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My Bipartisan Mint Julep is the perfect Kentucky Derby drink for a polarized America

My updated version of my late father’s favorite Kentucky Derby drink from my Anchorage, Ky., childhood finished only third place in a Brooklyn cocktail competition.

I figured if I couldn’t win the popular vote, I’d go national with something everyone might raise a glass to this week: bipartisanship.

A colleague in the Manhattan legal department where I work helped me apply for a trademark at the US Patent and Trademark Office: Class 033: Alcoholic beverages (except beer).

The Bipartisan Mint Julep™ issued in April — just in time for Saturday’s Run for the Roses.

Off to the races with a US-sanctioned name for Dad’s concoction: a classic swill of simple syrup, mint leaves and Kentucky bourbon. 

Plus my bipartisan kicker — a shot of bourbon distilled in New York (or 48 other states). 

At the contest, I’d heralded my drink as “An elixir for today’s America! An antidote to polarized times! A toast to E pluribus unum.”

I’d bragged to the mixologists of the trendy smoked elderflower old fashioned and skinny margarita who’d bested me: “My third-place concoction’s gonna heal America — or at least New York!” 

Caroline Koster

But it wasn’t just a gimmick. Truly, I wanted to bottle up childhood memories of Dad’s kinfolk, fishing buddies, fellow teachers and neighbors — Democrat, Republican and independent — circled up all summer in strappy 1970s lawn chairs sipping juleps crafted from spearmint growing wild in the yard muddled with whatever hooch was on sale at Jolly Cholly’s liquor shack out by the railroad tracks.

I’d hear them arguing everything from Bible verses to inflation to desegregation to school taxes to war.

And laughing. Somehow that concoction mellowed the rancor and lowered the stakes of backyard debate. Perhaps this too could go national.

Still, when my trademark issued, it wasn’t all kumbaya. The PTO warned: Use it in commerce or lose it. I had six months. 

Easy, I thought. But was it? Turns out it’s challenging to get people to take a sip.

I casually mentioned my two-state tonic to a Bluegrass liquor-company executive. “Ridiculous,” he said. “Our bourbon is perfect as is.” A Brooklyn distiller reacted similarly: “Nope. Our drink stands alone.” 

But history said persevere. Bluegrass Sen. Henry Clay — nicknamed “the great compromiser” — allegedly introduced the mint julep to both parties at Washington, DC’s Willard Hotel in 1850.

He knew partisan conflict. Kentucky was a Civil War border state. Both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis were born there.

If he could bring a mint julep to that mix, so could I. I bet somebody was muddling a few that night it took 15 votes for the House to elect a new speaker.

Caroline Koster
Caroline Koster

My drink channeled another bipartisan moment in bourbon history — when Sen. Mitch McConnell invited Sen. Chuck Schumer to speak in Louisville in 2018.

Schumer accepted, toting along local spirits. McConnell famously quipped, “There’s no such thing as Brooklyn bourbon.” Everyone laughed.

Dad, who stashed homegrown mint and spirits in his luggage when arriving at LaGuardia to visit his grandchildren, would have loved that.

The senators’ boozy summit seemed promising. But polarization and uncivil discourse have worsened.

Americans of both parties find political dialogue with those they disagree with increasingly fraught, with 6 in 10 adults reporting stressful conversations vs. 50% two years earlier, a 2021 study reported.

Could my drink help? Worth a try.

The PTO examiner emailed in January. “Mint julep” was common, “merely describ[ing] the flavor of your beverages.” But “bipartisan” alongside was unique and trademarkable. Would I compromise and “disclaim” — PTO lingo for forgoing exclusive rights — the stand-alone phrase “mint julep” to trademark the specific bipartisan version? 

I agreed, deciding I was setting a metaphorical example. To get my trademark, I’d have to share. 

Meanwhile, I’d become president of the Kentuckians of New York, a fellowship organization “bridging the Bluegrass and the Big Apple since 1904.”

In its heyday, we’d hosted famous Kentuckian speakers like Diane Sawyer, basketball greats and Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.

mint julep
Caroline Koster

Now we planned the first Kentucky Derby watch party post-pandemic at a 45th Street pub.

Surely they’d serve my drink, I thought, adding my trademarked cocktail to the invitation. “What on Earth?” said a fellow board member. “Forget it,” said another. “We serve Kentucky bourbon.”

Would my kids, born in New York but frequent flyers to their grandfather’s backyard, try it?

“Well, are you treating?” asked the one who’s recently paying Williamsburg rent. 

I know my cocktail alchemy is no cure for the disconnect that ails us.

Americans increasingly view persons in the other party as more immoral, dishonest and lazy, a poll last year found.

Some people don’t care much about a two-minute horse race or a silly booze competition. Fewer still will ever file a trademark.

But we are all guilty of seeking a magic cure, catchy title or sound bite rather than doing the hard work of compromise for a bipartisan agenda.

Yet each national spectacle where strangers gather can be a reminder to have a braver conversation, to take a little sip of hope, to place a tiny bet on common ground.

It’s just a drink, after all. Why not try it?

Caroline Koster
Caroline Koster

I finally find a taker. My cousin Leslie, a Georgia special-education teacher and military mom with a dog named Julep whose trip to a Kansas air force base was canceled when her son was deployed overseas, will divert to the Big Apple this weekend.

She’ll watch the race with me like when we were kids — swapping a Kentucky backyard for a pub near Grand Central.

We’re a long way from those 1970s lawn chairs, but she’s a good conversationalist.

I’m imagining her chatting up New Yorkers and waving a bipartisan mint julep Saturday. A modern female Henry Clay.

I call the bar to check the mint supply. “Will you mix bourbon from Kentucky and New York?”

“Lady, if you’ve got the green, we’ll make anything you want,” said a perfect New York City bartender, who did not mean mint.

Cheers to that. E pluribus unum! Excelsior!

Caroline Aiken Koster is a New York City attorney and writer.

This story originally appeared on NYPost

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