Derby Day is this weekend and what would the Kentucky Derby be without The Mint Julep. This classic cocktail was popularized in the Southern States sometime in the 18th Century. As with many drinks, the provenance as to its creation is somewhat clouded. Suffice it to say that man was clever enough to figure out that a bit of mint and sugar could take the edge off of strong spirit and make it more palatable for the fairer sex or those faint of heart.
Professor Jerry Thomas lists various Julep recipes in his “Bon-Vivant’s Companion” published in 1862. The original base liquor was Cognac or brandy. This has evolved (or eroded to) Bourbon which is now the most common Julep spirit. There are endless variations within the drink Genus of “The Julep”, some with the addition of fruits, others a change of spirit, a splash of this or that. In “The Gentleman’s Companion” Charles Baker lists eight various Julep recipes, all of which are good in and of themselves. The Mint Julep recipe as we know it today is a simple combination of sugar, water, mint and Bourbon. The actual art of comprising these ingredients is almost as important as the ingredients themselves.
In making a mint Julep there are certain important things to consider. Everything must be PAINFULLY cold! Classic presentation of a Mint Julep is in a Julep Cup, made of silver, which conducts the cold perfectly and keeps everything chilled to the last sip. Short of this use, a nice heavy glass (I like a snifter) that has been chilled in the freezer or in ice and water. Ice needs to be pulverized into small pieces for the finished drink. Another important requisite in creating a great Mint Julep is not to skimp on the mint. Fresh garden variety spearmint is the “go to” for Mint Juleps. When muddling the mint to incorporate it into the drink, be gentle as to bruise the mint but not over macerate it which can bring out bitter flavors. There is a technique called “Spanking the Mint” which involves laying the mint leaves flat in your palm and clapping your hands together, spanking the mint and releasing the volatile oils. I leave that one to you. In garnishing the drink, use a big fresh bouquet of mint, filling the top of your glass, so that you have to put your nose into the fragrant leaves when drinking. Many old Southern recipes will call for “Branch Water”. This is a term for water that is gathered from a spring fed stream. In this day and age I don’t suggest stream water, finding that mineral or filtered water is safer and will fit the bill nicely. Lastly, no one can make a great drink without great base spirits, so needless to say, the higher the price, the nicer the nice. Get top shelf Bourbon or whatever spirit you choose as the foundation of your Julep.
The Mint Julep, and its varied incarnations, have traveled the world and made a mark in cocktail history. It is a most civilized drink and one that by thoughtful process, is an art form when properly executed. In 1938 Churchill Downs recognized the Mint Julep as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, helping to preserve its heritage and giving it well deserved recognition, if only one day out of the year. My personal process in creating a Mint Julep is as follows:
The Mint Julep
- Pre-Chill 14 to 16 Ounce Goblet or Julep Cup
- In a Chilled Bar Shaker Glass Pour
- 3 Ounces Top Quality, Bourbon Whiskey ( Rye if you like it spicy)
- 1 Ounce of Simple Syrup
- 2 Ounces of “Branch Water” (Mineral or Filtered)
- A generous handful of “Spanked” Mint Leaves
In a shaker, muddle the mint, bourbon and water together, gently but enough to bruise the min leaves. Fill the shaker glass with ice and shake. Strain the muddled and chilled Julep into your pre-chilled glass filled with fine ice. Garnish liberally with a mint bouquet. Drink through a short straw. Enjoy the race!