Traditions are what define a culture. The shared experiences of food, drink, actions and ceremonies bond individuals together in unity, regardless of how different they may actually be. The traditions of the South are not the traditions of the North, nor are those of the West the same as found in the East. Yet, while traditions hold on to the past, in this dynamic age, subtle blending can occur, often to the betterment of all.
Reaching back to 1875, it’s hard to imagine a more traditional event than the Kentucky Derby. The horses, the run, the hats, the drinks ... oh my, the drinks. Bourbon is the blood of Kentucky and on Derby day, mint juleps reign supreme. A mixture of ice, mint leaves, sugar and bourbon, nothing says “And they’re off!” like sipping this ice cold concoction.
You can tell a lot about a bartender by how he/she prepares treats mint leaves. If the leaves are viciously muddled, pounded into pulp at the bottom of the glass, seek your drink elsewhere. Yes, mashing the mint that brutally will ensure plenty of mint flavor ... but it will also release a large amount of bitter-flavored chlorophyll into the drink, ruining it. What you want is bartender who briskly claps the individual sprigs of mint between their hands three times. This will rupture enough of the mint to release the flavors you want while keeping the bitter flavors trapped.
Whereas the traditional mint is traditional, what say you to trying a mint julep that actually helps the Texas ecosystem? The arrival of pho noodle shops to Texas introduced the Asian mint shiso (Perilla frutescens) to our palate ... but also to our woods and fields. This mint has found East Texas to be even more hospitable than its original home due to the lack of insects that eat it here. This has resulted in it spreading like wildfire, driving out the native species required for a healthy food chain of plants, insects and birds.
These “weeds” have already been growing a month by the time the Kentucky Derby arrives and so they’re at a peak of sweet, minty, Asian flavor. The guests at your race party will note a difference, but they won’t be able to tell you what it is. Whether or not you tell them its secret is up to you, but hopefully you will and they’ll start collecting this tasty but ecologically damaging mint, too. The Texas wild areas will thank all y’all.