Colonial America (1750-ish)
The Mint Julep: one that you’ve heard of, but maybe haven’t had properly. Most places make these with a packaged mix or mint syrup – for no good reason. Several ways exist for getting fresh mint into the whiskey, but there are masses of orthodox devotees preaching the time-honored muddling and ice-crushing technique that follows. Preparing this drink properly is a bit of a challenge and takes some skill. But you’re up for it, right?
Juleps as a style of drink go back farther than we have reliable records, as far back as 15th-century Europe, where a “julep” was a flavored sugar syrup mixed with medication. In Colonial America, mint juleps were first made with brandy, then whiskey as word got down south and stuck in Kentucky.
In an interview with Imbibe magazine, Chris McMillian, a fourth-generation bartender and local institution at New Orleans’ Kingfish, says the Mint Julep began as a wake & bake drink “in Virginia, where servants would bring them on silver salvers while you were still in bed. You would consume two to three juleps before arising, to fortify you against the malaise that was supposed to occupy the ether and make people sick.” I can’t imagine drinking three of these at any time of day, much less in the morning – our southern forebears were certainly made of stronger stuff. There’s also a great video of McMillian demonstrating his julep technique and reciting the following lovely bit of prose as he goes along. You don’t need to be as entertaining when making this for friends, but it sure wouldn’t hurt.
The Mint Julep
J. Soule Smith
In the Blue Grass land there is a softer sentiment — a gentler soul. There where the wind makes waves of the wheat and scents itself with the aroma of new-mown hay, there is no contest with the world outside. On summer days when, from his throne, the great sun dictates his commands, one may look forth across broad acres where the long grass falls and rises as the winds may blow it. He can see the billowy slopes far off, each heaving as the zephyrs touch it with caressing hand. Sigh of the earth with never a sob, the wind comes to the Blue Grass. A sweet sigh, a loving one; a tender sigh, a lover’s touch, she gives the favored land. And the moon smiles at her caressing and the sun gives benediction to the lovers. Nature and earth are one — married by the wind and sun and whispering leaflets on the happy tree.
Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.
The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips infant leaf into the same stream that makes The Bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, and the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. Like a woman’s heart it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside gurgling brooks that make music in the fields, it lives and thrives. When the bluegrass begins to shoot its gentle sprays towards the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demands the wedding.
How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away – it is the sacrifice. Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed – just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find the taste and odor at one draft.
Then when it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant cold and sweet – it is seductive. No maidens kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream – it is a dream itself. No other land can give you so much sweet solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.
Hardware: Jigger, Muddler, Barspoon, Lewis bag, Straws (cut to size)
Ice: Crushed ice
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass or Julep cup
Spirits: Bourbon whiskey (recommended: Four Roses “Yellow Label”, Wild Turkey 81, Buffalo Trace)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Simple syrup
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Fresh spearmint
Using a Lewis bag, crush ice to a fine, even consistency by pounding with a muddler. In an Old Fashioned glass or Julep cup, add:
10 spearmint leaves
1/2 oz simple syrup
Muddle lightly, gently working the mint leaves and syrup around the interior of the glass. The key here is lightly – if you bust up the leaves, they’ll release bitter chlorophyll. The flavor you want is actually in the little fibers that coat the leaves. Fill the glass or Julep cup with crushed ice about three-quarters full, then add:
2 oz bourbon whiskey
Swizzle briskly to blend and chill, keeping the mint at the bottom. Mound additional crushed ice on top to form a dome. Garnish with a mint sprig that’s been lightly slapped against the dome of ice to release its aromatic oils. Serve with two straws cut to size.
New Orleans, Louisiana (1830, then 1880)
The Sazerac is an unusual old-school drink with the fine distinction of The Official Cocktail of New Orleans. No garnish, no ice, no citrus juice – but deeply refreshing and smooth. It was originally made with Cognac, but since 1880 or so, rye whiskey has been the standard. And that’s a good thing: Rye’s peppery intensity gets a serious flavor going up front where Cognac might just lay back and take it.
Peychaud’s bitters and Herbsaint are two New Orleans-local ingredients that give this drink its one-of-a-kind character.
It’s easy to think of the Sazerac as a transitional cocktail: similar in its template of spirit/sugar/water/bitters to the Old Fashioned, simply known as “Cocktail” prior to the later 1800s. It’s kind of like what Jerry Thomas called “Improved” cocktails – those enhanced with absinthe and a bit of maraschino or curaçao. And it’s served “up” (without ice) like a Manhattan, but in a rocks glass. Credit for this drink goes to Antoine Amédée Peychaud, a Creole apothecary from New Orleans by way of Haiti, who would mix his proprietary Peychaud’s bitters with French Cognac and a bit of sugar for his customers, in the style of the day. The drink became immensely popular in New Orleans, so much so that the Sazerac Coffee House was opened in 1840 to serve the thirsty masses (named after the Sazerac de Forge et Fils Cognac the drink was made from).
