Mint Julep: No maiden's kiss in tenderer

originally published in SALT, July 2015

Ah, the mint julep: bourbon, powdered sugar, mint. Smashed ice in a silver cup. Stirred 
until the sides frost up. 

During my first decade behind the bar, I made mint juleps rarely, and in most cases only on Derby Day. In my mind I associated them with sorority girls and pre-batched mint syrup. Only gradually did I learn what a deep history the drink comes trailing. 

The word julep evolved from the Persian gulab, meaning rosewater. It’s a very ancient word. Supposedly the second part of it, the ap, goes back more than five thousand years to Proto-Indo European. Ap meant water. Jul, or something like it, meant rose. So, rosewater. Or for practical purposes, sweetwater. 

In the late middle ages, Europe started to import sugar from Arabic-speaking, cane-growing countries. Along with the sugar came words associated with it, including the word sugar itself. Also, “candy.” Also, “syrup.” And of course, julep. According to linguists, it first shows up around the year 1400. An apothecary’s book advises that the doctor “give him in the beginning Julep — that is a syrup made only of water and sugar.” 

Many traditional cocktails are traceable to apothecaries. “Juleps” were used as a vehicle for bitter medicines. The mint julep is first mentioned in a doctor’s notes from 1783. On February 20 of that year, in London, Dr. Maxwell Garthshore visited a Mrs. P——, on Orange Street. He found her “emaciated” and sick at her stomach, with “frequent retching.” He “prescribed her an emetic, some opening powders, and a mint julep.” She “seemed better for a few days.” (She died in the summer, but the good doctor made her last several months much less miserable, prescribing one trusts many more juleps.) 

The first actual recipe for a mint julep comes from a hospital — St. John’s, in London. A book published around 1785 says that the doctors there found mint juleps useful for “removing nausea” and advised making them like so: Take of simple mint water 8 ounces, spirituous mint water 1 ounce, 
loaf sugar a drachm; mix them into a julep. Four large spoonfuls taken frequently are of great service... 

In America the mint julep came to be associated less with medicine and more with leisure. Less, that is, with the “simple,” and more with the “spirituous.” The shift seems to have been especially strong in the South. In 1805, in Virginia, we read of a “Turk” from Tunisia (interesting coincidence, given the julep’s Arabic roots), who has a trick played on him by some American soldiers. A correspondent in Washington, D. C., writes, “You know Turks drink no spirits. While at Hampton, they made him drink a ‘mint julep,’ a morning dram in Virginia, pretending that it was water from a neighbouring mountain.” 

In Kentucky, to this day, they grow excellent mint — long-stalked, red-stemmed mint. And in the eighteenth century, people in the central part of that state were starting to distill a new kind of dark corn whiskey. As for how they came to call it bourbon, that’s another story. The Oxford English Dictionary has it slightly wrong. There you can read that bourbon is “Whisky of a kind originally made in Bourbon County, Kentucky,” but in reality, when they started making bourbon, there was no “Kentucky.” That territory was called, instead, Bourbon. It was an outpost of French settlement and a fringe of Louisiana. There’s still a lot of French influence in that part of Kentucky. They never mention it when you visit the distilleries, but it’s there. The reason Thomas Merton could live at a monastery near Bardstown, the reason there were Trappist monks in that part of the world to begin with, was because of the French. Whoever invented it, one thing is known: when they shipped it down the river to New Orleans, they marked the barrels “Old Bourbon.” That was its name before they called it Bourbon, Old Bourbon — as in, it’s Kentucky now, but it used to be called Bourbon. The OED says the name appears first in the 1840s, but in fact as early as 1827 (in the Maysville, Kentucky Eagle) a man named H. I. de Bruin could advertise “a small, but tolerably good, assortment of dry goods and groceries,” among which were, “a quantity of OLD BOURBON WHISKY, by the barrel — and a few barrels of 9 YEARS OLD BOURBON WHISKY, of superior quality, which he will sell by the gallon only.” Almost two hundred years ago, and there was not only already “Bourbon” in Kentucky, but Bourbon snobbery. 

