One of my favorite high school English teachers once told me that the most beautiful line in all of literature comes from The Great Gatsby. I can still recite the line by heart after over a decade—“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”
Now here’s the part where I admit something that I’ve only ever told a few people: I do not like this book. Even that beautiful sentence that has stuck in my brain all of these years, a line so cherished by one of the smartest women I’ve ever known bothered me. Why are the men men and the women are girls? Are they actually girls, and if they are then why are they hanging out with men? Are they actually women, and if they are then why are they being called “girls”?
I think I was the only kid in my class, certainly the only girl, who wasn’t completely bonkers for the novel when we read it sophomore year. I’ve held this secret close to my chest all this time, feeling like it was some sort of literature-lover-defect that would expose me as a fraud, but it’s time to come clean. I felt nothing for the spoiled, rotten, selfish characters (I know, I know, you’re kind of supposed to hate them), their excess and carelessness made me anxious (I know, I know, it’s supposed to), and the women, ugh.
Even in high school, though, I knew that mint juleps and “gin rickeys that clicked full of ice” were something worth growing up for—their names alone could cool you off.
The anniversary of my first ever mint julep is today, Derby Day. I had my first one six years ago, surrounded by a bunch of Southerners in floppy hats and starched collared shirts at a bar in the West Village where the races were turned up way too loud and the bartenders looked overwhelmed. As an East-Coaster, Derby Day was not a holiday that was on my radar at all, and walking into that bar felt a little bit like stumbling into a foreign country. I sipped mint julep after mint julep out of a plastic cup with a neon straw, feeling grown-up and giddy with sugar and brain-freeze and bottom-shelf bourbon.
Not only is today Derby Day, it is also officially less than a week until the big, sparkly blockbuster adaptation of The Great Gatsby is released in theatres, so I’m sure a lot of you have already reached your mint-julep-recipe-total-saturation point. That’s why you’re also going to get a recipe for the best Tom Collins I’ve ever had.
Mint juleps have a history dating back to the 1700′s, which means that people have very strong opinions about the right and wrong ways to make them. I’m not trying to make anyone mad, so I asked my amazing cousin, Cameron, who bartends at Minetta Tavern, to help me make something unarguably delicious. The origin of the word julep comes from the Persian “julâb” which means “rosewater” so he added a tiny splash of that, and it made all the difference in the world. We used Widow Jane Bourbon, which is mashed in Kentucky but finished with limestone water in Long Island where The Great Gatsby takes place. It’s a really spectacular bourbon, but any one you like will do just fine.
The Great Gatsby Mint Julep
Make 1 10 oz Julep
6 fresh mint leaves plus a sprig for garnish
2 teaspoons superfine sugar plus another tsp for dusting
½ oz water
2 ½ oz good bourbon
1/8 oz (teeny dash) rose water
Place your mint leaves, superfine sugar, and ½ oz of water in a glass and lightly crush your mint leaves to open them up and release their oils. Add 2 ½ oz bourbon and 1/8 oz of rose water. Crush ice to into chips and fill your julep cup half way with it. Pour the bourbon and mint mixture over the ice and heap more ice chips on top until it looks like a snow-cone. Sprinkle the ice with remaining ½ tsp of superfine sugar and garnish with a mint sprig.
makes 1 10 oz rickey
1 oz fresh lime juice
¾ oz agave syrup
2 ½ oz gin
½ oz blackberry shrub*
In a cocktail mixer shake lime juice, agave and gin together with ice. Strain into a Collins glass over ice and top it off with club soda. Add ½ oz of blackberry shrub (recipe follows).
1 cup fresh blackberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup red wine vinegar
Let berries and sugar sit for at least 6 hours, or overnight, tossing them a few times. Strain and reserve the juice and add the red wine vinegar to it. Stir it until it’s mixed (reserve macerated berries for garnish if you want)