Evan Williams, simple syrup, sprigs of crushed mint, and ice. Combine all the ingredients and shake them really, really hard. That’s a mint julep, official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
“It’s mostly whisky,” says Shannon Cassidy, owner and drink-mixer at the Laughing Pint, a Highlandtown pub just a few blocks up Conkling St. from the Baltimore Guide’s office.
Yes, and it tastes mostly like whisky—not a bad thing. The lifting mint flavor and the soothing simple syrup add a sense of tidiness to the cocktail that is hard to describe. It’s a little like drinking a freshly mowed lawn.
The mint julep is mixed free-hand and organically—aside from the booze content, Cassidy can’t say how much of each ingredient is used. The Laughing Pint makes its own simple syrup, which varies in sweetness from batch to batch, depending on what else is going on while the sugar is boiling in the water.
“I can’t say if it’s one squirt or two squirts,” Cassidy says.
Like the mixing process itself, the mint julep has evolved free from restraint over the years. According to Wikipedia, the drink probably originated in the southern U.S. sometime during the 18th Century. It was, according to the same source, first mentioned in print at the very beginning of the 19th Century, and it was described as a morning drink enjoyed by Virginians. Different reports attribute different spirits to the original drink. Some say that it was first prepared with rum; others say it was brandy.
The consistent part of the mint julep’s evolution is that spirits—not soda water, fruit juice or Kool Aid—have always been the backbone and defining flavor of a mint julep.
“We have to learn to drink ‘adult,’” jokes Cassidy.
Whether the official drink of Baltimore’s own Preakness qualifies as adult is another matter. Using a standard recipe, Cassidy mixes vodka, rum, Triple Sec and orange juice.
“This one was no fun to play with,” she reports.
There is nothing wrong with the black-eyed Susan. It’s refreshing, and the citrusy fruit juice covers the bite of the alcohol well.
“And I think that’s the problem with that drink,” says Cassidy. “We’ll probably only do that one on the day of the Preakness.”
If you don’t find the drink terribly interesting (and that doesn’t mean it’s not a good concoction for outside on a sunny day), then at least the name has history.
The cocktail the black-eyed Susan is most likely named for the flower, which is most likely named for a 16th Century poem, “Black-Eyed Susan,” by English poet John Gay.
All in the downs, the fleet was moor’d,
The streamers waving in the sind,
When black-eyed Susan came aboard;
‘O! where shall I my true-love find?’
Her man, William, makes two promises: not to stray and to survive and battles that his ship is drawn into. If he’s the same William from “The Bonnie Las o’Fyvie,” later recorded by Bob Dylan and also the Grateful Dead as “Peggy-O,” then he fails on both counts.
So there it is—how to get from the Triple Crown to cocktails to 16th Century poetry to Bob Dylan to the Grateful Dead.
by Erik Zygmont