May 1. It's that time of year. The chili cookoff in Roanoke; a famous horse race in Kentucky. Planning and planting things, watching them grow. Every year at this time there's enough fresh mint for my favorite adult beverage: the Mint Julep. There are hundreds of ways of making them.
I make Mint Juleps the way I learned from my father, "The Colonel", whom my brother and I call "Pappy". Pappy retired as an Army Colonel, a rank he earned during WWII after his participation in the Ardennes Forest Offensive (also known as the Battle of the Bulge). Across Virginia he was always referred to as "The Colonel" and with that name on the other side of the state people knew who you were talking about. Growing up as the kid of a well known dad had its advantages and disadvantages. I learned early on that I'd best behave myself wherever I happened to be, 'cause word always made it back to him. Now I realize that was an advantage.
Pappy's voice still booms in my memory: "Ross: the ingredients are the key. You've got to use bonded bourbon ('bottled in bond', a government thing that means the stuff is at least 100 proof) and it damn well better be from Kentucky. Second, use very cold ice -- ice that's been in the deep freeze for over a week so it knows it's job is to stay cold, and it wants to! Third: pick your mint only when you're ready to make the Juleps -- over 10 minutes between picking and using and it begins to wilt and loses flavor."
Every time I made Mint Juleps, I also hear, "just as important is the ceremony of making the Julep itself -- people enjoy them even more when they watch you make them and you make it appear special." Pappy was right about that among many many things. I remember a college summer school geology course I took in Colorado. I had a high 'C' or low 'B' at the end of the course when we had our end of school party. The professor was there, I made Mint Juleps (with the ceremony) for him, and the 'C' moved to an 'A'.
The Colonel's Famous Mint Julep Recipe; Per Julep:
- 3, 4" sprigs of mint, divided
- 1 1/2 cups deep-freeze-cold ice
- 3 teaspoons table sugar, divided
- 100 Proof Kentucky Bourbon
- Tall 8 oz. glass or, even better, aluminum tumblers.
- Crush ice in a clean dishtowel or canvas bag (I used to represent a bank and use an old money-bag) and pound it with a mallet or hammer until the ice is nearly pulverized.
- With a spoon -- your hand will warm the ice too much -- fill each tumbler about 1/3 the way up.
- Add a heaping teaspoon of granulated sugar and about 5 mint leaves (you can leave them on the stem).
- Repeat: another 1/3 tumbler of ice, then sugar and mint, and then ice to the top.
- Once the tumblers are full, take an ordinary iced tea spoon and hold it upside down by the bowl of the spoon and jam it up and down in the tumbler. This crushes the ice against the mint and sugar, gets all the flavor and oils in the mint flowing, and everything mixing together. Do this for 30 seconds or more.
- Add more ice to pack the tumbler firmly to the top. Finally, take the bottled-in-bond Kentucky Bourbon and pour it in. No, you don't need to measure the bourbon. As a practical matter, if you've done it right, the tumbler will take only (he says!) about 2 or at most 2 1/2 ounces of bourbon, which isn't that much for a serious bourbon drinker.
After pouring the bourbon, the tumblers should instantly frost over with a layer of ice on the outside. That's the first sign you've made the Mint Julep properly and means that it's well below freezing. Add a sprig of mint on the top of each drink as a garnish, put in sippin' spoons (ice tea spoons with a hollow tube for a handle; if you don't have them a straw will have to do), and serve with a napkin underneath. Hold it by the napkin so the frosted side isn't ruined by the heat of your fingers.
Aaaahhh!. Definitely worth being included in the top ten of life's pleasures. Be careful, though. Mint Juleps have teeth!
Thank you, Pappy. Here's to you and all you taught me.