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.


Doug Winship said...

Julep Day comes at least once a week for me and mine from early April until the frost kills my incredibly prolific mint patch...

Chuck Cowdery said...

As a regular mint julep drinker, Doug, what's your recipe?

Thomas Fondano said...

Since most recipes I see call for 3oz of bourbon and a lot of crushed ice, it's hard for me to follow your shooter concept. Also, alcoholic juleps were originally made with rum (and fortified wines) and then brandy before whiskey ever entered the julepian picture, so the idea of covering up green spirits with mint and sugar also seems curious. Do you have references? Most of my knowledge on juleps comes from Wondrich's Imbibe!, but I'd love more to read on the subject.

Chuck Cowdery said...

My source for the history was a very small book called simply The Julep, which I can't seem to put my hands on at the moment. It's an old book. The advice on how to make and enjoy one is from personal experience.

Chuck Cowdery said...

The discussion of adding sugar and aromatics to rough frontier liquor was the practice where finer spirits such as rum and brandy were not available. The Old Fashioned is another example of this, the key components being common (i.e., unaged) whiskey, sugar, and an aromatic flavoring, in that case citrus fruit. People made their drinks from what was available, which often wasn't much.

Sam Komlenic said...

I'll be making somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 juleps today for a paying crowd and I follow a variation of the Chris McMillian method of muddling mint leaves on the inside of a cup, pushing those leaves to the bottom, adding hand-crushed ice, bourbon, and mint syrup on top. The syrup is heavier than the whiskey and sinks through it gradually.

Spank a mint sprig for garnish and enjoy!

And I agree that this is essentially a "sipped shooter," best consumed ASAP.

schlimmerdurst said...

Amy Stewart, in her book "The Drunken Botanist", has a somewhat different stance on the lifetime of a Julep:

"Now carry your julep to the porch and remain there until bedtime; there will be nothing else to your day but the slow draining of the glass and the pleasant drone of the cicadas."

While I really love the thought and the quote itself, I'm somewhat in-between - as a shot, I'd prefer something less large; as a drink for the whole afternoon, I'd prefer something less prone to dilution. Anyway, I love a well-done Mint Julep.

Robert Griffin said...

Other than the Old Fashioned, no other drink inspires quite the contentiousness as the Julep. I have made at least a couple thousand of them over the last 7 years as a bartender in St. Louis - and probably about 300 this past Saturday. There are a few keys to making a good Julep. First, do not overmuddle the mint - that releases excess bitterness. Granulated sugar exacerbates that possibility, as well as being difficult and time-consuming to dissolve thoroughly, so a simple syrup is preferable (equal parts sugar and water). It is best to add the ice last, thereby avoiding an undrinkable sweet mess at the bottom of the cup. Lastly, beware using small quantities of crushed ice - you'll actually make your drink more diluted, so pile it on high, and add more after stirring. If you follow these recommendations, the drink's sweetness and potency are more consistent from first sip to last.

On the historical side, the rise of the Julep coincides with the growth of the ice trade in the early 19th century, as well as the invention of the straw. The preferred spirit was well aged peach brandy, and a pour of 4 to 5 ounces in a large tumbler was the norm. Just about any drink was considered an 'eye-opener' in those days, but the Julep was specifically built to last while lazing on a shaded porch for hours in warm climates... liquid air conditioning. Cocktails on the other hand were indeed meant to be dispatched in 3-5 large gulps.

RadRuss said...

I make and drink mint juleps all summer! They make for a great cocktail when it's hot out. I disagree with the shooter concept myself, and tend towards higher proof bourbons so that as the ice melts a bit the drink doesn't get too watered down.

While a proper silver cup IS expensive, you can find nickel-plated julep cups for $20 or so. They are far superior to the glasses they use at Churchill Downs, building up a frost on the outside that helps keep the ice frozen for as long as possible.

And you're absolutely right about fresh mint. The mint is the whole drink, really, so you might as well do it right!

Bill Rice said...

Does anyone have an opinion about these new vacuum insulated tumblers for this style of drink? It certainly helps the ice last.