But a little aphid-like bug called phylloxera had other plans: a plague of Biblical proportions that brought on the near-total destruction of France’s grapevines between 1863 and 1890. It’s estimated between 66% and 90% of all Europe’s vineyards were demolished by this pest.
When faced with adversity major or minor, though, New Orleans always rises: a simple switch from Cognac to rye whiskey around 1880 kept the Sazerac on track. And after the totally-unfounded absinthe ban hit the United States in 1912, locals J. Marion Legendre and Reginald Parker started producing the absinthe-subtitute Herbsaint from techniques they learned in France while serving during World War I.
And it’s this formula that stuck: rye whiskey, sugar, and Herbsaint with Peychaud’s bitters. Some like one dash of Angostura in place of part of the Peychaud’s – although not traditional, it’s delicious. You can certainly do a bit of time-travel by mixing this with some good Cognac (try Pierre Ferrand 1840) and a more traditional absinthe like Pernod for an idea of what the Sazerac tasted like originally… but a funny thing happens sometimes when disaster strikes: things get better as they recover.
Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes
Glassware: Old Fashioned glass
Spirits: Rye whiskey (recommended: Rittenhouse)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Herbsaint, Rich demerara syrup (2:1)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Peychaud’s bitters, Lemon twist
Chill an Old Fashioned glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
After it’s chilled, add to the glass:
1/4 oz Herbsaint
Over the sink, tilt and slowly rotate the glass to coat all interior surfaces with the Herbsaint. As a last step, tilt the glass upside-down to drain out any excess drops, then return it to the freezer.
In a mixing glass, add:
2 oz rye whiskey
1 barspoon rich demerara syrup
4 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Pinch a lemon twist over the drink to express oils onto its surface, then rub the twist around the glass rim to coat. Discard the twist.
New York City (1870s)
The Manhattan is where we start to get all fancy and what-have-you. Break out the cocktail glasses. If you don’t like whiskey, you’ll hate this one. And it could care less. Take it or leave it. The Manhattan is commonly made with bourbon, but the real authentic style is with rye. Check out how just two ingredients (whiskey and vermouth) take a couple dashes of bitters for a ride and create an amazing depth of flavor. Here’s where you’ll see why stirring spirits-only drinks makes a difference versus shaking. If you’re curious, try one shaken really hard so you can see the difference – and so you’ll know why to send one back if it’s made wrong.
Like many of our favorite drinks, the origin of the Manhattan cocktail is murky. I’ve heard stories:
- 1846: Created by a bartender in Maryland to aid a wounded duelist (bullshit, vermouth wasn’t imported to the US prior to 1870)
- 1860: Created by a bartender named Black near Broadway & Spring (bullshit, see above)
- 1874: Commissioned by Winston Churchill’s mother at a Manhattan Club party celebrating the election of Governor Tilden (bullshit, she was in England at the time, eight months pregnant)
What we do know is this: vermouth hit the streets of New York City around 1870, and by 1880 it was the hot ingredient in cocktails. Taking the idea of the “improved” basic cocktail of spirit with sugar, bitters, and a touch of something extra, savvy bartenders nixed the sugar and “something extra” in favor of vermouth. They found the dry French kind paired well with gin (Martini, Turf Club) and the sweet Italian kind got along great with rye whiskey (Manhattan).
Vermouth is simply wine that’s been spiked with a spirit, usually brandy (“fortified”) and enhanced with a mix of botanical ingredients (“aromatized”). These botanicals may include wormwood, cinchona bark, gentian, cinnamon, citrus peel, lavender, saffron, vanilla, or dozens of others. Each vermouth maker has their own special blend. If you’re interested, read more about vermouth here.
The Manhattan most likely began as a 1:1 ratio of whiskey to vermouth, but I’ve also seen 2 vermouth to 1 whiskey in recipe books from that time. Somehow, over the years, the Manhattan has dodged a bullet and retained its respect, only occasionally dipping to a 2 whiskey to .5 vermouth ratio. That’s still the recipe most dive bars and restaurant bars use (they also will use whatever “well” bourbon is on hand – you really need a good rye here for spicy balance against the sweetness of the vermouth).
A properly-made Manhattan is truly a thing of beauty, capturing balance and brevity in four quick sips and priming your appetite for a great meal.
Hardware: Mixing glass, Jigger, Barspoon, Cocktail pick, Hawthorne strainer, Fine-mesh strainer
Ice: Ice cubes, Cracked ice
Glassware: Cocktail glass
Spirits: Rye whiskey (recommended: Rittenhouse 100)
Mixers & Liqueurs: Italian vermouth (recommended: Dolin, Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi, Carpano Antica)
Juices, Accents, & Garnishes: Angostura bitters, Cherry (recommended: Filthy amarena, Luxardo maraschino)
Chill a cocktail glass in the freezer at least ten minutes.
In a mixing glass, add:
2 oz rye whiskey
1 oz Italian vermouth
2 dashes Angostura bitters
Add a mix of ice cubes and cracked ice to cover well above the liquid level. Stir well to blend and chill, then double-strain (to catch small bits of ice) into the prepared, chilled glass. Garnish with a cherry pierced on a cocktail pick.