Yes, it’s time once again for our annual salute to classic cinema and this year’s TCM Film Fest. The 2017 edition was a bittersweet affair this year due to the passing of the network’s universally beloved host, Robert Osborne. Mr. Osborne was a unique figure in the annals of cinephiles and movie buffs in that, though he never looked old enough for this to be true, he had begun his career as an actor in the old studio contract system of Hollywood’s classic-era heyday. So, I guess we should go ahead and dedicate the first of our cocktails to him.
We’ll start with the first film I caught this year, William Wyler’s 1938 “Jezebel,” starring Bette Davis as a fiery, self-centered belle who manages to muck everything up between her and fiancé Henry Fonda with her acts of wanton rebellion. On the one hand, there’s no getting around the idea that Davis’ character is set-up as an antiheroine not so different from Scarlet O’Hara of “Gone with the Wind” fame, a role many fans felt was tailor made for Davis. (This film was regarded as something of a consolation prize, though it’s quite possibly the better film.) On the other hand, looking at things through a more contemporary and more feminist lens, it’s really about a woman driven to assert some power in a world ruled by males, who start all the wars and make all the rules.
When she finally breaks one rule too many, it’s by wearing a red dress to a ball. Yup, in pre-bellum New Orleans, an unmarried woman wearing a red dress in public was enough to start a chain of events that could lead to death for anyone foolish enough to take a strong position on the lady’s honor. It was really the worst thing in the world to wear that dress. And, yeah, these people all own slaves. So much for priorities.
Still, I have at least some grudging respect for anyone who takes a dangerous stand on behalf of their own freedom, though it might be better if they fought on behalf of the rights of others. Nevertheless, in honor of the rule-breaking protagonist and her portrayers – not just Bette Davis, but the great, understated anti-auteur director William Wyler and a trio of writers that included undisputed auteur-to-be John Huston – I propose an incorrect version of a legit mixed drink classic. Mint Juleps, a longtime Southern favorite, are quaffed throughout “Jezebel.” Therefore, Jezebel the drink will brazenly break julep convention. Hopefully, no dueling-related tragedy will result if you try making this one at home.
2 ounces rye whiskey
1 1/2 teaspoons agave syrup
1 splash plain water
1-2 dashes Angostura bitters
1-2 fresh mint sprigs
1 watermelon spear (damnably inappropriate and therefore essential garnish)
Build in an Old Fashioned/rocks glass. Add the whiskey, syrup, water and bitters to the glass. Stir to dissolve the syrup. Next, add the mint sprig(s) and very gently muddle. Even in this rebellious drink, you don’t want to smash the mint and release its more bitter flavors. Next, add plenty of ice — let’s be lazy rebels and not bother to crack the ice — and stir until its good and cold. Sip and contemplate the danger of beauty and the beauty of danger.
It’s important to understand here that a traditional Mint Julep is made with bourbon, so my use of rye, which typically is slightly less sweet and more peppery in flavor, is fairly heretical. Agave syrup is, of course, dangerously Latino compared to the usual sugar or simple syrup, and bitters of any kind are usually not involved. Scandalous! In any case, the result is almost like drinking a peppermint flavored julep that’s ever so slightly sweeter than normal. My in-house guinea pig and I liked it.
Anyhow, my ryes for this one were 90 proof Rebel Yell (!) Small Batch and 100 proof Hochstadter’s Straight Rye Whiskey. I leaned very slightly in favor of the latter; it might have been the vanilla notes as well as the higher proof that won me over. If you’re going to be a rebel, you might as well go all the way.