Perhaps my favourite thing about writing about cocktails, is how far we can travel with each cocktail shakedown.
This week is no exception. The Mint Julep, an IBA Contemporary Classic.
Today we journey from the spiritual home of the Mint Julep to Jolly Olde England. From Melbourne through the desert on a horse with no name to the Kimberley in the far North-West of Australia (and before Twitter lost its way, one of the most memorable tweets I saw was someone pointing out that nine days in the desert was plenty of time to have given that horse a name).
The Mint Julep is bourbon, mint leaves, powdered sugar and water, served with crushed ice. It’s notable in that you do a bit of muddling – something we rarely do on these pages in spite of our moniker – and for the crushed ice.
The Julep has a long proud history and is apparently perfect for sipping on during hot afternoons while you set awhile on the porch in your rocking chair, possibly over-looking your tobacky plantation.
My field testing occurred on a rainy night at Bar 1806 in Melbourne, in full view of Bill Nye, The Science Guy (to be clear, he was just in the same bar, not supervising the scientific validity of my testing techniques). I had a Georgia Julep which contains Cognac and Peach-infused Armagnac and tasted like a delicious iced-tea, and a more traditional Mint Julep, albeit with a bit of rum.
They both looked the same, tasted great and neither challenged the Boulevardier for its place as my Bourbon-based cocktail of choice. It’s the ice you see.
For mine, a cup full of crushed ice is like a grown-up sno-cone, which I have always found to be a disappointment in the iced-treat department. So too with the Julep, I prefer a cocktail with as much ice in as few pieces as I can get. Cool the drink without diluting it.
But the ice is a critical part of the Mint Julep and it is designed to be sipped very slowly. And I will acknowledge that many, many people love a Mint Julep.
Indeed Theodore Roosevelt faced charges of being a drunk in office because he was known to favour a Julep. Apparently he wasn’t pissed, just prone to exuberance, and in the Court case, both sides acknowledged that being partial to a Mint Julep didn’t make you a bad person (read David Wondrich’s Imbibe! For the full story).
Now the Mint Julep is the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, the USA’s and possibly the world’s most famous horse race.
On the first Saturday in May, they sell 120,000 Mint Juleps to 170,000 punters. You can even fork out $2,000 for a Mint Julep if you’re feeling particularly stupid thirsty.
Now I’m not even slightly interested in horse racing as a sport or a social event, but it is horse racing season in Australia and we are about to hit summer so it seemed the perfect time to review this cocktail.
The Derby of Kentucky Derby is named after the Derby Stakes held at Epsom Downs in England.
The Derby Stakes is well-posh and was named after the 12th Earl of Derby who inaugurated the race in 1780 (the Kentucky Derby started in 1875).
Traditionally, a Derby is a 2 – 2.5km race for three year olds, both fillies and colts. A filly (and I’m telling you because I had only vague understanding of these terms) is a female horse up to 3 years old, a colt is a male of same age.
In the USA, of course they pronounce “Derby” “dur-by”, rather than the English (and Australian) version “dah-by”. Like a lot of what comes out of the USA, I don’t really understand why, since the entire racing industry – concept, nomenclature, the works – was lifted directly from England and English.
Fun fact: at 1913’s Derby Stakes, suffragette Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse Anmer and she died from wounds four days later, never to receive my grateful thanks for her part in letting me vote.
It is possibly for this reason that a different race day, The Oaks, is designated as Ladies Day (named after the good Earl’s estate). It’s run by fillies.
The Kentucky Carnival has a Derby, an Oaks and also the curious Thurby, which is a portmanteau of Thursday and Derby.
Down in Melbourne, the Cup carnival takes its cue from the same horse-racing tradition and has a Derby, a Cup, an Oaks and a Stakes Day.
In Melbourne, the Cup is King. It is also well-posh (ish).
We don’t have an official Melbourne Cup cocktail (I was considering proposing the IBA Official Cocktail Horse’s Neck given how many racehorses have to be euthanised each year, but that’s probably not in the festive spirit of the Spring Racing Carnival) although I’m advised that some 46,570 bottles of “champagne” get downed on Cup Day. That’s on top of the beer and pre-mix spirits and there’s only 100,000 people at Flemington.
The Melbourne Cup was first run in 1861, before Australian Federation and when we were still counted among the British colonies. So there is no doubt that we would pronounce Derby the way we do today “Dah-by”.
But up in the far north-west coast of Western Australia lies a town called Derby and they most definitely pronounce it the American way.
I rang the Derby Tourism office to check and Yvette assured me that this was definitely the correct way to pronounce Derby up there.
While not necessarily welcoming my question as to why this was the case, she was happy to inform me that the town was named not after a horse race, but after a Lord Derby who was Secretary of the Colonies and had been in Canada before coming to Australia. No, she couldn’t find her piece of paper to give me any more specifics on that.
By my reckoning, I think this must be after the 15th Earl of Derby. Derby was declared a township in 1883 when he was Secretary of State of the Colonies.
So that being the case,it’s most definitely “Dah-by” and I’m thinking one of us needs to ring Yvette and tell her that they’re making a mistake.
You do that, I’ll mix us up a long Mint Julep and we can test the theory of Mrs Trollope, author of 1832’s Domestic Manners of the Americans, that “it would, I truly believe, be utterly impossible for the art of man to administer anything so likely to restore them from the overwhelming effects of heat and fatigue”.