Handle The Proof: Mint Juleps

Few bartenders know how to make a decent mint julep and few people order the bourbon cocktail. There must be a connection.

But which came first? It's a perfect cooler for blazing summer days (which seem unlikely to arrive anytime soon)--icy fresh, with a wicked punch--and one closely tied to the American south. Not all that difficult to make, either...if you don't mind a little muddling.

The julep consists of sugar, mint and a lot of bourbon. Obviously it's similar in nature to the wildly popular mojito--and both probably derived from grog, the Royal Navy's issue of rum cut with citrus and sugar to its sailors during the old wooden ship days. Indeed, the first juleps were likely made with rum or rough whiskey. For a time, it was a morning drink then a symbol of the old south.

Nowadays, however, it's confined to Kentucky Derby day parties. The rest of the time, people wile away afternoons with mojitos.

Yeah, I have a guess as to why. Like a number of old-fashioned cocktails, the balance of ingredients in the julep is tricky. Get it wrong, and it's one bitter and bitchy thing. For instance, one I tried at The Porch, prepared by a young bartender who blinked and gave me a blank look when I issued the order, shorted the sugar, leaving bourbon and herb to fight it out.

And, really, those two should never be left alone without a moderator.

There's another reason: a lot of people think they don't like bourbon. It's too strong or something. But rum was once a rough spirit, as well--considered seedy, the kind of thing that spurs people into intemperate behavior. Of course, the popularity of Havana as a vacation spot before Castro's revolution softened its image. Not too many people chose to spend their two weeks in rural Virginia or the hills of Kentucky. The mint julep became dated and bourbon...well, as some woman at a bar in Dallas once told me, it "smells like old lawyers."

Classic cocktails, however, are on the rebound. Except the julep, of course. B

ecause so few bartenders drink mint juleps--or have any experience mixing them--they either muck it up or rely on those sappy pre-mixed bottled on Derby day. Both are nasty enough to cause first time julep drinkers to pray they never encounter another. I barely made it through that one I tried at The Porch. And I'm a professional drunk.

But there's really no reason a novice can't get it right.

At Victor Tangos, my bartender admitted he'd never made one. He looked it up in their cocktail bible, put one together then snatched it away before I could take more than three sips. "I can do better," he said.

His next effort was almost perfectly balanced. Unlike the cloying sweetness of pre-bottled brands or the scrunching bitterness of my visit to The Porch, he positioned it so all three elements vie as equals. There was just enough mint to fill the nose and bring a refreshing sensation on the palate, just enough sugar to cool some of the bourbon's acrid character--but not enough of either to fully tame the whiskey.

Poured over crushed ice, it tastes sweet, herbal, potent, interesting and very, very cold. And that's what you want from a summer cocktail.

Damn it's good...when they get it right.

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