Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Great Mint Julep Controversy of 1933

Eddie of the Astor (L), Irvin S. Cobb (R), and
Heywood Broun (seated) at the Infamous
Mint Julep Trial, July 1933
What's the proper liquor for use in a mint julep? Bourbon whiskey or rye? What about rum or brandy, or even gin? 

Most drinkers today would immediately answer, "Bourbon, of course," but it wasn't always this way. Back in the 19th century, any one of those liquors might be found in a julep. Rum, in fact, was the original base, though it was supplanted by brandy in the early days of the Republic. Whiskey rose to julep prominence only after the Civil War, and Kentuckians and Marylanders debated hotly whether Bourbon or rye was the proper variety for juleps.

Last year in the Charleston City Paper, I speculated that the near-ubiquity of Bourbon as the liquor of choice for mint juleps today was largely due to the Kentucky Derby, at which juleps have been the signature cocktail for over a century. But, the more I look into matters, the more I suspect that the Kentucky-born newspaper man and humorist Irvin S. Cobb might actually share a lot of the blame.

In July 1933, still several months before the repeal of Prohibition, Cobb challenged “Eddie of the Astor”, a well-known bartender from the Hotel Astor, to a mint julep showdown. The challenge was sparked when Cobb overheard Eddie say that a proper julep should be made with brandy. “Brandy?” Cobb reportedly said. “Putting brandy in a mint julep is like putting ketchup in iced tea.” The contest was set for July 13th at Cobb’s Park Avenue apartment.

As late as 1933, it seems, there was still a rich diversity of liquors employed in the julep world. Cobb’s challenge, columnist H. Allen Smith noted, originated out of “a controversy over the potability of the Kentucky mint julep as compared with all other forms of julep.” 

H. L. Mencken, the famed Baltimore journalist and critic, upon hearing of the contest, harrumphed that both Cobb and Eddie were wrong. “In Maryland we use rye whiskey. Bourbon puts too much meat on the consumer,” a perhaps not so veiled dig at Cobb's substantial girth. Mencken declined to participate, saying he had to head back home to Baltimore “to watch the hanging of a gentleman who put Bourbon whiskey in a julep.”

Cobb enlisted Heywood Broun, the popular columnist for the New York World-Telegram, to serve as the contest's judge. For his “Kentucky julep”, Cobb broke out a bottle of Belmont Bourbon distilled in 1901 and obtained from Louisville’s Pendennis Club. Eddie of the Astor was given a bottle of brandy  by Cobb and, when he requested a bit of Jamaican rum for his “Cosmopolitan julep”, he was provided with the closest thing Cobb could find in his basement: Bacardi.

In alternating succession, Broun downed three of Cobb’s Bourbon juleps and three of Eddie’s brandy ones, then retired to a bedroom for a nap. He awoke a half hour later, fortified himself with three cups of coffee, then banged out his decision on Cobb’s typewriter. “Judgment is rendered in favor of Mr. Cobb and the mint julep compounded out of Kentucky Bourbon,” he declared. “Eddie of the Astor is guilty of a heresy in using brandy as a base.” He took the opportunity to take a swipe at rye, too, declaring it “Communistic, Atheistic, and against the dignity of man” to commit “such gross violations of the code as using rye whiskey, or that great abomination, the gin julep.”

Eddie of the Astor, for his part, took the defeat graciously, though he did note that he was a little out of practice, thanks to the whole Prohibition thing, and added, “I wish the press to know that it was not really Mr. Cobb that won, but really his liquor.” He did have  a point: it’s sort of hard to compete with 32-year-old Bourbon when all you’ve got is a bottle of Prohibition-era brandy and some bootleg Bacardi.

Predictably, newspapers in Maryland and in New Orleans cried foul. Marshall Ballard, the editor of the New Orleans Item, protested that what Cobb had actually created was not a mint julep but a mint smash. “Both are good,” he declared, “but the julep demands more solicitude and time.”

