As a child of the South, I have always been enamored by the romanticized version of our shared history. I don’t remember the first time I saw Gone With the Wind, but I can tell you that the allure of a time in which gentlemen were gentlemen and society was polite has always tugged at my soul. When I was in college at The University of Mississippi, I was lucky enough to have taken classes under Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, the men who literally wrote the definitive book about Southern Culture, The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
As I moved on into my adult life and my English degree inevitably found me working in the restaurant industry, I started bartending. It was during this time that I began searching for the perfect Mint Julep. The drink itself brings about all the same emotions and feelings about the South that I had idealized. The Mint Julep was distinctly Southern but had somehow avoided any racist connotations and had also managed to distance itself from the Budweiser swilling NASCAR stereotype of the modern day Southern man. I so believed in the imagery associated with a Mint Julep that I later named my two restaurants in Jackson, Mississippi after the sacred concoction.
When I found the following letter, I realized that the perfect Mint Julep recipe had already been written.
The author, Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., was a West Point graduate from Kentucky whose father was – at one time – the oldest surviving officer of the Confederate Armies. Stories abounded that his father’s Mint Julep had persuaded a strict prohibitionist to support him in a failed gubernatorial bid. Even when S.B. Buckner, Jr. was at West Point, his Mint Juleps were the stuff of legend. He served them to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and General Douglas Macarthur in 1935 at the home of the Superintendent, Major General William D. Connor. The letter below is Buckner’s response to General Connor’s request for his Mint Julep recipe.
My dear General Connor,
Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He replied that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn’t look like an elephant.
The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.
So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:
Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon, distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.
In a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush.
In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outsides of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint.
Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glittering coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.
When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden, where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.
Being overcome by thirst, I can write no further.
S.B. Buckner, Jr.
The Mint Julep has become inextricably attached to the Kentucky Derby in modern times. It always pleases me when that time of year rolls around and even my friends who don’t necessarily care for bourbon, like I do, get interested in this beautifully simple cocktail. There are too many variations to count. Some include lemon juice or bitters or substitute honey for the sugar, but the original stands as the proud standard by which all others are measured. There is no finer cocktail than a carefully crafted Mint Julep prepared with reverence and expertise. So, each spring, enjoy a taste of all that can be good about the South.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, “Being overcome by thirst, I can write no further.”
>> The Kentucky Derby is held on the first Saturday of May annually in Lexington, Kentucky. If you can’t attend, we recommend you pay homage by enjoying a ceremoniously crafted Mint Julep.