The first week of August saw the opening of what has now become one of the newest Houston hotspots: Julep. Alba Huerta’s new cocktail bar on Washington Avenue focuses on the “spirit and spirits of the South,” specifically the most famous Southern cocktail of all: the mint julep. And I have to say, after seeing Huerta's version on the February/March cover of Garden & Gun, I was excited to try it for myself.
1919 Washington Ave.
But what exactly are the origins of the julep? The earliest mention of the drink dates as far back as 1784, when the julep was considered a cure for stomachache. Then in 1803, one John Davis of London published in his book Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States of America that the julep was a “dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.” Other sources maintain that farmers would drink them in the morning as an alternative to coffee (talk about a wake-up call). US senator Henry Clay of Kentucky supposedly introduced the drink to Washington D.C. at the Round Robin Bar in the famous Willard Hotel, thus probably solidifying the association between the drink and the state. However, the julep was not always made with bourbon; the first versions used cognac and even rum. It seems good ol' Kentucky bourbon became the mainstay for the mint julep after the Civil War, as foreign trade in Southern ports was at a low after being devastated by Northern blockades. So Southerners had to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make do with what they had—and that was bourbon.
But even if you could get your hands on bourbon, there was still one key ingredient that made making a mint julep impossible if you didn’t have it: ice. The cost of ice was astronomical and it was considered a sign of great affluence if you had the means to enjoy a mint julep. And that is exactly what Alba Huerta—who runs Julep along with the Clumsy Butcher team that also owns Anvil Bar & Refuge and The Pastry War among other Houston spots—told us when we sat down with her.
Houstonia: The julep is definitely one of the South's most iconic cocktails but it's not the only one. What made you decide to focus on the julep?
Alba Huerta: When you think of the julep you think of the American South. The julep inspires traditions, and it also inspires a drinking culture. A cocktail once used as a vessel for medicine, it's one whose family recipes have been passed down through generations. The julep gained popularity at a time when ice was three times more expensive than milk. It was classified as a "fancy” cocktail, and it inspired a certain finesse to make and to drink due to its chipped ice and precious metal cup. Now, the cocktail has become more accessible, but all of the nostalgia attached to it still remains.
Houstonia: Julep is your second bar to open in Houston. What are you most excited about with Julep, and how is it going to differ from The Pastry War?
AH: As I walk through The Pastry War, it feels like my grandmother's home. The music, the flavors, and the decor are reminiscent of childhood. It's always in my heart. Julep is a culmination of all the things I am now. It feels as if you were walking into my home. I'm excited about all of it.
Houstonia: Do you have a favorite drink on the menu? Besides the julep, of course!
AH: I love them all, but the one I love the most is the Spiced Mint Julep. The drink was inspired by three classic cocktails: the Julep, Tom and Jerry punch, and the Jersey Lighthouse (served on fire in a cocktail coupe—not the most refreshing cocktail to drink in Houston, so making it into a Julep form seemed like the best application). The over proof rum soaked spice ball—filled with allspice, clove and cinnamon—gets lit on fire and dropped into a mint filled julep cup while the rest of the cocktail is built on top. The flame coming out of the julep cup is visually stunning and the aromas of burnt spices fill the air. I love this cocktail.
Houstonia: It's obvious from the drink menu that an enormous amount of research went into crafting each cocktail. Take us through the process.
AH: The process is really just one of learning how to make cocktails in an area where cocktails weren’t prevalent. Being a self-taught bartender and learning how to gather information on my own was crucial to the learning process prior to even thinking about opening up a bar. I spend more time thinking about cocktail development and training than anything else in the world. But through all of my research, I came to see that there were fewer classic cocktails that were born in the South than there were in the North. Social drinking stigmas, lack of ice and resources are the reason for Southern cocktail drinking cultures (outside of New Orleans) not being developed. Becoming a part of the Southern Foodways Alliance gave me a good background in understanding a diverse changing food culture in the South and put into perspective of how I wanted the bar to be. Being influenced by resourceful and genuine people that love what they do has been the pivotal point of my creative process all the way
Houstonia: Why did you decide to focus on seafood for the menu?
AH: Prior to refrigeration, cocktails and seafood went hand in hand, at least in their method of expansion. Ice helped expand the popularity of cocktails and, at the same time, made seafood more widely available because it was able to leave port cities and go into more rural areas still fresh and consumable. Adding a small curated fresh seafood menu to the bar made me feel proud of the food we were serving with our cocktails. Because of the history, it helped round out the identity of the Southern cocktail bar.
Houstonia: The space is absolutely gorgeous! What made you choose this location and what was the inspiration for the decor?
AH: A former uniform factory, it’s a historic building in the Old Sixth Ward District. The “bones” of the building were perfect for the design of Julep. The interior would be sultry and intimate with low ceilings, and plenty of exterior light and the outdoor patio would be high ceilings, galvanized metal, open and rustic. The contrast of the two spaces was impossible to pass up.
Houstonia: Lastly, describe the ultimate Julep experience.
AH: I hope that design of the space and the care I put into the bar program helps make everyone feel welcome and right at home. The attention is in the details and there’s so much content—I hope they come back for more. That was my goal all along.
And so on a recent Thursday evening some girlfriends and I drove on down to Washington Avenue—and drove right past the bar. Perhaps we were used to the usual neon lights that advertise the names of the bars further up the street, but in the dark it was easy to miss. Once we rounded the block it was then obvious why we missed it, as the entrance for Julep is around the back of the building (which is well lit). Though it's been open less than a month, the bar has already attracted a sizable crowd. Each stool at the large copper-topped bar was taken that Thursday night and every seat in the tufted leather booths were filled.
A friendly bartender handed us each two menus, one for drinks and the other for food. Even though we had just come from dinner I was tempted to try a few hand-selected oysters or an order of frites with pimenton aioli. Julep even boasted a $120 seafood tower of lobster, clams, oysters, prawns, and bay scallops as well as a caviar service—also $120—complete with egg, chives, capers, hoe cakes, red onion, crème fraîche, and potato. We then turned our attention to the substantial cocktail menu. The front cover displayed three variations of the drink for which the bar got its name: a classic mint julep, a spiced julep with apple brandy and Jamaican rum, and a sparkling julep with sparkling wine and cognac. You can even take your julep cup home for $20. Additionally, there was a list of wines by the glass, with promises to serve draft beer in the future. The other cocktails on the menu are on the pricier side but with ingredients like house-made cherry bounce, absinthe, and even sunflower seed-infused rum, they are worth every penny. And while the menu might seem daunting—leading one of my friends to quip, “I don’t know what half of this is!”—the bartenders and staff are more than happy to help you out.
I ordered the mint julep although I almost chose the cider and milk punch, a drink I fondly remember my grandmother drinking at the holidays. I definitely chose right. The julep was the perfect drink for a balmy summer evening spent sitting on the rustic patio and listening to Johnny Cash and Nora Jones over the bar's speakers. With two different bourbons, mint, and turbinado and powdered sugar—don’t forget the mound of ice—it was refreshing and smooth. I’m not usually one to choose bourbon, especially in the summer, but this Julep's mint julep will make anyone a believer.