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Break out the bourbon, boys! It’s Kentucky Derby time again, meaning that bartenders everywhere will be whipping out their muddles to create that old time classic, the mint julep. Even though my family hails from Kentucky, and I have been a loyal slave to the bar business for over 13 years, I have never been enticed into trying one of these supposedly refreshing southern treats. Call me crazy, but the idea of burping up bourbon for two hours doesn’t really light my fire. I know, weird, right?
In the spirit of all those classy ladies in big hats, and well-dressed southern gents, I headed out Wednesday night to try my very first julep. Perhaps it was the fact that I watched the bartender grab the rail whiskey, or maybe there is a reason that only people in the south swoon over these peculiar cocktails. Nevertheless, my initial reaction was as I thought it would be. I took a few sips, sat with my eyes closed, and tried to picture myself standing at Churchill Downs, rapt in the excitement of the traditions that take place there. It didn’t help. The drink just wasn’t my cup of, um, leaves. Not surprising. While my family is very country, I have never fully embraced my inner southern belle. My grandmother always said “You can’t have roots and wings.” (Actually, it sounded more like “wangs.”)
On Thursday, I ventured to an impeccable spot in downtown D.C. to gain a different perspective on this distinguished distillation. The Source by Wolfgang Puck, located next to the Newseum, is serving up an interesting twist on this vintage American drink, at $12 a pop. Smashing up shiso leaves as opposed to the traditional mint, and adding a few other ingredients whose origins I wasn’t privy to, along with a healthy dose of Woodford Reserve, the bartender placed before me a newly refined version of the old standby.
Refined indeed. My first sip, which I expected to be as short lived as my prior julep-tasting experience, turned into a nice long draw. It was delicious, sweet, and I finally got that promised “refreshing” element I was looking for. I couldn’t deny the subtle southern charm, yet it was infused with something I couldn’t quite identify. I know shiso is Japanese, and I know feng shui is Chinese, but the combination of those leaves and that bourbon, what can I say, the Source feng shuied that shit.
It is definitely a cocktail for those with wings, er, “wangs.”
Trixie Tamerlane is the author of “From The Other Side: Pourings from the Mind of a Bartender“
Photo by Trixie Tamerlane