Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Mint Julep, An Appreciation.

If ever there was a special occasion drink, it is the mint julep, so closely has it come to be associated with the Kentucky Derby. (Two weeks from today, May 5.)

The julep is a very ancient cocktail type, going back to a time when distilled spirits were considered medicine and, by some, magic. Mint was just one expression. In Colonial Virginia, a julep made with spearmint was a popular summer refreshment. In addition to spearmint and alcohol, sugar was the other principal ingredient.

Bourbon whiskey is usually the alcohol, but Straight Rye has a venerable history in mint julep recipes too.

Kentucky was originally part of Virginia and many of her first settlers came from the Old Dominion. They brought their julep recipes with them.

You will see julep recipes everywhere over the next couple of weeks, but how you make it isn't as important as how you drink it. A mint julep is not like a cocktail in the ordinary sense. It is more like a shooter. It should be made quickly, served immediately and consumed promptly, before the ice starts to melt and water the drink.

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.

It's hot. You're thirsty. Drink, drink.

Taken appropriately in a suitable context the mint julep can be delightful. Its sensuality can be nearly overpowering.

Here is a recipe that is authentic, tasty and easy. First, muddle a few fresh mint leaves with simple syrup. There are specialized tools for doing this, but a spoon works fine. 'Muddle' just means crush the mint leaves into the syrup. Fill the glass with crushed ice, then with bourbon. Stir one or two times, garnish with more fresh mint leaves, serve, and drink.

To make multiple juleps at the same time, have your ice and bourbon ready. Then in a bowl make enough mint muddle for one round. Place some of the muddle into the bottom of each glass, fill them with ice and bourbon, and stir. Add mint leaf garnish and serve. The ability to make a round of juleps quickly but with style is a practiced and prized art in Kentucky.

The classic serving container is a sterling silver cup. Silver plate and pewter are also popular.

If you want a cocktail you can nurse, use cubed ice instead of crushed, but beware. Under any circumstances, a watered-down mint julep is a pretty sad thing. The whiskey starts to taste sour and the mint gets bitter.

As you can image, the mint julep is not a good session drink. For something you can stay with all day, take the julep and mohito-ize it. One trick is to infuse mint into your simple syrup. That way the drink is just whiskey, syrup, ice and club soda, plus the fresh mint garnish. To keep your mint fresh all day, keep the sprigs upright in a glass with a little water in it.

If you want the spirit of the thing without the work, a few sprigs of fresh mint in your standard bourbon on-the-rocks is a nice change of pace.


Bradley J. Weidemann said...

Now I'm thirsty. Infusing the simple syrup with mint helps. Regardless of the recipe, though, making a good mint julep is more of an art than a science, and one mastered with difficulty.

whistler said...

Just out of curiosity, have you ever experimented with basil instead of mint?

Chuck Cowdery said...

I have not. Have you?

whistler said...

I haven't tried it with bourbon, but after successful batches of basil chocolate chip ice cream I am curious about replacing mint with basil in this drink, just for fun.