A Confederate confection

In anticipation of what will hopefully be a long weekend of sunshine, we have a guest writer, Misti Traya, with her take on a classic drink from the Southern States of America:

Several years ago, I suffered from back-to-back incidents of strep throat.  When I saw Dr. Sugerman, he asked what I had been doing about the pain.  “Mint juleps,” I said.  To which he replied, “Honey, I don’t believe that’s been an actual prescription since 1865.  But if it gives you relief and these antibiotics continue to fail, keep on it.  Granddaddy always said juleps were his Sunday penicillin.”  Truer words were never spoken.

Despite their slightly medicinal reputation, mint juleps are delicious.  They are traditionally made with spearmint, bourbon, sugar and water and served in frosty silver cups that stir up romantic images of the American South.  The mint julep is a cocktail from another time. A time of steamboats and petticoats and gallant men who knew to wear seersucker only during the summer months between May and September.   Even the Northern poet dandy, Edgar Allan Poe, had a weakness for this boozy smasher.

The thing about drinking juleps is that it’s not all like drinking cocktails made from other spirits.  Sure, you can get drunk off them, but you don’t feel dark and dirty like you do with gin.  Juleps make you feel light-hearted.  And possibly like you want to jump in the pool with all your clothes on. Or maybe that’s just me.

Personally, I like to try and avoid diabetic coma by cutting the sweetness of my juleps with lemon. I also use sparkling water as opposed to flat.  My reason being that most things in life are better when effervescent. I am also fond of using Bushmills Irish whiskey as it’s a little smoother and fruitier than a single malt but not as sweet as  bourbon. Not that I have anything against a traditional julep, but Bushmills is my favourite.

To make mint juleps, one must first make a simple syrup. Add equal parts of finely granulated sugar and water along with a handful of mint to a small saucepan and boil. Gradually, the liquid will thicken and tinge with green. When it is quite viscous, remove from the heat and cool. Next, add two sprigs of mint to two frosted glasses. If you haven’t got sterling cups, classic highballs will do. Add 2 shots of Bushmills, a shot and a half of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and a shot of syrup.  Muddle all the ingredients then fill the glasses with ice. Finally top off with your favorite fizzy water and enjoy.

This post was originally published on the Food Network Blog.

Wine articles

Blind tasting experiment

Every so often an article appears in the papers that proves cheap wine is just as good as the expensive stuff. The latest barbarian assault on wine occurred in the Guardian last  week. The implication of pieces like this are that wine is actually very simple and that the only reason to but expensive stuff is snobbery. There is something about the hierarchical nature of wine that really annoys the socialists.

In this test conducted by a psychologist Richard Wiseman from the University of Hertfordshire at the Edinburgh Science Festival (roll up! tickets still available) members of the public were given two similar wines, eg two clarets or two pinot grigios, to taste blind. One was expensive, over £10 a bottle. and one cheap, under £5. They were then asked to say which they thought was the most expensive. People were only right roughly 50% of the time; they might as well have chosen at random.

I have a few thoughts on this experiment:

1) By what criteria were the members of the public asked to guess which was the more expensive? This may sound pedantic but if you ask people to guess which is more expensive are they going to guess the one they like the most?

2) Were the people chosen interested in wine? This matters, if people were merely choosing the one they liked the most then many people would go for the cheaper wine. Cheap wines are normally fruitier with less acidity and more sugar than expensive ones. They appeal to people who aren’t interested in wine.

3) If the people aren’t interested in wine then they have no frame of reference. It would be like asking someone with no knowledge of classical music to guess from a tiny snatch of music which was Gutav Holst and which was John Williams. All they would be told is that Holst is more highly regarded by music snobs. Now guess which is which!

Some other factors spring to mind: the expensive claret may have been very young or the bottle may have just been opened or it may have been the kind of wine which really needs food to show at its best. It may simply have been rubbish and the under £5 one was actually more delicious.