With a smash, Ballard explained, either Bourbon or rye is put in a glass with sugar, mint leaves, and crushed ice and agitated with a spoon until the mint leaves are crushed and the outside of the glass coated with a fine frost. For a julep, “you soak as much mint as possible in as much Bourbon as you can afford for about three weeks.” The resulting greenish brown liquor is stored in a jug and mixed with ice and sugar just before drinking, and is, Ballard claimed, a “slightly smoother and mellower product” than the quick-made smash.

Cobb's contest may not have decided the issue once and for all, but in the wake of Repeal more and more Americans turned to Bourbon when stirring up a frosty julep. I, for one, am partial to rye, but almost a full century of Kentucky propaganda puts me decidedly in the minority.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Small Barrel Failures

Barrels Aging in the Buffalo Trace Warehouse
Courtesy Buffalo Trace Distillery
A little interesting news coming out of Frankfurt, Kentucky: Buffalo Trace Distillery has been experimenting with making "small barrel" bourbon, and they've now declared those experiments to be, well, a failure.

An ordinary bourbon barrel (in which, by law, corn whiskey must age at least two years before being able to be called straight bourbon whiskey) is 53 gallons in capacity. Starting in 2006, Buffalo Trace took smaller barrels of 5, 10, and 15 gallons and filled them with the same mash bill and aged them side-by-side to see what would happen.

What happens, it appears, is something akin to cooking a burger on too hot of a grill or a pork roast in too hot an oven. In whiskey aging, its the barrel itself providing the "heat", the charred wood filtering out the congeners from the distillate and imparting a dark color and smoky, mellow flavor to the whiskey. "As expected," Master Distiller Harlen Wheatley noted in the press release announcing the results, "the smaller 5 gallon barrel aged faster than the 15 gallon version." But faster isn't necessarily better. "It's as if they all bypassed a step in the aging process and just never gained the depth of flavor that we expect from our bourbons."

The distillers sampled the progress of the experiment each year, and finally this year threw in the towel, deciding the small barrel versions just weren't going to get any better.

It must be to their chagrin, for if distillers were able to use smaller barrels to speed the aging process but still keep the quality then they would be in a better position to react to changes in the market--like the recent resurgence in rye popularity that has left distillers and wholesalers with a shortage of stock.  When your product has to sit in a warehouse for four or more years before being ready to sell, there's not much you can do to ramp production quickly to meet the rising demand.

For now, it seems the 53-gallon barrel--and lots of time--remain the formula for success.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

I am HUGE in Vietnam

Cookshop in Huế, Vietnam. Courtesy Thomas Schoch
Holy canoli. Just a few short days after making my publishing debut in Spanish (thanks to a SFA blog post picked up by CNN and lifted by one of their Mexican affiliates), now I get the thrill of seeing my own prose translated into, of all things, Vietnamese.

Unfortunately, I don't speak Vietnamese. Fortunately, Google Translate (which is built into the Chrome browser) makes it easy.  Unfortunately, I'm not sure how much I can trust the automated translation. The headline of the piece translates as "Bread Vietnamese 'gulp' American city like?", which I've got to think is missing a little of the nuance from the original version.

But, the cool thing is that, in the eyes of Vietnam, at least, it's apparently newsworthy that the press in the "second largest city of the state of South Carolina" has picked up on Vietnam's classic street food. Here's how Google translates the one original paragraph written by some Vietnamese scribe before he or she blatantly pirated my text:
In The Charleston City Paper Charleston - the second largest city of the state of South Carolina, U.S., author Robert Moss has expressed his impression filled with dizzying speed of bread Vietnam food market this place.
Again, I expect something might have gotten lost in translation there, and as my editor and her repeated patient but firm deadline reminder emails will attest, "dizzying speed" is not something often used to describe my writing process.

But, how bizarre is it to think that there are people over in Vietnam reading my commentary on the sandwiches their own country invented? It is a small, strange, and almost unbelievable world sometimes.

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