I watch George Lee behind the bar as he assembles Southside after Southside, pouring in first the Mount Gay rum (or the occasional vodka or gin), then a few ounces of mix, before filling the glass with ice and adding a splash of club soda. Stirred with a beautiful sterling Kirk Stieff iced-tea spoon and topped with a wedge of lime, the drink is a cool shade of green, its glass beginning to bead with condensation as he hands it over.
I’d love to have the recipe.
A magical combination of mint, lemon and sweetener, the Southside mix exudes East Coast country club cachet. At Green Spring Valley Hunt Club, where the Southside has been served since 1929, only the head bartenders have been privy to its contents; the recipe being passed down behind closed doors.
George Lee, who hails from Cockeysville, first came across the Southside recipe in a bar book published by a Long Island club. He got his start in the drink-pouring business in 1939 as a butler for a Baltimore family. Four years later, he began a 25-year tenure at the Ten Mile House, a tavern on Reisterstown Road that would close its doors in 1967.
“I made up a batch for the Ten Mile House,” Lee recalls about his first foray into Southsides. “Folks didn’t go wild for it right away; it caught on slowly.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Lee began moonlighting at Green Spring, where he became head bartender in 1969. The 80-year-old mix master isn’t much of a drinking man himself; the occasional beer or highball is enough for him. Since his retirement in 1985, he has spent much of his time preparing Southside mix for sale to his bartending clients. The elixir travels in 32-ounce lemon juice bottles and keeps for up to eight months in the refrigerator.
Of course, Mr. Lee also continues to work private parties, often with fellow Green Spring alum Alvin Marshall, or with his two sons-in-law.
“Whenever I organize a party, the first call I make is to George Lee,” raves interior designer Stiles Colwill, who remembers Lee from his childhood days at Green Spring. “George is a fixture. He’s an old-fashioned gentleman, more a host than a bartender, a treasured element of any party.”
One hour— and one Southside— into this party, I feel I’ve made a new friend in George Lee. We’ve talked about our families. I’ve learned that his wife of 54 years died a few years ago, and that his daughter and her family now share his Woodlawn house with him. We’ve shared a few laughs, and talked about the elements of a well-stocked bar. But what I really want to know is, will he share the recipe?
I get a sly smile from Mr. Lee. “I don’t really give the Southside recipe away, you understand,” he tells me gently. Oh well, a girl can always dream.