The mint julep has inspired perhaps more literature, or at least more writing, than any other cocktail. If you ask legendary barman Chris McMillan to make you one at Bar UnCommon in New Orleans, you can hear him recite a nineteenth century poem about the drink. 

The poem, published by Col. Joshua Soule Smith in the Lexington, Kentucky Herald, praises the drink as “the zenith of man’s pleasure.” Smith had clearly sipped a few already when he wrote that the julep “is fragrant, cold, and sweet — it is seductive. No maiden’s kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream." 

In the long tradition of writing on mint juleps, the standout is undoubtedly Charles H. Baker, Jr.’s 1939 Gentleman’s Companion, specifically Vol. 2, “Being an Exotic Drinking Book, or, Around the World with Jigger, Beaker, and Flask.” Baker was rediscovered nearly a decade ago in the Oxford American magazine, by the modern-day writer/bartender St. John Frizell. 

A Southerner by birth, Baker had spent the roaring twenties in New York, but he left just as the Depression hit to work as (of all things) a publicist on a cruise liner. As panicking Americans made runs on banks, Baker sipped juleps (and many other tipples) in calmer waters abroad. Acting as the ship’s publicist meant charming the guests. One of these, the heiress to a mining fortune, became Baker’s wife. As they traveled, he sent off stories to Esquire, Town & Country, and Gourmet. He refers to the mint julep as a “peerless American conception.” Having sipped them in places ranging from “the shaded upper gallery in Versailles, Kentucky all the way to the coffee and cocao plantations of central Guatemala,” he was an expert on the cocktail’s many varieties. To our benefit, he took fastidious notes, including advice on which glass to use. 

Since the mint julep is traditionally served in late spring/early summer, it’s typically served as cold as possible, hence the silver or metal cup (still called, in the South, a julep cup). The two substances, metal and glass, conduct differently. Glass insulates the hand, helping to keep fingers warm from chilled contents. Metal acts as a conductor, sucking the chill outward. That’s why the cup frosts on the outside. (Keep this lesson on the physics of heat transfer in mind when ordering a mint julep: if you don’t want cold hands, ask for yours in a glass, even if they have julep cups). 

Baker, in the 1930s (and Chris McMillan today) would warn you against the rough handling of the mint. Bartenders should rub it around delicately in their hands. This helps one get a feel for how the aromatic essence of the oils are released. Crushing the plant too violently releases its bitter chlorophyll, which can sour the taste. When making mint juleps, it’s essential to press the mint gently. 

Of the many mint juleps that Baker recorded on his travels, the one he drank in Louisville, Kentucky, at the historic Pendennis Club, is probably closest to the one we think of today, i.e., the International Bartenders Association version. For Baker, it was one among many. In Georgia, the drink often came with a hearty dose of peach brandy. In Santiago, Cuba, he encountered bartenders who added rum, fresh lime, and grenadine. But Baker’s favorite of all these wasn’t even from America — he found it in the Philippines. He writes that it was mixed for him by a Chinese boy at the Manila Hotel on Luzon in 1926. It consisted of top-shelf bourbon, fresh red-stemmed mint, a little sugar, a teaspoon of demerara rum, and two ripe spears of pineapple, to be eaten as a snack at the end.  

Here are two recipes. The first is the classic version, the one Baker had in Louisville, and the second is his favorite, from Luzon. Notice that, heretically, the latter is served in a pint glass. 

1) Combine the following in a metal cup: 

a teaspoon of powdered sugar, two teaspoons of water, and four mint leaves. 

Gently press the ingredients against the sides of the glass with a muddler, careful not to bruise the mint. Overfill the cup with finely cracked ice. Add a jigger (1.5 oz.) or more of good bourbon. Stir for about fifteen seconds until the glass frosts over on the outside. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, leaves splayed out.

