Hunting down a mint julep can be one of the more disheartening activities that tourists and transplants regularly subject themselves to in New Orleans. Face-to-face with a julep orderer, bartenders tend to react in one of two ways. First, there's the easy-out response: "Sorry, no fresh mint; try Pat O'Brien's." The less common response goes something like this: "Sorry, no fresh mint, and that's a Tennessee drink anyway." (Never mind that the mint julep actually originated in Virginia or Kentucky.)
Colonel Joe Nickell, author of The Kentucky Mint Julep (The University Press of Kentucky), says that keeping mint in stock -- and fresh -- is a problem even for most Kentucky bartenders. But the challenge presented by asking for a mint julep in New Orleans points to a more emotional, even historical, issue. The mint julep is probably the most famous Southern cocktail, but most born-and-bred Orleanians traditionally don't fancy themselves aligned with the rest of the South.
There are exceptions. The mint julep has been a Commander's Palace signature drink since before the Brennan family took over the restaurant. There's also hope that the mint julep may one day enjoy wider popularity, and this hope is called the mojito. The demand for the minty Cuban rum drinks is so great at the moment that bartenders cannot afford to run out of fresh mint. And fresh mint in abundant supply all over town provides one less excuse for not offering mint juleps.
Like many cocktail-loving natives, former Times-Picayune restaurant critic Gene Bourg has zero relationship with the mint julep. "I frankly don't know anyone in New Orleans who drinks them regularly," he says. "And I know a lot of heavy drinkers."
In contrast, Chris McMillian, a fourth-generation Louisiana bartender and the only bartender at the Library Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans, is in love with the drink and its history. "I try to make the mint julep an elevated experience," he says.
A proper mint julep can take several minutes to prepare, and McMillian takes care that customers at his four-seat bar don't become bored in the meantime. He explains how the julep, technically made with any liquor, is one of the oldest alcoholic drinks known to man. The word "julep" itself is ancient, referring to any sweet-flavored syrup, and comes from the Arabic "gulab," or "rosewater." In the earliest times, a julep lessened the unpleasantness of swallowing medicine. Sweet mint syrup plays a similar role in recreational mint juleps.
Kentucky bourbon whiskey is the essential ingredient in modern-day mint juleps. Though no solid evidence exists to pinpoint exactly who concocted the first bourbon mint julep, it must have been after the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, when disgruntled whiskey distillers moved their operations into Bourbon County, Kentucky (an area then known as Virginia). Aristocrats enjoyed them at the very first Kentucky Derby in 1875, and the drink remains a tradition worldwide on Kentucky Derby Day.
As Kentucky, Virginia and even Georgia duke it out for ownership of the mint julep, connoisseurs battle over the finer points of making one. Bruised or crushed mint? Sugar or syrup? Granulated sugar or powdered sugar? Crushed ice or ice cubes? To stir or not to stir? Glass tumbler or silver cup? Straw or no straw? McMillian, a self-avowed cocktail classicist, makes his with fresh mint and a peach-flavored syrup, all the while reciting a passionate ode to the mint julep that a Kentucky colonel composed more than a century ago.
But is the drink, as many locals believe, a foreign import from the Deep South? If so, the importation occurred eons ago. The Picayune's Creole Cookbook, first published in 1901, includes a recipe for a Mint Julep a la Creole. Nickell and other scholars concur that, sometime in the early 1800s, a Bourbon County distiller charred the insides of a few oak casks used to age whiskey. The resulting liquor had an amber tinge and a deep, smooth flavor that whiskey drinkers liked. Especially New Orleans whiskey drinkers. "Bourbon was invented in Kentucky, but where was bourbon discovered?" Nickell says. "It was sort of discovered in New Orleans. According to legend, it was the New Orleans folk who played an important part in popularizing the whiskey that's now used to make true mint juleps."
It's still easier, however, to find a mojito. Perhaps Orleanians are more receptive to traditions that originate south of the city; then again, the local popularity of the Cuban cocktail may simply tie into the national trend. Chuck Avery, director of bar operations at Loa bar in the International House hotel, attributes changing tastes to the mojito movement. "A lot of the old-style cocktails are an acquired taste," he says. "The alcohol in a mojito isn't as powerful, which goes a long way these days."
Avery also mentions that people tend to ask for mint juleps where it's "historically established." Indeed, few of-the-moment bars open with mint juleps on the cocktail card. On the contrary, bartenders at historically established mint-julep joints -- Commander's Palace, the Columns, the Library Lounge -- also make mojitos. A bartender at Cafe Pontalba reported last week that, as of about a year ago, he now sells more mojitos than mint juleps. "I don't know if they started drinking it on Sex in the City or what," he jokes.
While the mojito craze does exhibit that trendiness, it's also a classic cocktail. Ernest Hemingway's cocktail muse depended upon where he lived, and legend has it that he drank mojitos while living in Cuba. Whether or not Hemingway was involved, Americans seem to have discovered Havana's mojitos during Prohibition, when steamships shuttled partiers from Florida to Cuba. At the time, the mojito was as much a farmer's drink in Cuba as the bourbon mint julep was an aristocrat's drink in the American South.
