During the scorching hot 1935 graduation at West Point when President Franklin Roosevelt and his Chief of Staff, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur were visiting the school for the commencement there occurred an infamous incident which led to a most beautiful exchange of letters regarding the proper way to make a mint julep.
The School Superintendent, one Major General William D. Connor, a teetotaler but striving to be a conscientious host, knew that President Roosevelt “liked his liquor red”. He enlisted his school Commandant, neighbor and native Kentuckian, Lieutenant Colonel Simon Bolivar Buckner J.R. to help with the preparations of appropriate drinks. Mint Juleps were decided to be that.
According to legend, the waitstaff actually had to cut the President off (delicately) and when being offered another julip, General MacArthur was quoted as saying “No, thank you. I think I will stop now while I still know who is President.” The smashing success led Major General Connor to write to Lieutenant Colonel Buckner a few years later for the recipe. The request was:
My dear Buckner:-
We are very much like the man I read about whose family were teetotalers and would not have any liquor in the house. His uncle, that is, his mother’s brother, was quite different and quite profane. The uncle said that wouldn’t you know it for a damned perversity of inanimate things that mint should grow like a weed and spread everywhere in Mary’s garden, when the only damn use she ever made of it was for tea and jellies, whereas he, an honest Christian gentleman, who could have used square yards of it for an honest drink known as mint julep could not make it grow in his garden at all. The similarity rests in the fact that our mint bed grows with leaps and bounds and we are going to make use of it at graduation in June.
The fame of the mint juleps that you served the day The President was with us has travelled far and wide, so that even the echoes have made a resounding noise in the House of Connor. I tried to establish my own position in the matter by alleging that I made and served mint juleps to enthusiastic groups even before you entered West Point, but again, the “prophet was not without honor save in his own country,” and my definite instructions were to get your recipe for mint juleps and, furthermore, to use your recipe and not try any of my own homely recipes. Knowing that the ability to manufacture a mint julep is no less precious and the pride in it no less great than the ability to make a good cocktail, I, of course, am sore as a pup at the lack of marital confidence, but peace is such a lovely thing that I shall be eternally grateful to you, or even for a longer period, if you will send me on the recipe that you prescribed for President Roosevelt.
I warn you that if you hold out on me and leave out any important ingredient, I shall be accused by the dominant element in our family of having, through jealousy, used my own recipe, and in view of our long friendship, I am trusting you not to interfere with or upset the entente cordiale that still exists between the greater and the lesser isles of our archipelago, notwithstanding the fact that I lay this largely to a fatal weakness in my wife’s otherwise stern character.
If you will send me the recipe, it is just possible that I might let you help make the juleps, in which case I could not stop you from drinking one or two. Otherwise, I think that the entire brew is to be held sacred to the Class of 1897 which we are having at luncheon after the graduation exercises.
With warm regards to you both and thanks in advance for the pure and unexpurgated recipe, believe me, as ever,
Wm D. Connor
Colonel Buckner’s response was:
My dear General Connor,
Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He replied that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn’t look like an elephant.
The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.
So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:
Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon, distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.
In a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush.
In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outsides of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint.
Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glittering coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.
When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden, where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.
Being overcome by thirst, I can write no further.
S.B. Buckner, Jr.
Much appreciation to the Buckner home and website