By Dave Pezza
Welcome back to Home Stretch, assuaging those Wednesday blues with tunes and booze. This week's edition features two southern classics that set the mood for fast-approaching summer nights: mint juleps and Steve Earle’s 1996 country-rock album “I Feel Alright.”
I’ve been looking for the right album to pair with mint juleps ever since finally making one on my own during the most recent Kentucky Derby. Mint juleps have always struck me as fancy, high-maintenance cocktails, similar to mojitos. Perhaps this stigma comes from its unmistakable association with that famous Louisville–based race. But it is surprisingly easy to make, and impressively refreshing on a hot and muggy evening.
This week’s album, “I Feel Alright” by Steve Earle, is just as refreshing, not to mention relaxing. Its laid-back, ‘90s-style country rock calls to mind Tom Petty’s “Wallflowers,” and is damn near perfect for dropping the needle, kicking off your shoes, and sipping a sweet and minty bourbon-based cocktail.
What you’ll need:
- 2 oz. Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 1 cup of sugar
- 1 cup of water
- Six to eight fresh mint leaves
- Crushed or shaved ice
- Pewter cup or highball glass
Promoted at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby since 1938, the mint julep is a southern mainstay. The cocktail is essentially a way to sweeten and chill bourbon with a little bit of flair. Even if you’re not a big bourbon fan, you’ll find mint juleps sweet and mild.
The same goes for Earle’s sixth album. He possesses a suave veneer that protects a vulnerable storyteller whose style is steeped in equal parts blues, folk, and country. This combo should put a smile on your face and ease you through the week’s final pitfalls.
1 oz. of simple syrup/”I Feel Alright”
You can buy pre-made simple syrup at many liquor stores, but it’s easy to make, and it’ll last a month or so in the fridge, saving you a step in the near future. Grab a cup of sugar and a cup of water and throw them in a medium saucepan. Set heat to medium.
While the syrup is heating up, I suggest starting with the album's title track, “I Feel Alright.” What a jam! If you are a fan of “The Wire,” you might remember this song from the Season 2 finale. A quintessential Steve Earle hit, “I Feel Alright" is smooth, a little ballsy, and shoots bravado through you like a stiff shot.
Bring the sugar and water to a boil, then simmer for three minutes or until the sugar is fully dissolved. Let that cool while you prepare the rest of the cocktail.
Six to eight fresh mint leaves/”Hard-Core Troubadour”
Flying high from track one? Prepare for a one-two punch with “Hard-Core Troubadour.” It’s a head-bobbing, Latin-tinged rock song that keeps the easy-going feeling from the album’s opener. Take the pewter cup or highball glass and add about four or five mint leaves. Lightly bruise the leaves with a muddler or spoon. Try not to mash; the idea here is to only bruise them, allowing the mint flavor to slowly seep into the bourbon.
You should be able to find fresh mint at the local supermarket, but may I suggest growing some your own. A number of terrific summer drinks are made with mint, and it grows easily in your garden or even in a small pot on the windowsill.
Crush or shaved ice/”Poor Boy”
Ice is important in this drink. It needs to be crushed or shaved so that it melts quicker than cubes would. This slowly waters down the bourbon, sweetening the cocktail the more you drink it. If you have a blender, put in two handfuls of ice and blend until crushed. Even better, but not super convenient, pick or shave ice off of an ice cube if you have one ready in your freezer.
“Poor Boy” is the album's middle track, and it alters the album’s tempo to an upbeat, rockabilly tempo. The album’s best ballads follow this tune, and “Poor Boy” attempts to ease you into the heavier mood. Disclaimer: listening to this song has been known to bring about fits of swaying, finger snapping, and unstoppable foot tapping.
Bourbon/”Billy and Bonnie”
I’ve saved the album’s most folk/country song for the bourbon. Earle tells the story of an unlikely couple that keeps the thrill of their love alive by breaking bad. Bourbon shares a similar story with anyone who has ever imbibed that sweet, sweet brown liquid.
While shaking your ass to “Billy and Bonnie,” grab the Kentucky straight bourbon whiskey. Please don’t use your top-notch bourbon here! Jim Beam White Label, Wild Turkey 81, Four Roses, or even Old Grand-Dad (if you’re feeling squirrely), are all acceptable mixing bourbons. Maker’s Mark is usually considered the end of the line when mixing bourbon. Any higher quality bourbons should be consumed straight.
Add 1 oz. of the now cooled simple syrup to the cup/glass, the shaved ice, 2 oz. of bourbon, and the remaining mint leaves for garnish. Mix with a spoon and take her easy. The album will play out with some bluesy tunes as the ice melts, mixing with the whiskey, mint, and sugar into a refreshing and potent remedy for your Wednesday night blues.