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.


Gene said...

Great post! I love that so many people weighed in on this at the time. I will always love Mencken and he was wise not to participate in a contest that was, seems to me, more than a little rigged. Cobb was definitely taking advantage of the 'home court' and most likely supplying Eddie with something pretty close to rotgut. Still, I like the passion and intensity of the regional rivalries. Great fun!

Robert said...

Yes, I'm starting to get downright suspicious of those Kentuckians and their dirty julep tricks!

NMissC said...

I'm curious about the New Orleans version of the julep. I apparently have only had mint smashes.

I'm also interested in the history here, tracking the usual course for many American cocktails-- originally brandy, then rye, and most recently bourbon. As much as I like bourbon, it's nice to see bartenders working with versions from throughout history.

Popular Posts