Our cousins across the Atlantic tend to mark the transition away from summer earlier and more definitively than us Brits, and accordingly many will soon wave goodbye to wearing white; here in Blighty we cling on for September, a month which can boast sun to extend, or even exceed that offered in the traditional timeframe. Without the thrust towards Thanksgiving, and with London Cocktail Week still a month away, we have plenty of time left to enjoy their mint and whiskey.
Resident American Marshall Allender is here to reflect on his July 4th Declaration of Independence from the club cocktail bar this year, Mancunian mixologist Peter C Barnes offers his take, and self-righteous sipper Tom Hendriks encounters a twist on the classic in Oxford.
For an American, July 4th is an auspicious day. Celebrations in the US range vastly, from Mississippi Miller-Light-fuelled hick-fests in an aboveground pool, to Nantucket lobster grills with bottles of Chandon (from California, of course), tackily adorned with the stars and stripes, and accompanied by tastefully-crafted Bourbon cocktails.
I have now lived in the UK for over six years, and the excitement around the 4th has somewhat waned. Not because I feel any less American, but because for rather obvious reasons it is not something widely celebrated across London. My previous 4th consisted of a fun but meagre gathering of a few of us (vastly outnumbered by our varied European friends) where I was forced to drink cheap Budweiser and, apparently, was the only one who could manage a disposable Tesco foil BBQ.
This year, I was looking for something more Nantucket than Miller-Light, and one place stuck out to me which emulated certain American ideals: The Hurlingham Club.
The Hurlingham is a vast and exclusive sports club near Putney Bridge, essentially inhabiting its own park in the middle of central London. It is grand yet relaxed, ornate yet subdued, and most importantly, has a BBQ and copious amounts of alcohol. In other words, it’s a perfect place to celebrate the 4th.
I tried to think of an ironically over-the-top American drink on the way to the bar that was appropriate for the occasion and the weather, and it struck me instantly: a Mint Julep. It is famed as the drink of choice amongst “Southern gentlemen” in the US, and every year is sold in absurd quantities at the Kentucky Derby. It’s simple to make, refreshing, and most importantly generous on the alcohol front.
I’d like to say I got my cocktail, but that’s not how this story goes. After asking the bartender for one, he sorted of squinted at me like I just asked if he’d like to join me in the bathroom. Hoping it was some sort of lost in translation issue, I explained that “it’s a cocktail”. Pause.
“I apologise sir, we don’t do cocktails.” This confused me, since I saw every ingredient I needed to make my julep behind the bar, but if there is one thing I have learned as an inhabitant of British Clubs, it is that rules are rules. I ordered a gin and tonic and sulked off outside.
Eventually, after smoking out the other guests with my obnoxiously large cigar and drinking enough gin to topple an elephant, I stumbled to the nearest Waitrose, determined to get the ingredients for my mint julep. Drunk people aren’t well known for making financially sound decisions, but what does that matter once you’ve got a good cocktail in your hand?
Fortunately, it is simple to make, and its only alcoholic ingredient is bourbon. Personally, I use Woodford Reserve as a standard benchmark for decent bourbon cocktails. You can happily use Jim Beam or Maker’s Mark if you want to save a few pounds, but the quality isn’t as high. You could also try different types of whiskeys as well, though this has been tried and tested, and ultimately, Bourbon is the best option.
- 60 ml Bourbon whiskey
- 4 mint leaves
- 1 teaspoon powdered sugar
- 2 teaspoons water
In a highball glass (or some metal tankard if you’re a hipster) muddle the mint, sugar, and water, add cracked ice to the top of the glass (or to your liking), pour in bourbon, and stir for a minute or so.
Once considered a standard on any cocktail menu, it fell from favour for quite some time, but it’s back, and boy, some of the variations this cocktail produces will leave any bourbon drinker salivating for more. A staple favourite at the Kentucky Derby, this mixture of mint, sugar, ice and bourbon has so many “original” recipes that its precise history is rather difficult to trace. Yet any Southern gentleman would be expected to know it inside and out.
One of the most eye-catching additions of this drink is the silver beaker in which it is served. The bare hand should never touch the frosted beaker, as once touched the chilled frost is removed, which many – including myself – say ruins the drink; it warms too quickly
- 6 sprigs of fresh mint
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 3 ounces of Buffalo Trace Kentucky Straight Bourbon
- Place 5 to 6 mint leaves in the bottom of a pre-chilled silver beaker
- Add sugar
- Lightly muddle the ingredients
- Add a generous amount of cracked ice
- Pour in 3 ounces (75ml) of Buffalo Trace
- Stir briskly until the silver beaker starts to frost
- Add more ice
- Add the rest of the mint sprigs to the top of the drink
A favourite of mine over the last several weeks in the Oxford bar scene has been the Georgia Mint Julep guest cocktail, cooked up at the Duke of Cambridge. Will, the man in charge, grinned at my obvious cynicism when he brought it to my attention: he hasn’t escaped my pronouncements of distaste at the prospect of the fruity cocktail.
The stare-down didn’t take long to wear me down, though, and I sheepishly admitted to taking guilty pleasure in Southern Comfort from time to time. As the ingredient list on the chalk board didn’t exceed my sugary shame, the moral high ground was far away, so I consented to the concoction.
And what a great decision it was. The representative for Georgia, the peach liqueur, was amenable to consensus, and there was no sign of the flavour filibuster I’d feared. Sure, it was sweet from the first sip, but the combination with not only the fresh mint contingent, but the whiskey infusion, cut through with a freshness separate from the sticky fruit.
The presence of lemon bitters felt like the secret ingredient, though. I’ve written before about the importance of the orange in whiskey cocktails, as it’s citrus sans the inappropriate spikey sharpness, but here we were engineering opposites, not convening consonant chums. While I’m right to be cautious about such risky balancing acts, I’ll also admit it when the highwire has been bested.
Served within a mountain of crushed ice, and sipped gladly through a straw, the incorporation of the symbol of the State of Georgia into a Southern staple transferred from paper to practice rather remarkably. I also appreciated the tankard, so I’m afraid it’s two against one on the silver frost front.
I have refrained from exact measures, as is my custom, and not least because of the home-made variation inherent in the bourbon infusion, but I humbly and thoroughly recommend the idea as the theme for an evening of experimentation.
- Mint-infused bourbon
- Peach liqueur
- Lemon bitters