Spirits: Mint juleps steeped in American social, political history

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The bourbon-based mint julep was the drink of choice in the South in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

I’m sure most of us have heard of the mint julep, a bourbon-based cocktail associated with the American South and the Kentucky Derby. During the Civil War and up until 1920s, the mint julep was the drink of choice and Tom Bullock made one of the best around.

Born in 1872, Bullock was the son of a former slave who fought for the Union. He got his start as a bellboy at the Pendennis Club in Louisville, Ky. Alongside James E. Pepper, he popularized the Old-Fashioned and eventually honed his bartending skills.

He became a legend when he landed at the prestigious St. Louis Country Club, serving presidents and the social elite. In particular, his julep became famous during a libel suit involving Theodore Roosevelt. During his testimony, Roosevelt claimed to have only had a sip of mint julep at the St. Louis Club since leaving office. This led to a playful editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in which the writer claims that Roosevelt couldn’t be telling the truth because no one could have had just a sip of one of Bullock’s juleps.

Bullock’s book “The Ideal Bartender” was one the first cocktail recipe books written by an African American. The introduction of his book was penned by good friend George Herbert Walker, grandfather of George H. W. Bush and great-grandfather to George W. Bush. It was also one of the last cocktail recipe books published before Prohibition began in 1920. Bullock faded as a bartender during Prohibition, but his talent and creativity have had a lasting influence on mixologists over the last 100 years.

Here are a few recipes as they appear in Bullock’s book:

Kentucky-Style Mint Julep

Use a large silver Mug.

Dissolve one lump of sugar in one-half pony of water.

Fill mug with fine ice.

Two jiggers of Old Bourbon Whiskey.

Stir well. Add one bouquet of mint and serve.

Be careful to not bruise the mint.

St. Louis-Style Overall Julep

Use a large Mixing glass; fill with Lump Ice.

2/3 wineglass rye whiskey

2/3 wineglass Gordon Gin.

1/2 wineglass imported grenadine.

Juice 1/2 lemon.

Juice 1/2 lime.

Shake well. Pour into a tall, thin glass; add one bottle imported club soda and serve.

Old-Fashioned cocktail

Use a toddy glass.

1 lump of ice.

2 dashes of angostura bitters.

1 lump of sugar and dissolve in water.

1 1/2 jiggers of bourbon whiskey.

Twist piece of lemon skin over the drink and drop it in.

Stir well and serve.

­- Jon Smiley is the owner of Lawrence’s Cork & Barrel liquor stores. Look for his Spirits column to appear monthly in Crave, with advice and recipes on how to responsibly enjoy a variety of cocktails and beverages.


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