Walker Percy was a great, cosmopolitan southern novelist and essayist who died in 1990.
Born in Alabama, he lived much of his life in Covington, a town near New Orleans.
That’s pretty far from Kentucky and the annual Run for the Roses, which takes place on Saturday at the magnificent Churchill Downs racetrack.
But the signature drink of the Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, is the mint julep. And Walker Percy knew mint juleps.
A julep is actually a pretty simple variation on the basic whiskey cocktail. We’re talking about Kentucky here, so the whiskey of choice is Bourbon. Typically, some sugar and mint is muddled at the bottom of a glass, and then in goes the ice and the booze. Cool, sweetened Bourbon, a good bit of it. A couple of these on a warm day and you’re feeling no pain.
There is a more refined and meditative way to consume a mint julep, requiring a bit more time than it takes a pack of 3-year-old Thoroughbreds to traverse a mile-and-a-quarter.
As it turns out, the recipe for the more elegant and literary julep comes from Percy, who won the National Book Award for his very first novel, “The Moviegoer,” and who for a generation of readers defined a post-William Faulkner variety of thoughtful southern writing. I first encountered Percy’s recipe back in the 1980s, when I picked up a collection of his essays, “Signposts in a Strange Land.”
It’s simplicity itself, although you have to be patient for the alchemy of bourbon, ice, sugar, and mint to occur. And mind you, this is a Bourbon drinker’s mint julep — there isn’t enough sugar in it to take the edge off the liquor. In fact, it comes from Percy’s short 1975 essay “Bourbon.”
You need excellent Bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly — and here is the trick in the procedure — crush your ice, actually powder it, preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with Bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.
I love that last line! Cumulative bliss! Sounds pretty good to me. I think I’ll be making Percy’s mint julep this weekend. As I have quite a few times before.
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