Most craft cocktail bars change up their menu according to the season. But newish addition Julep in Houston shines light on the history of the South through its quarterly drinks lists. "It’s a very Southern thing to tell a story. Also it’s a way of embodying the story through a menu that shows how Southern food and cocktail culture began," says owner and drink creator Alba Huerta, who opened the bar eight months ago after working at classic cocktail den Anvil.
The reason I structure the menus this way is to tell the story and define a Southern regional cocktail bar from a liquid perspective ...
When Julep debuted last summer, Huerta focused on the bar's namesake drink. And while there's still a Julep section, one will also find other Southern classics like the Vieux Carré and the Hurricane. But it's the rotating seasonal options where Huerta shows off her creativity and affinity for the South's history of food and drink. Her newest menu, which rolled out February 17, is dedicated to preservation and is inspired by the rural South around the 1800s when resources were limited because of transportation and distance.
Two Drinks Coming, a bourbon cocktail, calls for sun-dried lime cordial and cured lime, while Farmhouse Gibson mixes pickled onions with mustard seeds and juniper plus gin, vermouth, sherry vinaigrette and orange bitters.
"The reason I structure the menus this way is to tell the story and define a Southern regional cocktail bar from a liquid perspective," Huerta explains. "My goal for the menu series is to create a larger perspective on drinking culture in the South told through a series of stories, good times and cocktails that are delicious and memorable."
Before launching Julep, Huerta spent two years developing the bar's theme, turning to old cookbooks for recipe inspiration and seeking guidance from the Southern Foodways Alliance, a nonprofit organization that chronicles the South’s food culture.
Her Rural South menu proved especially challenging to build since distilled spirits, because of their longer shelf life, were considered unfashionable during the 1800s. Back then beer was regarded as a status symbol and only the rich could afford a drink that expired quickly. Regardless, Huerta zeroed in on symbolic ingredients and cooking methods and expanded those ideas into a set of thoughtfully constructed cocktails steeped in Southern history.
Julep's Rural South intoxicants
Snake Bit Sprout: This chamomile-infused gin drink topped with cider draws inspiration both from the Snakebite beer cocktail (cider plus stout), and chamomile's use in the South as a treatment for snake bites.
Cajun Fig Soda: Fig trees are the most prominent tree in the South. But when Southeast Asian settlers introduced kumquats to areas around Louisiana, Southerners weren’t sure what to call the fruit. The name "kumquat" was foreign to them. But, they knew that the tree sprouted the same way as a fig tree. So they referred to kumquat trees as Cajun Fig.
Two Drinks Coming: Cuffs & Buttons is a mellowed whiskey invented in New Orleans in the 1870s and a precursor to Southern Comfort. Since whiskey barrels often changed many hands during transport during the 19th century, oftentimes the whiskey would become watered down as people stole sips of the booze and added water back in to make up for the lost liquid. Other times merchants intentionally diluted the spirit to create a more appealing and familiar flavor for their clients. Also, in order to create a consistent product, merchants occasionally added herbs and fruit to the liquor. This cocktail is basically SoCo and lime with a shot of whiskey served atop in a spent lime shell.
Landed Gentry: To symbolize the small percentage of the Southern population during the Victorian era who were wealthy landowners with an taste for French fashions, Huerta used French bitters and aperitifs. A large format ice cube with a frozen mustard flower is a nod to those days when ice was harvested from freshwater ponds or lakes and often contained flowers.
Cherry Bounce Sour: The Cherry Bounce is the byproduct of fortifying cherries in order to extend their shelf life and the recipe comes from Charleston Receipts, a cookbook first published in 1950. This sour is the most popular cocktail on the menu and was the only house drink carried over from Julep's opening menu.
Farmhouse Gibson: Huerta wanted to put a Gibson on the menu since there’s currently a Gibson culture happening in Houston. Plus, she felt as though the cocktail would go well with Julep’s seafood program. So, to tie it in with the theme of preservation, Huerta employed the Southern method of pickling. She first pickles pearl onions with mustard seeds and juniper berries and then adds a little splash of the pickling juice to the cocktail.
Huerta's next list, which launches this summer, draws inspiration from port cities and will incorporate spices and spirits like Madeira and Cognac. Fall drinks will be dedicated to Northern influences on the South, while next winter's menu is impacted by drinking societies.