Sunday, April 25, 2021

Unraveling Mint Juleps, Pat O'Brien's Patio, Julep Bar, Anvil Bar and Refuge

Mint Julep on Patio at Pat O' Brien's New Orleans.
Image from Pat O Brien's Instagram #patobriens

"..It was back in 1938 that Derby big-wigs consecrated the Julep as sacred hooch for the race..."
(Virginia Billeaud Anderson - discusses the history of the mint julep including its Persian antecedents, while perched on Pat O'Brien's architecturally exquisite patio and the bar at the Crillon. Dips into the Kentucky Derby and literary references, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, as well as Houston’s Julep Bar and Anvil Bar and Refuge.)

Unraveling Mint Juleps, Pat O'Brien's Patio, Julep Bar, Anvil Bar and Refuge

Utterly seduced by the architectural features on Pat O’Brien’s patio, I've been going there since 1973. I find it thrilling to sit near vine-covered antique brick walls, fountains and greenery, knowing the establishment’s original structure has existed since 1791. When there, I often knock back a Mint Julep.

Lately I’ve been unraveling Mint Juleps, probably because the Kentucky Derby is around the corner. It was back in 1938 that Derby big-wigs consecrated the Julep as sacred hooch for the race.

The year 1938 it seems was a doozy for cocktail innovation. This was the year the Hotel Monteleone’s head bartender Walter Bergeron concocted the Vieux Carré cocktail, an implausibly smooth mix of strong Rye, Cognac, Sweet Vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud’s & Angostura Bitters. I remember downing Vieux Carrés in the Monteleone's Carousel Bar with my great aunt Jo in the early 70s, and nobody gave a damn I wasn’t eighteen.

The Julep has exalted history. Its name evolves from the ancient Persian word for rose water, “Julab.” Persians use rose water in drinks, and in desserts such as sorbet. Americans were aware of the Julep by the 1700s, a fact I find as intriguing as the fact that Americans knew the Bourbon Milk Punch by the 1700s, evidence of which is Benjamin Franklin’s correspondence in which he bragged about his Milk Punch recipe. In the 1800s, United States Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky (b. 1777), the story goes, introduced the Julep to honchos in Washington D.C.’s Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel. When the Prince of Wales came to town, it is said, he downed a few, discounting the fact that his pious Mother Queen Victoria was partial to Bourbon Milk Punches.

A booze historian referenced a Yankee drinking Juleps in the south during the Civil War, which I once heard an old woman call “the War of Northern Aggression,” although the words “war” and “northern” hit the ears as “whawh” and “naw-then.” F. Scott Fitzgerald who had a similar accent, and who was sloshed a great deal of the time, gave the Julep literary fame in “The Great Gatsby,” and I excavated from literary and artistic biographies that Gerald and Sara Murphy mixed mint into cocktails when Fitzgerald visited them in the south of France. Gerald’s humanist education would have taught him that mint surfaced in Greek mythology as a symbol of hospitality. Although the Murphy’s suspended hospitality when the inebriated Fitzgerald behaved like a jackass, rudely offending other guests. But before Fitzgerald, the short story author, O Henry, wrote about the Julep in 1902, setting his narrative soon after the Whawh of Naw-then Aggression. Clearly the Julep traipsed an honorable path to warming the veins of puffy pink-face seersucker-attired Big Daddies on verandas, to me on New Orleans patios, and as well to younger people in Houston’s hip bars.

Years back I ordered a Julep in the bar at the Crillon, even though the condescending look on the bartender’s face told me it was dumb, not to mention the extra cost for the imported bourbon. Ernest Hemingway made the same mistake. According to “Garden and Gun” mag, a Paris bartender served Hemingway a Julep that was so sorry he threw it against the wall. That same magazine told its readers that aside from the martini, the Mint Julep may be the most iconic cocktail in America.

The last time I drank a Mint Julep was in October of 2018. Donnie and I were on the patio at Pat O’Brien’s, seated near the vine-covered antique brick wall and a fountain, and the weather was glorious. Luckily we had nailed dinner reservations for that evening at Tommy’s Cuisine on Tchoupitoulas Street where Donnie likes the Osso Bucco. The next day was equally satisfying. After drinks at the Chart Room, we had dinner at Irene’s Cuisine at 529 Bienville Street where I like the lamb chops and where the dark wood trim and wainscoting and columnar architectural details in the bar are exquisite, and the patio is breathtaking. Lunch earlier that day was at Gallier’s Oyster Bar and Restaurant on Carondelet Street. But before lunch we hoofed-it to an Uptown neighborhood located south of Tulane where I photographed the house my great-grandfather built in 1905. My great grandfather Bertrand immigrated to New Orleans from the French Pyrenees in the 1890s, and built this house for his 1905 marriage. A 1905 furniture store receipt for bedroom, living room and dining room furniture still exists. My great grandfather made his own wine, and my mother, his grand daughter, remembers the large wooden wine barrels in his house's "raised basement." When Donnie makes me a Julep here in Houston, he uses Makers Mark or Bulleit Bourbon and mint he grows in pots outside.

Here in Houston, bars are promoting up-coming Kentucky Derby day celebrations. Attendees can watch the race, drink Juleps from silver cups and stare at chicks in hats. Some bars will offer sweet prices for Juleps, which probably means they make the julep with inexpensive bourbon instead of Makers Mark or expensive Rye. A popular place to drink Juleps in Houston is Julep Bar on Washington Avenue. Julep Bar gets a lot of media coverage because its owner Alba Huerta is a popular mixologist whose 2018 book got mentioned in the New York Times. Julep Bar is having a Kentucky Derby day celebration. Another popular place to drink Juleps is Anvil Bar and Refuge on Westheimer in Montrose neighborhood. I enjoy going to Anvil because it has a comfortable interior. The owners did a good job of transforming a hideous building into a cozy spot. Another reason I enjoy going to Anvil is I can walk there. The last time I walked to Anvil, I drank a Vieux Carré cocktail. That drink was bad-ass.

Mint Julep at Julep Bar. Image by Julie Soefer @juliesoefer
 @julepHOU from Julep Bar facebook
Anvil Bar and Refuge Mint Julep @anvilhouston
Image from Anvil Bar and Refuge facebook

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