tasted more like the wimpy Caribbean drink. Jensen at Oceanaire served a sidecar instead because "the chef used up all our fresh mint," and Tutto's Kyle Curd stuffed lemon in the mint julep, which he claimed replicated his "grandmother's recipe." When we visited Cuba Libre, a bartender twisted lime into the mix, prompting manager Dan Riley to rush to the bar.
"No, no, no, it's not a mojito," he moans. The popularity of simple mixed drinks, he believes, created a batch of bartenders lacking certain skill sets. Flavored liquors contribute to this de-evolution, so that no one learns to infuse or muddle or balance flavors properly.
Yet a perfectly prepared mint julep, ah, it's a beautiful thing. And we found a few worthwhile versions. Versfelt pulverized fresh mint like a master and even crushed the ice by hand. Chris Fleming at Capital Grille prefers boiling mint in sugar and water first to soften flavors. Over at Hibiscus, Ben Caudle blended a slightly sweet and very potent mixture. By the time we tried Phil Natale's pleasing version at Sense, we...well, don't remember.
"If you're out there in the sun, it will knock you on your ass," Caudle warns. Hell, even drinking them at night causes rifts in the space-time continuum.
Skilled bartenders, though, frown when patrons order a round of juleps. "You have to muddle everything," Natale explains. The process of tearing off mint leaves and pounding them to release flavor occupies more time than someone manning a busy bar can reasonably allow. Crowds elbowing up for a beer show little sympathy for tradition. "A mint julep is the old South slowing down, sitting down," Riley points out. "You don't get that anymore."
Still, there's some nostalgia for the sophisticated summer cocktail. "It's neat when you have someone under 40 that comes in and orders something like that," Reagan says. Everyone orders the popular drinks. Only a few hard-core lushes show sip the classics in public.
"The mojito is female-approachable," Riley adds. "The mint julep is manly, an old-world drink." Apparently old-world types relished stiff shots of alcohol. "Our culture has gone McDonald's," he continues, "a homogenized drinking public."
So there it is. Habits, culture, marketing dollars all yearn for lighter, more accessible drinks. "I make a couple for people around the derby," Versfelt says. "They want to know what it tastes like.
"Usually they don't order another."
Of course, as Jensen explains, "if a movie comes out showing people sipping mint juleps, it will become popular again."
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