Friday, May 6, 2016
Hey, Mint Julep. Your One-Day-a-Year Is Here
If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely is it associated with the Kentucky Derby, which is tomorrow, May 7, at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Since the Derby is always run on the first Saturday in May, this is the latest it can be.
Many people misunderstand the mint julep. It is not a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more of a shooter. A mint julep should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and turn the drink watery.
The julep is at its peak of flavor the instant it is completed. Every moment that passes thereafter diminishes its quality. There should be just enough liquid in the glass for one or two good swallows.
Taken appropriately in a suitable context the mint julep is delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.
Secret: many Kentuckians on Derby Day have one julep, then switch back to what they usually drink, which is usually Bud Light.
As for a recipe, here is the simplest one I know that is authentic, tasty, and easy. First, muddle some fresh mint leaves with one tablespoon of powdered sugar and a like amount of water. There are some specialized tools for doing this, but a spoon works fine.
How much mint? If you have plenty, use it liberally. It's hard to use too much.
“Muddle” just means work everything together until the mint leaves have been crushed and the sugar is dissolved, forming a kind of paste. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. Stir vigorously for a few seconds. Garnish with more fresh mint leaves. Serve and drink immediately.
To make multiple juleps at the same time, have your ice and bourbon ready. Then in a bowl make enough muddle (the mint, sugar, water mixture) for one round. Place some of the muddle mixture into the bottom of each glass. Fill each glass with ice, bourbon and mint leaf garnish, stir, and serve.
Although there are various ways to get mint flavor into a drink, the use of fresh mint is essential for an authentic mint julep experience. The fresher the better. Just-picked is best. The stuff is easy to grow.
As for glassware, a sterling silver julep cup is the traditional container. They hold between 9 and 12 ounces and cost several hundred dollars each. Silverplate and pewter are also common. A metal glass has some obvious advantages.
The julep in general and the mint julep in particular are both very old, much older even than the 141-year-old Kentucky Derby. John Milton mentions the “cordial Julep” in a poem from 1673. It or similar words occur in many languages. It first appears in English in 1400 and means a syrup of water and sugar.
The mint julep is specifically American and was originally intended as an 'eye opener' to start the day. In an era when most distilled spirits were unaged and nasty, concoctions like the mint julep were invented to make the green whiskey more palatable by overpowering it with sweetness and masking it with aromatic mint.
In Kentucky, the julep is always made with bourbon whiskey but in the Old Dominion (Virginia), rye whiskey is preferred.
Each year, some mixologists try their hand at mint julep variations. Charles Joly has one this year that uses Woodford Reserve Bourbon and fresh mint, and gets its extra sweetness from Koval ginger liqueur and honey syrup. Then he rounds it out with a little lemon juice. He calls it the Prospector's Julep.