In Baltimore, we do things differently. And then we get ornery about it. Sip no further than the Southside, which the rest of the world prepares with mint, sugar, lemon or lime juice, and gin. Somehow, Baltimore's horsey set instead hitched its station wagon to rum (Mount Gay, if you please). This mutant Southside has become the traditional tailgate tipple of Maryland's steeplechase season, culminating in late-April's Hunt Cup. Local recipe rivalries have grown as spirited as the races.
To be fair, the Southside is one of the most contentious drinks in cocktaildom. Its disputed origins reflect the inherent danger of chronicling history from a barstool. According to one oft-repeated account, the name dates back to Prohibition-era Chicago, whose northside gangs cornered the black market's best bootleg spirits. To compensate, southside gangsters doctored their "bathtub" gin with sugar, citrus, and mint to make it more palatable.
I like hooch with a dash of disrepute, but another prominent theory traces the drink to the patrician Southside Sportsmen's Club, a 19th-century hunting lodge on Long Island known for its variety of mint-infused cocktails. Some Midwesterners dismiss this story as typical East Coast snobbery, but it may better explain how the cocktail became a country club staple in the mid-Atlantic. Whatever the Southside's pedigree, why do Baltimoreans make it with rum? I've encountered no explanation more convincing than native perverseness.
In a 2007 column on local Southside variations, Sun writer Rob Kasper interviewed octogenarian bartenders at the Green Spring Valley Hunt Club and the Elkridge Club, who employed distinct (and partly secret) formulations. Devotees of each could get vehement about their preferences: Swearing his allegiance to Green Spring's version, a prominent interior designer declared "All the rest are pond water." Competition between the clubs-and a few other contenders-continues.
Since we're free-weekly drinking buddies, I'll happily divulge my recipe. Make simple syrup, heating equal parts sugar and water until the sugar dissolves, and cool. (Syrup adds body and smoother flavor than plain sugar.) In a shaker, gently bruise six mint leaves. Add an ounce each of lime juice and syrup, two-and-a-half ounces of gin-the right liquor, dammit!-and a dash or two of bitters. Shake vigorously with ice, in effect muddling the mint, and strain into a rocks glass over fresh ice. Garnish with mint. Lots of Southsiders top it off with club soda. They may not know it, but if they've used rum, they're really drinking a mojito.