Sticklers argue that a correct mojito cannot be made in America. Cubans apparently use an indigenous variety of mint called yerba buena, which they combine with pressed sugar cane juice called guarapo. In general, however, the mojito consists of light-colored rum, mint, limes, sugar, club soda and ice. As with the mint julep, debates thunder over preparation details. Many Cuban mojito recipes call for bitters, an addition that doesn't seem to have made it this far north.
Given the above definition, the mojito is technically a "julep." In fact, in 1937, Stanley Arthur Clisby included a recipe for a rum mint julep in his a booklet titled Famous New Orleans Drinks and How to Mix 'Em, claiming "This seems to be the original mint julep that came to Louisiana way back in 1793, at the same time white aristocrats, who were expelled by San Domingo by the uprising of the blacks, settled in New Orleans."
Chef Adolfo Garcia of RioMar says that his former restaurant, Criollo, served the first modern rum mint juleps -- mojitos -- in New Orleans in the 1990s. Today, some bartenders localize the drink by making it with New Orleans Rum.
Whatever variety the rum, the mojito's prominence in New Orleans is increasing. What, if anything, does this mean for the mint julep? Ten years ago, in Straight Up or On the Rocks: The Story of the American Cocktail, William Grimes wrote, "The julep, alas, scarcely exists today except as a rather strained evocation of the Old South."
Many Orleanians may agree, but Nickell adopts a more positive stance. He's never tried a mojito, but he considers it a friend: "This," he says, "is a wonderful opportunity for the mint julep."
Bridge Lounge -- 1201 Magazine St., 523-9190 -- The sidewalk outside this lounge for the hip Uptown professional is to the mojito what the Columns Hotel's covered front porch is to the mint julep. Mojitos are refreshingly sour here as well as sweet, served in sweating pint glasses.
Cafe Pontalba -- 546 St. Peter St., 522-1180 -- Cafe Pontalba's location on Jackson Square encourages more tourists than locals to drop in for Maker's Mark mint juleps. Ordering one to drink as you wander through the Quarter may be more proper than tacky: aficionados believe a mint julep improves as the ice melts and the mint steeps further into the drink.
Cobalt -- Hotel Monaco, 333 St. Charles Ave., 565-5595 -- Bartenders make Cobalt's house Masonic Mojito in tall, narrow glasses with New Orleans Rum and plenty of fresh mint. The cojito is an off-the-menu addition to Cobalt's drink list. Its coconut rum adds to the flavor of the drink, not just its alcohol content.
Columns Hotel Bar -- 3811 St. Charles Ave., 899-9308 -- This colonial Garden District bar is a traditional mint-julep destination (especially during the week and on Sundays).
Commander's Palace -- 1403 Washington Ave., 899-8221 -- A mint bush growing in the restaurant's garden may account for the breathtaking mintiness of mint julep and mojito here. Bartenders make both with ice crushed to the size of aquarium pebbles and serve them in tall glass tumblers. A brandy float tops the julep, and a dark rum float tops the mojito.
Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Cafe -- 1104 Decatur St., 592-2565 -- The menu at this Parrothead destination, accurate or not, calls its mojitos "the classic Cuban thirst quencher and forerunner to the mint julep."
The Library Lounge -- Ritz-Carlton Hotel, 921 Canal St., 524-1331 -- "If I have a signature drink, that's it," says bartender Chris McMillian of the mint julep. The three luckiest customers get to drink them from McMillian's own silver cups, a classical presentation.
Loa -- International House, 221 Camp St., 553-9550 -- Ambient music and an army of votive candles set the tone; Loa's sweet mojitos come in regular and berry.
Marigny Brasserie -- 640 Frenchmen St., 945-4472 -- Bartenders stuff handfuls of mint into pint glasses before using a wooden muddler to bruise out its essence. The end result looks like a terrarium and tastes like just the thing for warm-weather conversation around outdoor tables.
Mint Julep Lounge -- Hyatt Regency, 500 Poydras Plaza, 561-1234 -- According to one bartender at the hotel's Hyttops Sports Bar, most people who order mint juleps here do so out of novelty but have no clue how much bourbon is involved. This fortunately didn't stop him from pouring me a long one. The ice here is crushed to sno-ball consistency.
Pat O'Brien's -- 718 St. Peter St., 525-4823 -- "This New Orleans tradition is a fantastic drink for you bourbon lovers," reads Pat O'Brien's color menu -- perhaps in warning, for it also packs a bourbon punch. The center patio is one of few outdoor venues available for enjoying the drink.
RioMar -- 800 S. Peters St., 525-3474 -- "We have extensive mojito discussions here at the bar," says chef-owner Adolfo Garcia. RioMar's only bartender, Marcy Jimenez, makes her mojitos with sugar rather than syrup, as well as limes, mint, club soda and Puerto Rican rum.
St. Joe's Bar -- 5535 Magazine St., 899-3749 -- St. Joe's mojitos contain a secret ingredient no one would divulge for this story. Served in squat, rounded glasses with some fresh mint and lots of lime, they taste more lemonade-like than others in town.