Alba Huerta at Julep has totally nerded out on Southern cocktail history, and many cocktail fans will appreciate it. It's also allowed her and the staff at Julep to create a historically influenced program that will span the rest of this year and take guests on a journey to the past.
When Julep opened last summer, the first mission it had was to make customers comfortable and familiar with its namesake cocktail. "Customers would ask, 'What's a julep? How do you drink it?'" says Huerta. "Our first responsibility was to our namesake cocktail." Even at that point, though, she and bartender Kenny Freeman, who has worked with Huerta for four years starting with Anvil Bar & Refuge, were already talking about what was next and how to further define what the bar is all about.
"We're a Southern regional cocktail bar. What does that mean? We had to define it," explained Huerta. That sent them into research mode. Unfortunately, plantation-era Southerners didn't see drinking as something to be proud of, so finding classic recipes is difficult. Influenced by the Victorian era, drinking happened, but it was often taboo. Regardless, there were certain phases of cocktail evolution. For example, there was bourbon, but it often wasn't palatable. There was no ice at the time, either, so people would mellow it with fruits and spices. That's how Southern Comfort came about.
So, the current menu focuses on rural sensibilities of recycling and repurposing the resources at hand. In this case, Julep is repurposing something of its own -- an accidental note left on its soft opening menu.
"We had a note on the draft that said, "Two Drinks Coming," which meant that two more cocktails would be added. Well, it got typed up like that and people kept asking for a cocktail called 'Two Drinks Coming," which we didn't have," laughed Huerta.
With a need to stick with sensibilities of repurposing, Two Drinks Coming was conceived as two drinks in one. A spent Persian lime shell is used to hold a shot of lime cordial, then carefully balanced atop a cocktail made with "Cuffs And Buttons" (a housemade relative of Southern Comfort, i.e., fruit- and spice-infused high-proof bourbon) and lime juice.
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"Landed Gentry," made with tequila, Suze, Blanc Vermouth, Maraschino, Swiss Absinthe and Agave seems at first glance to have nothing to do with the South, but Huerta explains that's kind of the point. Not everyone in the rural South was poor, and those who were not aspired to own foreign things and experiences that seemed exotic and cultured. A big ice cube with mustard flowers in it is a nod to the time when the most valuable pieces of ice, hand-carved from natural bodies of water, contained flowers.
Julep is itself making a big point of using the best resources at hand. It turned out to be a glorious winter for citrus, so Julep bought a lot of it and used it for things like The Cajun Fig, a drink that has nothing to do with figs. It uses kumquats, an Asian fruit that grows great both here and in Louisiana, hence the nickname. The kumquats are incorporated into cream soda, then mixed with Demerara Rum and housemade citrus bitters.
That is only part of this quarter's menu. Future menus will evolve concepts such as "Port Cities," "Trading With the Enemy" (which will have to do with Northern influences on the South) and "Drinking Societies." The Drinking Societies menu has a lot to do with celebrations and will kick in around the holidays.
The Rural South menu will be in effect until the end of spring.