No tonic for the body

THE MINT JULEP: The Very Dream of Drinks

by Joshua Soule Smith

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 its 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, the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. The crushing of it only makes its sweetness more apparent. Like a woman’s heart, it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside the gurgling brooks that make music in the pastures it lives and thrives.

When the Blue Grass begins to shoot its gentle sprays toward 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, demand the wedding. How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar until it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush you 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 a 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 col, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed, no stirring is allowed—just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find a taste and odor at one draught.

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 maiden’s touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream, it is a dream itself. No other land can give so sweet a solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you so in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like Old Bourbon whiskey.


Mixed and muddled at Balance

Cocktail king Dale DeGroff and Esquire columnist David Wondrich educated 40 happy cocktail geeks, bartenders, and other spirits-industry types on Tuesday evening at a Garment District bar called The Balance. My ticket in was a Valentine’s Day gift from my lovely wifey, and I can’t think of a better present.

I arrived early, before The Balance opened, and waited on the sidewalk. Another guy was lingering on the sidewalk as well. A woman approached us and began friendly conversation: Are you here for the mixology seminar?

She asked if I was “in the industry” and I said, No, I’m just a cocktail geek. The other guy, Ted, was also a geek like me, but the woman, Hanna, does PR for the food and wine business.

Hanna also knows Dale DeGroff, from her time in wine PR, so she very graciously offered to introduce me to him as we entered Balance. So we walked up the stairs, went around the corner, and saw on the bar an array of full champagne flute. The bartender said, “Please! Have a champagne cobbler.” We each grabbed a drink (YUM!) and with flute in hand, I met Dale DeGroff.

Aside to mko: Eeeeeeeeee!

Hanna had already told me what I’d heard from so many others—that Dale is warm and friendly and a very damn nice guy, and that his wife, Jill, at least equals, if not exceeds, his charm. I didn’t, unfortunately, take the chance to talk to Jill, but Dale is down-to-earth, friendly, and approachable.

After we milled about and chatted, Dale opened the seminar. He made a few brief comments about his champagne cobbler recipe and introduced David Wondrich. David discussed very briefly the history of alcohol and drinking, explaining that among the first “cocktails” was beer or wine fortified with a little spirit. From there, he described the history of the punch and provided a recipe that he says approximates an old-fashioned spiced rum punch, from British-controlled India.

From punch, he moved on to the birth of the Gin Cock-Tail. To oversimplify his explanation a bit, the cocktail seems to have arisen as a way to make bitters more palatable. As the name implies, bitters are bitter-tasting—they’re a compound of spirit and botanicals used for medicinal purposes and to aid digestion. The idea arose to make the bitters more palatable by diluting them. To paraphrase a certain dotty nanny, just a spoonful of gin and sugar helps the medicine go down.

This idea has pedigree: British sailors fought scurvy by consuming limes and their juice; cutting the bitter lime with gin—hence the gimlet. The same happy breed of men quaffed quinine-laced tonic water in India, to fight malaria. The tonic was so bitter, they cut it with gin and citrus—hence the G&T.

Getting back to the point, a Cock-Tail was initially any strong spirit, sugar, and bitters, shaken over ice.

Wondrich is a crazy man. The bitters he used Tuesday were Stoughton bitters, a common sight in the 1800s, but virtually unknown since at least Prohibition. His batch was a brew that he’d cooked up himself, adapted from recipes found online.

Wondrich’s cocktail The Enchantress comes from a rare bartenders’ manual by a fellow named Charles Campbell. How rare? Only one copy is known to exist, and that’s in a rare-book room at a library in San Francisco. (mko, if you’re still reading, you have homework.)

Holy God, but I could go on and on talking about Tuesday’s seminar: how charmed I was by the space, how much I liked sampling each cocktail, how I talked LeNell’s ear off after the seminar, asking her tons of questions about how and why she got into this business. (I’m still embarrassed that I inadvertently broke up her conversation with Jill DeGroff, but they were both gracious about it.)

But David and Dale were great—funny, open, super-knowledgable, open to questions (lots and lots of questions). I can’t wait to do this again [that’s a PDF—be careful].

Mixed-up, muddled, shaken, and a little verklempt

Jen’s V-Day gift to me (mko will be so envious):

Mixed Up, Muddled and Shaken: A Curious History of the American Cocktail

Presented By: Dale DeGroff, David Wondrich
Tuesday, April 18 2006, 6pm to 8pm
The Balance
215 West 28 Street
New York, NY 10001

Dale DeGroff, author of The Craft of the Cocktail, and David Wondrich, Esquire magazine’s Drinks Correspondent and author of Killer Cocktails and Esquire Drinks, will escort you through the highways and byways of more than two centuries’ worth of cocktail history, as you learn how to make some of the finest examples of the bartender’s art. Drinks will include the original “Cock-Tail,” the Brandy Smash, the Enchantress, Champagne Cobbler, General Harrison’s Egg Nog, and other great classic and original drinks.

Enjoy this hands-on seminar and the wonderful collection of cocktail memorabilia at The Museum of the American Cocktail’s new location in New York.