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And Now, a Sip of History: The Mint Julep, Personified

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Published: May 2, 2007

NEW ORLEANS

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Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

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Recipe: Mint Julep (May 2, 2007)

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times

FAR FROM KENTUCKY Chris McMillian mixes mint juleps at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in New Orleans.

THEN comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep ... the mint julep.”

Chris McMillian’s gravelly baritone — which calls to mind Tom Waits moonlighting at the Metropolitan Opera — echoed through the dark-paneled Library Lounge at the Ritz-Carlton hotel here as he gently plucked leaves from a bouquet of mint and pushed them into a sterling silver julep cup.

“Who has not tasted one has lived in vain,” he continued. “It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.”

Many thousands of juleps will be poured at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby this weekend. Yet those made by Mr. McMillian at this bar a block from Bourbon Street are by many accounts among the most skillfully mixed in the country. Without doubt, they are the most lavishly presented. Each order is served up with Mr. McMillian’s recitation of an ode to the julep written in the 1890s by J. Soule Smith, a Kentucky newspaperman.

Dressed in his everyday work uniform — white dress shirt, black vest, bow tie and elbow garters — Mr. McMillian could easily pass for a 19th-century saloon-keeper. Simultaneously brash and genteel, he considers himself less a new-wave mixologist than an ardent student of cocktail culture past and present.

“Chris is a rare living link to this amazing old-world profession,” said Dave Wondrich, drinks correspondent for Esquire and the author of the forthcoming book “Imbibe!” (Perigee Books, $23.95). “There are plenty of creative younger bartenders who know how to mix, but very few who have mastered the lore and demeanor of the old days.”

Mr. McMillian delights in holding court with quasi-educational bar patter. A dedicated amateur historian, a born storyteller and a co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail here, Mr. McMillian stockpiles esoteric tidbits of cocktail history. Every round opens up fresh possibilities for a short lecture on the lasting impact of Prohibition, Hammurabi’s Code or the public drinking spaces of ancient Pompeii.

Mr. McMillian has chosen his tools of the trade carefully. A broad porcelain-headed muddler for pulverizing the sugar cubes in an old-fashioned, a straight wooden one for bruising the mint in a mojito. A flared Pyrex cylinder and stirring rod, more common in chemistry labs than bars, are used for martinis and other clear drinks in which a gentle mingling is preferred to a vigorous shake.

While most bartenders thrive on quick pours and matching tips, Mr. McMillian plies his trade at a leisurely pace, without modern shortcuts. He muddles sugar and bitters for every Sazerac instead of pouring simple syrup. He cuts and squeezes every drop of citrus juice seconds before it goes in the glass. He carves individual slivers of orange and lemon zest for garnishes on sidecars and martinis.

“At this bar, I concentrate on the classics and make them the old way,” he said. “The way made them classics to begin with.”

Mr. McMillian’s way with a julep starts when he crushes ice cubes with a Flintstonian wooden mallet and mounds the powdered ice into a silver cup. It continues as he muddles the mint, pours the bourbon, sweetens it with peach syrup (rather than sugar) and places the cup, encrusted with a thick layer of frost, on a pressed linen napkin.

“Sip it and dream — it is a dream itself,” he said, reaching Smith’s last stanza. “Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.”

Mr. McMillian pushed the mounded dome of bourbon-soaked snow across the bar as he added his own coda:

“Cheers.”

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