So what conclusions can we draw from this experiment? Some people prefer cheaper wine? Some people can’t tell the difference between expensive or cheap? The Edinburgh Science Festival needed some publicity? The one conclusion that you couldn’t draw is the one the Guardian journalist drew:

“An expensive wine may well have a full body, a delicate nose and good legs, but the odds are your brain will never know.”

Interviews Wine articles

Booze interview: Roger Scruton

Introducing a new occasional series – interviews with writers about their drinking habits. For my first guest I am honoured to have philosopher Roger Scruton. For many years Scruton wrote a column for the New Statesman. It was ostensibly about wine but in reality it smuggled subversive views about the family, religion and hunting into a left wing magazine. This makes him sounds like merely a mischief maker whereas his unselfconscious love of nature imbued the writing with a rare beauty. The columns are worth reading whatever your political persuasion.

When did you first realise that wine was something special and can you remember the wine that triggered this feeling?

When my mother was given a bottle of Burgundy by her step-father. She opened it, took a sip, and then put the cork back in. For several weeks it stood in the larder and from time to time I would sneak an egg-cup full, amazed by the thrilling sensation as it settled inside me, and largely unconcerned when, after a week or so, it turned to vinegar.

From reading your New Statesman column, I imagined that you used to drink most of your wine in the stable with your horse Sam. Is this the case and if so do you think this is the perfect way to drink wine?

I only would call on Sam’s help when tasting the second class wines judged appropriate to middle-income socialists. If anything good came my way it would be reserved for the dining table. Unfortunately Sam is now dead, but his help is no longer needed, since I gave up the column for the New Statesman.

What was Sam’s favourite wine?

Amethystos Rosé, from Oddbins. (nice to see that someone else appreciated Oddbins Greek range.)

From which region do you buy most of your wine from and why?

White from Burgundy, Red from Bordeaux. These are, in my view, simply the best crafted wines of their kind at the prices I can afford. But I say a lot more in my book, I Drink Therefore I Am.

Are there any wines/ regions/ countries that you avoid and if so why?

I tend to avoid Australian Shiraz, which I think is designed for the use of football hooligans.

What is the most that you have ever spent on a bottle of wine, what was the wine and was it worth it?

I usually arrange things so that someone else is paying. But I have, in my time, spent £35 on a bottle of Puligny Montrachet Premier Cru and of course it was worth every penny. But what after all is one comparing it with?

What are you most looking forward to drinking from your cellar?

There is a bottle of Chateau Palmer 1975 on which I have my eye.

What’s the most memorable wine you have ever had?

Ch. Lafite 1945, described in my book.

This is a terribly vague question but in general do you think that wine is getting better or worse?

Wine is one of the few things that are getting better in a world where everything worthwhile is in steep decline.

Which writers in your opinion write well about wine?

Evelyn Waugh, especially in Brideshead Revisited, Thomas Mann in Felix Krull.

Finally at the moment what is the current Scruton house wine?

Ch. Grivière 2001, Medoc, from Majestic Wine.

I have just ordered a copy of I Drink Therefore I am which I will review in my next round-up of wine books. I should also mention that the above Medoc is currently on offer at Majestic for £8.99. I’m going to buy a few bottles.

Wine articles

Mmmmm, adulterated Burgundy


I was going to write a piece on the traditional practice of ‘Hermitaging’ wine. This involves adding beefy Southern wines such as Hermitage to lighter wines like Claret or Burgundy to give them a bit more body. This is now thought to be a shameful practice. It wasn’t always so. There is an example in the 1860s of a lot of Latour adulterated with Hermitage going for more than the pure stuff. Of course nothing like this goes on nowadays but you can recreate the spirit of the Victorian wine merchant in the comfort of your own home. In an earlier post I described mixing past-it claret from my friend’s cellar with more modern Rioja. I told Bob Tyrer from the Sunday Times about my more modest experiments recently and he has written them up in his column so rather than write my own article, I’ve just pasted his on the left: