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Friday, May 4, 2012

Vintage Happy Hour with Jenny Q: Mint Juleps at the Astor Roof Garden

I really was trying to stay away from the obvious choice for today's Vintage Happy Hour. Hoping to come up with something different, and wanting to learn more about the Astor Hotel Roof Garden Restaurant since reading about it in The Prince and Betty, I was researching and hoping to find a signature cocktail to blog about, when lo and behold I discovered patrons at the Astor Roof enjoyed light fare and refreshing drinks, and one of the most popular was . . . the mint julep. Coincidence, eh? So here I am, paying tribute to this timely cocktail.

The Astor Roof was a smash hit with New York's upper crust in the pre-Prohibition era of the Progressive Age, and it was a favorite haunt of John Maude and Rupert Smith in The Prince and Betty. As as a British native transplanted in New York to write for the new American version of Vanity Fair magazine, author P.G. Wodehouse was likely familiar with it too.

The Astor hotel was built in 1905, and though it was not the first hotel to build a rooftop restaurant, it was the first to build one in such grand style and luxury that it soon became the place to see and be seen, and other hotels rushed to emulate it. The Astor Roof was the perfect perch for millionaires, celebrities, artists, and musicians to mingle on summer nights and look down on the rest of the world. The roof garden was a breezy oasis, thirty stories above the heat and stench of the city, where ferns and palm trees swayed, exotic flowers bloomed, and guests enjoyed an open-air dance floor and a quarter-mile long promenade. And a waterfall cascading over a glass-gabled structure masked the sounds of the city below. Since the purpose of the rooftop was to rub elbows and drink and dance, the restaurant served a menu of light fare and refreshing drinks, like the mint julep.

No one knows exactly when or where the mint julep was invented, but it is believed to have originated in the American South in the late 1700s. The recipe first appeared in print in 1803, in a book published in London by John Davis. It was described as "a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning." The traditional mint julep is made with four ingredients: mint leaf, bourbon, sugar, and water, and spearmint is the mint of choice in the Southern states, Kentucky in particular.

The mint julep has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, and 120,000 of them are served there every year over the two-day race weekend. The mint julep is one of the few cocktails that has the honor of having its own distinctive serving cup, made of silver, no less. And if you ever get to Churchill Downs and have an extra $1000 to spare, you can indulge in an "extra premium" mint julep, served in a gold-plated cup with a silver straw, and made from Woodford Reserve bourbon and spring water ice cubes imported from the Alps.

That's far too rich for my blood! But the mint julep is an easy drink to make at home. Though the methods of preparation may vary, the ingredients never do. Whether for the big race or just as a refresher when lounging outdoors, whip up a batch of mint juleps and do what I'm going to do: imagine yourself in 1912, in the Astor Roof Garden, dancing under the stars amid the palm trees and celebrities!


The Prince and Betty by P.G. Wodehouse
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