Any place that employs the “Crown Julep of Natchez” is a place you want to go. Monmouth Historic Inn drips with that sassy blend of elegance, gentility, and mischief for which the South is famous – but the storied characters inhabiting this gracious white-columned antebellum mansion are the true culture-bearers of its 200-year-old secrets. Roosevelt Owens is one of them. His talents are many, but his mint juleps are legendary – and downright sacred to his countless devotees.
Nicknamed the ‘Crown Julep’ of Natchez, (which is saying a lot given the dozens of magnolia-strewn Southern mansions serving mint juleps in the area), Roosevelt has reigned over the lounge of Monmouth for 28 years now. As the South’s most notorious cocktail, the mint julep is the opulent counterpart to backwoods moonshine. Both personify Mississippi in folklore and tall tales, but the julep drips from the pages of Southern novels as if the drink itself establishes a sense of place. That certainly rings true at Monmouth Inn.
Novelist Nathaniel Hawkins could easily have been talking about Roosevelt and the Monmouth Historic Inn back in 1862 when ruminating on the Willard Hotel in Washington DC:
Occasionally you talk with a man whom you have never before heard of, and are struck by the brightness of a thought, and fancy that there is more wisdom hidden among the obscure than is anywhere revealed among the famous. You adopt the universal habit of the place, and call for a mint-julep …
Politicians, celebrities, writers, and governors make their way to Monmouth Historic Inn, including recent guests Dan Aykroyd and Mathew McConaughey – and most know to beeline straight for the lounge to meet the Crown Julep himself. He came up with his prized cocktail recipe (which involves seven secret ingredients slow-boiled for 25 minutes and topped with bourbon) while watching the Kentucky Derby on television. He eventually earned the designation of honorary Kentucky Colonel, explaining that “The governor of Kentucky says my mint julep is better than any he’s had in his own state.”
But Roosevelt, named after President Teddy Roosevelt who grew mint in the White House garden and made his own mint juleps, is quick to point out that it’s the ordinary folks who collectively make Monmouth Historic Inn the extraordinary place it is.
I’ve even had one man drive all the way from Alabama to try one of my juleps, drink it, and then turn around and drive back to Alabama, he said.
An Emblem of Hospitality
But a drink is just a drink, right? Not so. If you tap into the symbolism of the mint julep in this deeply storied part of America, it becomes evident that it’s the perfect vehicle for the story of Monmouth Historic Inn itself. Monmouth was built in 1819 and owned for 100 years by John A. Quitman, Governor of Mississippi and Brigadier General during the Mexican-American War. Almost 80 years after Quitman died at his beloved Monmouth, another pair of military commanders waxed poetic about the role of mint juleps in Southern life. Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. explained to Major General William D. Connor in 1937:
Making a mint julep is … a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, an emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of a happy and congenial thought.
That is, in essence, the spirit of today’s Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens. Nancy Reuther, owner of Monmouth along with her husband Warren, tells of the many couples who’ve had proposals, wedding vows and anniversaries in the gracious suites, cottages, carriage-house rooms and 26 lush acres of gardens at the inn, as well as those who’ve come for other poignant life moments. “I have one regular gentleman that when he lost his father, he knew he had to come to Monmouth and reflect on his father’s life,” Nancy says.
Where Noble Minds Travel
Longevity is part of the magnetizing pull of Monmouth Historic Inn, with travelers from across the globe returning year after year to stroll on canopied paths through moss-draped live oaks, cedars, magnolias, pecan groves, and blossoming white dogwoods. Caladiums, snapdragons, confederate jasmine, and ornamental peppers frame lily-clad ponds, gazebos, terraces, bridges, arbors, pergolas, and fountains.
Morning strollers make their way to the Garden Room for breakfast prepared by another Monmouth fixture, Miss Mary, who’s been cooking breakfast there for 30 years, much longer than the Reuthers have owned the inn.
The guests love to meet and talk to Miss Mary,” Nancy explains. And then there’s Hal, our bellhop, who’s been turning down the beds and bringing water and ice to the rooms for 28 years.
Nancy and Warren bought the inn in 2012, rescuing it from the fate of many grand architectural masterpieces that time and civil war never fully healed. But they had a vision, and Nancy stays in a suite on the grounds, pouring her life and energy into honoring the legacy of those whose stories began and ended in that spot over the span of 200 years.
Monmouth has been home to slaves – Aunt Dicey, Isaac, Old Sarah and many more – as well as tenant farmers, American statesmen, business leaders and enterprising women whose lives are a testament to the nation’s development. Monmouth was even looted and occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War in 1863.
More than a few ghost stories circulate the halls of Monmouth, and as usual, all tales lead back to Roosevelt Owens and his notorious mint juleps. It’s said that Roosevelt has the ultimate ghost story about Governor Quitman, who died at Monmouth – but tradition is that the only way you can hear it is from his own lips in the lounge of Monmouth Historic Inn and Gardens. Sipping a mint julep, of course.
A Few Tall Tales of Perfect Mint Juleps
Kentucky humorist Irving Cobb had his own ideas about the Civil War and mint juleps, which he boldly proclaimed in 1936:
Well, down our way we’ve always had a theory that the Civil War was not brought on by Secession or Slavery or the State’s Right issue. These matters contributed to the quarrel, but there is a deeper reason. It was brought on by some Yankee coming down south and putting nutmeg in a julep. So our folks just up and left the Union flat.
Literary pen-pushers Charles Dickens and Washington Irving shared a bucolic hotel moment over mint juleps in 1842, with Dickens recalling later:
“Some unknown admirer of his books and mine sent to the hotel a most enormous mint julep, wreathed with flowers. We sat, one on either side of it, with great solemnity (it filled a respectably-sized round table), but the solemnity was of very short duration. It was quite an enchanted julep that carried us among innumerable people and places that we both knew. The julep held out far into the night, and my memory never saw him afterwards otherwise than as bending over it, with his straw, with an attempted air of gravity (after some anecdote involving some wonderfully droll and delicate observation of character), and then as his eye caught mine, melting into that captivating laugh of his, which was the brightest and best I have ever heard. ”