2) Combine the following in a pint glass: 

a teaspoon of powdered sugar, two teaspoons of water, and four mint leaves. 

Gently press the ingredients together with a muddler, careful not to bruise the mint. Fill with finely cracked ice. Add a jigger (1.5 oz.) of good bourbon and a teaspoon of demerara rum (I like Zaya). Stir for about fifteen seconds. Garnish with a sprig of fresh mint, leaves splayed out, and two ripe spears of pineapple.

Walker World: From Fishing Shack to Artistic Eco-Mansion


Walker World: From Fishing Shack to Artistic Eco-Mansion
by Joel Finsel

      You see things; and you say "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say "Why not?"  
                                                                                                                                                         George Bernard Shaw

Blossom Ferry Road is paved for about half the distance to the house before it turns to gravel and then dirt. You cross a railroad track. Homes thin out as the forest thickens. Just past a white trailer is a Palmetto palm with a pile of stones and a sign with an arrow pointing left. In blue, yellow and purple letters, it reads: Walker World.

After the turn, the road thins down to a single lane. The forest opens onto a clearing. Curiously, there’s a park bench and a streetlamp. The urban tableau seems totally foreign to the terrain. It reminds me of the fake Prada store (described as “a pop architectural land art project”) in the desert outside Marfa, Texas. 

Across the road is an open shelter, almost like a lean-to, but overflowing with salvaged building materials: columns, shutters, sheets of metal. Shells of old boats and cars line the road like an American Picker's dream. I count half a dozen antique Mercedes, a school bus, a pair of Air Streams, and a carport with an upside-down sport-fishing boat for a roof. One car is actually the front end of a Mercedes welded to the back end of another. Allen Walker, the owner/builder, called it his limo.

To the left of the long driveway was a garage made mostly out of glass, with a sleeping loft. Walker hasn’t settled on a name yet but a contender was “Garage-Mahal.” Next door was a three-story playhouse with the guts of a piano mounted upside down. There were climbing ropes, a brass pole, and swings. I passed an open-air garage. My tires crackled as my car inched forward. The path came to an end at a paved circle surrounded by gardens. There was an entire patio set up as a chess board, with pieces as high as my thighs. I parked next to an old Army jeep, a stone’s throw from the Northeast Cape Fear River, finding it difficult not to smile as I took in the house.

This sprawling artistic lodge sprouted from the seed of a single-room cabin. If you look hard at the front door of the house as it appears today, you can still see the outline of the original shack. Walker keeps an old photograph of it pinned to the wall in his kitchen. It looks as if it had been built of Lincoln Logs. There’s a refrigerator on the porch. “It had a collapsed cabinet for a kitchen,” Walker said, “as if hobos had been living there.” 

Walker was no stranger to remote places. Born and raised in an old historic Wilmington home, he says he really “grew up” in a tobacco barn on a 200-acre farm in Pitt County. He remembers watching, as a young boy, while his father lifted the old barn onto a trailer and moved it a half-mile closer to the creek. About a dozen farmers came from all over the area to see the spectacle. Walker remembers looking on and feeling like there was nothing he couldn’t do.

After high school he took a job on a framing crew but retired after a few weeks to be his own boss. He moved into the barn full time and built a loft, then added a kitchen and a bathroom. The back deck stood thirty feet above the swamp. Cypress knees knuckled up from below. Once the barn was ready, he filled it with paintings made during breaks from ECU classes. He bought a piano with a little light inside he could turn on, to keep moisture from damaging the strings. One day the bulb ignited something flammable, and when Allen returned from class, there was nothing but a burnt hole in the swamp where his house had been. 

