Thursday, April 30, 2015

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, which is this Saturday, May 2, at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

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.

It's hot. Take refreshment. Repeat. That's the code of the mint julep.

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.

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.

If you'd like to take your julep uptown, here's a good recipe using Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon and Cynar which, like Wild Turkey, is a Campari product.

1 ½ oz. Cynar
¾ oz. Wild Turkey 101 Bourbon
½ oz. Simple Syrup
½ oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
½ oz. Fresh Grapefruit Juice
12 Mint Leaves
2 oz. Soda Water
2 Dashes Fee Brother’s Grapefruit Bitters
In a Julep cup or rocks glass add mint and all ingredients except soda water and bitters. Gently muddle, add ice then soda and top with bitters.


Andy said...

What type of mint leaves? Spearmint, Peppermint?

Chuck Cowdery said...


Unknown said...

For a memorizing 5 minutes, youtube search New Orleans Best Cocktails and watch a great tender Chris McMillian prepare a mint julep, and quote poetry. It's practically bourbon porn.

Unknown said...

Drank before the ice melts. Didn't know that, thanks. The term "julep" is generally defined as a sweet drink, particularly one used as a vehicle for medicine. I'll be driving that vehicle tomorrow for sure. Separately, Cinco de Mayo this Tuesday. Any quips, quotes, or anecdotes?

CBFC said...

Now this is a great post. thanks chuck.

Unknown said...

Another twist is the Bent's Fort Hailstorm: 3 ounces bourbon, 2 teaspoons powdered sugar & the leaves from 2 sprigs of mint in a wide mouthed pint mason jar filled with crushed ice. Secure lid and shake 50 times. Remove lid and enjoy. In honor of the hailstorm of 1832 at Bent's Fort on the a Santa Fe Trail

Todd said...

I have to disagree slightly with the recipe. It's best only to muddle the mint gently. You're just trying to release the oils. If you mush the mint into a paste, you release the bitter chlorophyll. I also prefer using simple syrup or superfine sugar. Powdered sugar contains cornstarch.

Mr Manhattan said...

Like Todd says above: muddle lightly. The glands containing the "minty" oils are on the surface of the leaf. Light tapping is all that's needed to express the oils into the sugar or simple syrup. Muddle too hard and you break down the cell walls of the leaves, releasing bitter flavors.

Anonymous said...

Good recipe-- although I agree with Todd and Mr Manhattan.