Read this book: “Julep: Southern Cocktails Refashioned” by Alba Huerta & Marah Stets (Lorena Jones Books/Ten Speed Press, $24.99)
By Wendell Brock
The Mint Julep has been the defining cocktail of Houston bartender Alba Huerta. She named her bar and her first book after the historically evocative drink synonymous with the Kentucky Derby, bourbon and mint.
Though the Julep is explored here in no less than seven drinks, including a peachy Georgia Mint Julep and a Sparkling Julep made with Gamay wine, Huerta doesn’t stop there.
The Mexico native and owner of Houston’s Julep is a bartender with a strong and inquiring sense of history and place. Nearly all of the 65 cocktail recipes included here speak to the South’s complicated past and its dynamic present.
The Creole Crusta, for instance, is made with Jamaican Demerara rum, hints of spice and orange, and smoked chili bitters. It is served in a delicate tulip glass encrusted in benne seeds, which were brought to America by slaves.
The Tequila Toddy evokes Huerta’s homeland: It’s made with Mexico’s most famous spirit and cinnamon tea, which her mother gave her when she was a kid to settle her stomach.
In 2015, Huerta, who serves on the board of the Southern Foodways Alliance and has been deeply influenced by its director, John T. Edge, launched a series of cocktail menus intended to “explore Southern heritage through cocktails.”
“I knew that by the end of the year, we’d be talking about the Civil War,” she writes, but I didn’t want to begin there.”
So she started with the landscape, using notions of “The Rural South” and “The Saltwater South” to usher us into graver topics.
Cajun Fig Soda, from the agrarian chapter, is a riff on a Louisiana farmer’s name for kumquats; he calls them Cajun figs. She describes the drink as “essentially an orange cream soda highball,” fashioned from rum. The Eudora pays tribute to Mississippi writer Eudora Welty’s love of celery soda; it is built with Manzanilla sherry, a little London dry gin, fresh celery juice, lemon and turbinado syrup (which Huerta often favors over simple syrup made with granulated sugar) and topped with sparkling mineral water.
Much like the menu at Julep, Huerta’s namesake book gives generous treatment to the cocktails. It closes with the Hurricane, the Ramos Gin Fizz and the Kentucky Club Margarita. And because every cocktail deserves a nibble, there are recipes for Julep’s Deviled Eggs, Pimento Cheese, Crab-Curry Salad and Lobster Ambrosia. (Julep has a small, gallery kitchen, so these snacks are simple and easy to put together.)
“Julep” will appeal to cocktail geeks, I think, more than beginners, and most of these recipes may require you to make a trip to the liquor store to invest in a bottle or two you have never heard of. It is lush and beautiful, spiked with humor, nostalgia, and, for a book about booze, a bracing pour of truth, honesty and substance.
Wendell Brock is an Atlanta-based food and culture writer, frequent AJC contributor and winner of a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award for journalism. Follow him on Twitter (@MrBrock) and Instagram (@WendellDavidBrock).