In 1999 he heard about a weird old cabin about ten miles north of Wilmington that might be for sale. The owner’s name was Hoke Bullock. He had a long, white beard, and a seaplane dock on the river, from which he would fly back and forth to his home in Raleigh. Walker had actually heard of the place before. One of the only neighboring houses belonged to a friend of his, an underwater archaeologist named Wesley K. Hall (part of the team that recovered the H.L. Hunley Confederate submarine from Charleston Harbor). One day Walker got a call from Hall saying that the old man, Hoke Bullock, had died. The cabin belonged to his son now. Walker drove to Raleigh with a thousand dollars in cash, hoping to persuade Bullock’s son to sell. He promised to deliver the rest of the money within a month and wound up getting the entire ten-acre plot for $100,000.

Most of his friends expected he would tear down the derelict structure and build something that was, in the words of a neighbor, “worth living in,” but Walker had other ideas.  He says that nearly every one of his neighbors has, at some point in the last fifteen years, called the law on him. “But once the house began to take shape,” he adds, “they started to come around."

Today, inside there are unexpected “interventions” at every turn. It’s a creative reinterpretation of a house. You open the door to an antique player-piano blasting out show tunes. The giant dried flower-stalk of a Century plant (a strange organism that flowers only once every ten or twenty years) rises three stories high, almost touching the ceiling. Suspended from the main beam that runs overhead is a 60-foot, upside-down rowing scull. The boat is too long for the house—it sticks through a hole in the front of the house, like a horn.  

As Walker showed me around, I was struck by how much local history had come together in the house. Excluding the materials used in plumbing and wiring, everything in the place had been reclaimed. Many of the windows were salvaged from the famed Lumina Pavilion at Wrightsville Beach. Old bottles incorporated into the wall gave the appearance of stained-glass. An aluminum airplane prop was mounted under a street sign for Soaring Spirit Drive. One mirror had been salvaged from the set of The Crow. Out back stood a huge deck made from the docks of the old Southport and Bald Head Island marinas. Straight ahead, a deep water slip. To the left was a rope-swing platform, dangerously high-looking, for swinging out into the river. My visit took place on one of the coldest days of the year, but Walker said that he would jump into the river if I wanted (this was before he had any idea I wanted to write an article about him). I had the sense that day of having stumbled on the Holy Fool's southeastern retreat—not completely polished, but a decidedly great place to start a second childhood.

Recently Walker has started opening the place up to people. He lists it on Airbnb for $400 a night. He rents it to groups who need a space for weekend outings. He has a vision of turning it into a part-time “organic artist retreat.” I asked Walker if all of these plans meant that he considered the house “finished.” Walker answered, “I never expect to be finished.” Finishing, he said, isn’t something he even wants. For him, it’s all about “not losing” the sheer pleasure that can be found in "doing something for fun." 

“I could have paid someone to build a house out here,” he said, “but then I would have had to go to work to pay for it. Instead, I built something from garbage.”

To many, his approach to building would seem backward. Instead of drawing up a plan and then buying the necessary materials, he flips it around. Only after he finds the materials (“or the material finds me,” he says) does the structure begin to take shape. Only then do a pair of discarded patio doors change into huge light-pouring windows. In Walker’s world, form creates function.

“I built this place for my children,” he tells me. He has three by an ex-wife, a nine-year-old girl and seven-year-old twins (a boy and girl). He says that although they’re still too young to participate in creating the house, their perspective—“seeing the world through their eyes”—has helped bring the structure to life. It’s a place where grown-ups are invited to act like children again. A place to paint, cook, fish, write poetry, swim, relax. 

People have begun to notice. Last summer, in France, the novelist Frédérique Deghelt was scrolling through the “most eccentric houses” on Airbnb, and spotted Walker’s World. She wound up bringing her family over from France for a month, and later based a character in one of her novels on Walker. He became a 70-year-old man who helps guide a woman through a difficult time.

“I knew that Frédérique’s husband enjoyed playing the piano,” Walker said, “so one day I bought an old concert grand and smuggled it onto the boat when they weren’t watching, just for them, and covered it with a sheet. Later that day we went up the river a few miles, cooking dinner on the grill and drinking wine. At sunset, I told them I had a surprise and pulled off the sheet. You would have thought I had pulled up a trunk full of buried treasure.”