By Ron Fisher
We all associate the mint julep with the Kentucky Derby, which sells thousands of them every year, but the cocktail existed well before its adoption by Churchill Downs. There are references to the drink that date to the late 1700s (many citing it as a remedy for stomach ailments). In fact, it wasn’t until 1938 that the Derby took ownership of the mint julep, largely as a way to promote Kentucky’s bourbon in the years after Prohibition.
For such a simple concoction – bourbon, mint, sugar, and ice – the fussing and nitpicking over how to make one “correctly” rivals anything I have seen with other traditional cocktails. Handling the mint, the consistency of the ice, the type of cup (silver or glass), whether to include a fruit garnish, and even the length of the straw and how to insert it into the glass are all subjects of deep scrutiny. You think I’m kidding? In his 1939 opus, “The Gentleman’s Companion”, Charles Baker writes, “A julep is more than a mere chilled liquid; it is a tradition which is to be respected…No man can rough and tumble his julep-making and expect that luck must always be on his side, that a lovely arctic frosted thing shall always reward his careless ignorance.”
It’s all so complicated. Thinking about this, I am reminded of a previous life, when I worked in a banking group in which we had an in-house lawyer. Before going out to negotiate a transaction, he would tell me, “Here are the three things you need to get – A, B, & C. Everything else is brownie points.” Off I would go on this odious task, listening to the lawyers go back and forth about this and that, but when A, B, & C came up, I put my nose down, my fist on the table, and I always went back with what I was told to get.
In that spirit, there are three things you need to know about making a mint julep: the mint in the drink, the ice, and the mint as a garnish. Everything else is, well, brownie points.
When building the cocktail, you need to infuse a mint flavor into the liquid. There are two ways to do this: gently muddling six to eight mint leaves in the bottom of a glass with simple syrup, or steeping the mint with the simple syrup (which you need to do if you are making in bulk, discussed below). If you are mixing the juleps individually and muddling, you want the leaves to remain intact, so the muddle is more of a series of taps. Alternatively, fifteen or so aggressive stirs will achieve the same result.
Next, we have the ice. Every recipe in the world calls for crushed ice, so far be it from me to disagree. If your refrigerator has an ice crusher, you’re in business. Otherwise, get out your blender, fill it with ice, and hit the switch.
Lastly, the mint garnish. When we made juleps in the <ROTR> test kitchen, we tasted the drinks before and after we garnished with mint. After only muddling, we got a flavor of mint. With the muddled mint and a garnish on the top of the glass, it was a symphony of mint. The difference was astounding. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
As for the other <accoutrements>, if you have silver cups, by all means, use them. They look great, they keep the drinks cold, and the condensation that forms on the outside adds to the allure. You want to garnish with fruit? Fine, just don’t overpower the mint. And, if you want to serve the cocktails with a straw, cut them short so that your nose will be that much closer to the mint at the top.
<<<The Mint Julep>>>
3 oz. bourbon
1½ oz. simple syrup
6-8 fresh mint leaves (without stems)
4-5 stems of fresh mint, for garnish
In the bottom of a julep cup or a medium-sized glass, add the simple syrup and the mint leaves. Muddle lightly or stir aggressively. Add the bourbon and some crushed ice, and stir. Then, add enough ice to fill the glass and insert the mint garnish, so that the mint protrudes well above the surface of the ice. If you want to be fancy, use a chopstick to make a hole in the ice and insert a straw that rises two inches above the top of the glass.
If you are making many juleps at one time, or muddling isn’t your thing, you can substitute the simple syrup and mint leaves with minted simple syrup. <It does not replace the mint garnish>, which is a must.
<Minted Simple Syrup>
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
8 stems of fresh mint leaves, destemmed
Combine the ingredients in a saucepan. Stir frequently until it reaches a simmer, then cover and remove from heat. Allow to cool, remove the mint leaves. Use same proportion as above.