Thursday, April 30, 2009

Hey, Mint Julep. Your One-Day-A-Year Is Saturday.

If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely is it associated with the Kentucky Derby.

Most people misunderstand the mint julep. The problem is not so much with how they make it as it is with how they drink it.

The mint julep is not a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more on the order of a shot or shooter. A mint julep should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and turn the drink all watery.

The julep is at its peak of flavor the instant it is completed and 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 can be delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.

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.

“Muddle” just means work everything together until the mint leaves have been crushed and the sugar is dissolved. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. 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, 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.

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. Silver plate and pewter are also common.

The julep in general and the mint julep in particular are both very old, much older even than the 135-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.


Max Watman said...

I agree the Julep should be drunk on the quick. Two gulps. Three at the most. But you know that all the Kentucky Blue Bloods and First Families of Virginia believe we're supposed to sit around on the porch with our julep cups wrapped in a tea towel for half an hour. Then I guess you're supposed to give the sugar sludge to your children to impair their growth . . .

Chuck Cowdery said...

I think the mint julep is a drink, not a fashion accessory, but then I'm from Ohio.

Chuck said...

I pronounce this recipe a rousing success! We served juleps at a party yesterday and everybody loved them! VOB made a good base.