There is much lore that surrounds the first Saturday in May for many southerners, wealthy young people and racing aficionados. The Kentucky Derby marks the first leg of the Triple Crown, the “Run for the Roses.” It’s the chance for jockeys to get their colts off on the right foot. It’s famous for its hats, its horses and its history. There’s the dirty, debaucherous infield where the cheap seats more closely resemble a mosh pit than a genteel estate. The brass band always plays “My Old Kentucky Home.” And it’s the day that made the mint julep famous.
I’ve no real attachment to the aristocratic heritage that the Derby represents, the lineage of old white money, small brown jockeys and decades of horse breeding in search of the perfect star; but as a southerner, or perhaps as a drinker, I do appreciate the excitement of a remarkably short sports event whose hallow hangs on the aroma of a particular drink.
The only drawback of the julep is the toll on the bartender. This person is asked to muddle mint and crush ice to a please a customer who mostly expects an over-indulgent, syrupy-sweet cocktail that is more reminiscent of a mojito than whiskey rocks. As soon as someone in the bar sees or smells what’s happening, everyone in the room wants one.
But let’s not allow this over-investment of effort in a crowded bar setting to tarnish the cocktail itself, especially given the strange tradition to which it is tied and the fact that it can be quite delicious. In fact, it makes it all the more important to take the julep a better way, something my great-uncle Sam used to do in his day.
Uncle Sam’s julep recipe came down our family tree through my grandmother, his sister-in-law. Once spring was in full bloom and the green jacket awarded at The Masters—a calendar milestone when you grow up in Augusta, Ga.—my parents would dig out a pile of faded yet meticulously handwritten notes for the mint julep. The mix was simple, but it was the way Sam put it together, and perhaps who he was, that made it special.
Samuel Thompson Redgrave Revell was a revered family doctor in Bedford, Virginia. No one questions the fact that he loved and dutifully served his patients. Once he’d retired and no longer had anyone to look after but himself, Sam embraced the curmudgeonly war veteran-type. He was perfectly content to walk the beach naked in early morning and happy to tell you his unfiltered thoughts on a range of topics from medicine to politics to religion to sailing. Yet we loved him for good reason, as he was fond in his way of the grandchildren, and we shared an ardent if not equal love for my grandmother, especially after they’d both survived her husband, his younger brother.
My first Derbies and Uncle Sam’s juleps were with my father, a man who prefers a good cocktail and enjoys any opportunity to relish family traditions. He was also the favorite of his mother, which put him next in line for the julep recipe. I can remember him making juleps each Derby Day, preparing the syrup and crushing the ice with a careful hand. Even as a small child, I knew the importance of the julep cup. These were given to my siblings and I as youngsters, each engraved with our initials. They sat on our desks for years collecting change until we were old enough to go to war, impatiently awaiting the day when they would be called upon to do their duty, honor their family, and serve Uncle Sam.
It wasn’t my first, but my best memory of the mint julep was one year in my early twenties, fresh back from a semester in Costa Rica where southern culture was far from my mind and college years in Athens had pushed back my memories of watching dad honor the tradition. I was out of school by May and at my parents’ house with a special lady visiting from the Pacific Northwest. She was charming and lovely in her smart, tough way, but she was far from a southern belle or a determined whiskey drinker I was to find. My family lingered as we do after weekend lunch at the house that first Saturday in May. I noticed the ritual begin as my mother dug out a folded and stained receipt from its crevice in a recipe book and my father gingerly gathered and washed the family julep cups, silently lining one up for each of us.
It was a slow but steady ritual, perfectly timed to prepare us for the best two minutes in sports. The television was already on the correct channel and there was no rushing about in search of the right ingredients. In New York one year, my tendency toward disorder resulted in a basil julep, which was delicious, but quite embarrassing for a southern boy who should know better. When the volume on the TV went up and the jockeys and horses were brought in, Dad made the cocktails.
Make a mint simple syrup. You can easily find any number of recipes on the internet, but the key is not to be shy with the mint, the more minty the syrup, the less need for tedious muddling. The next thing to do is crush ice. Gather your ice in a bag or handkerchief or bandana and smash it with a mallet. Give yourself an excess of crushed ice so you don’t worry about using it later.
Load the julep cup with crushed ice to cool. After icing the cup, empty it and dry muddle 6 - 8 mint leaves at the bottom. Dad always thinks along the lines of a sophisticated New Orleans barman, the idea is to seduce the mint, not to punish it.”
Fill the cup overfull with more crushed ice. Some people like to make a domed top with the palm of their hand; the Revells prefer it a little more ragged looking. But never be short with the ice.
Add ½ oz. - 1 oz. of mint simple syrup.
Fill your julep cup to the brim with bourbon whiskey or other whiskey of the American variety. Early Times was popular from the start being sponsored by the Kentucky Derby itself. They now promote Woodford Reserve, which may be a strike against it. Uncle Sam and my grandmother preferred Evan Williams, even the green label, but they happily used Jack Daniels. Other pricier bourbons work great, but there isn’t much need to overdo it.
Finally, add a large sprig of mint to the top, for flair and fragrance.
What happens next in my mind is a moment of simple genius, the profound effects of which I felt that day in May and can recall on moment’s notice. Uncle Sam had one rule about his julep—it was neither shaken nor stirred. While the crushed ice creates an arctic chill for your hand on the julep cup and a touch of sweet mint syrup patiently waits at the bottom of the drink, the first several sips of Uncle Sam’s mint julep are pure, cool whiskey. And it burns. As the horns start the theme to “My Old Kentucky Home,” the whiskey sinks in, your vision blurs just a bit, your soul turns a bit sentimental, you take another sip or two, barely beginning to detect the hint of something sweet…and they’re off!
Two minutes later that day, I looked over at my special lady from a distant land and realized she was plumb drunk. And I was well on my way too. That was the year they put down the Derby’s first filly right there on the track after she broke a leg crossing the finish line, nearly winning. That sad moment, the music, the roses, the family, the South—well yes, it left a definite impression. And if it weren’t for Uncle Sam’s take on the classic julep, I may never have the seen it from the right angle at all.