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Drink Of The Week: Mint Julep

This week's Drink Of The Week is the Mint Julep. With Derby Day just around the corner and a spring that started early in the midwest, it's time to get your mint in the ground. Even if it wont be ready by Sunday, there will be plenty of oppurtunity for you to use mint in cocktails this summer. In the mean time, pick up some fresh mint at the grocery store and I'll show you how to make this delicious classic.

The Mint Julep is probably the oldest cocktail there is. Today, it's a southern tradition that has been popular for centuries, and it's also the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. That's because the Julep we know is usually made with delicious Kentucky Bourbon, but it wasn't always so.

Early accounts of the Julep represent this drink as a medicinal libation, or more specifically, a vehicle for its delivery. That's not unusual as classics go, and neither is the evolution of the recipe. The word julep comes from the Persian, golab, which means rose water. There are early recipes based on gin and brandy with the first appearance in print in 1803 without a specific spirit mentioned. However, most of us today think of the Mint Julep as a bourbon cocktail, and that's what I am sharing here:

Mint Julep
3 oz bourbon
1 oz simple syrup
several sprigs of fresh "Kentucky Colonel" common mint

Place the leaves of several mint sprigs in a mixing glass, add the simple syrup and gently muddle. There's no need to use excessive pressure to release the oils from the leaves. Add the bourbon and prepare a silver cup, overfilled with crushed ice. Strain the mixture over the cup of ice. Stir until the cup shows signs of frost, add more crushed ice to form a dome. Slap a sprig of mint and tuck it into the icy glass. Add sipping straws and serve.

There's a lot of controversy around the preparation of a "proper" Mint Julep. How the mint is used is a serious point of contention. Some believe that you shouldn't use the stems at all. I tend to agree, although if you are careful in your muddling, you won't spoil the mint by making it bitter. Other recipes suggest that the cup be filled with the mint which gets muddled and rolled completely out of the glass leaving only the oils to coat its inner surface. Still others think you should build this directly in the cup you serve it in, leaving mint in the bottom of the cup and adding ice, bourbon and simple syrup over the top.

If the treatment of mint isn't controversy enough, there are plenty of recipes that insist on sugar instead of simple syrup. These often suggest using powdered sugar, although confectioner's sugar would be adding starch to the mix. Some lay the mint in the sugar first, others muddle the mint with the sugar grains. I find problems dissolving granulated sugar in bourbon, and if you add water first, you might as well use a syrup. You can even batch a mint-infused syrup ahead of time and use that instead of muddling. Finally, you can get really fancy by sprinkling the surface of the ice and garnish with powdered sugar.

I would encourage anyone who enjoys this drink to explore methods and try various techniques. This recipe is how I like to make them, but having a mint flavored syrup on hand before a Derby Day party can be a real time saver. If I know I am making a bunch of these, I'll go ahead and make the mint syrup ahead of time. Just muddle a bunch of leaves in a saucepan, then add your water and sugar. Bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar and cool. Finally, strain the syrup to remove the mint leaves and bottle. You should have a syrup nicely flavored with mint.

Most folks agree that the Mint Julep is best served in a silver cup. Some use an old fashioned glass with success, but the ingredient always present is crushed ice. You can smash ice to bits using a Lewis Bag, break it down with a hand crusher, or get it straight from your refrigerator door. However you get there, crushed ice in this drink is important for two reasons. First, it gets very cold quickly. A Julep needs to be frosty! Second, crushed ice melts readily, diluting a drink that would otherwise be too strong. Make no mistake, this is a spiritous beverage, but it should be tamed somewhat by the dilution allowing you to enjoy the sweet flavor of the bourbon without being hit over the head with an alcohol burn.

I'll be drinking a Mint Julep on Derby Day even if it means I need to buy my mint at the grocery store. My own mint plants are just getting started, but by the end of the summer, they are usually taking over the garden. There will be plenty of other chances to use them in the coming months for other cocktails and garnishes, so plant some mint, but don't let your small crop stop you from enjoying this cocktail now.

3 comments to Drink Of The Week: Mint Julep

  • claydesta

    In case you've never seen this: http://www.thebucknerhome.com/julep/recipe.html

    March 30, 1937

    My dear General Connor,

    Your letter requesting my formula for mixing mint juleps leaves me in the same position in which Captain Barber found himself when asked how he was able to carve the image of an elephant from a block of wood. He replied that it was a simple process consisting merely of whittling off the part that didn't look like an elephant.

    The preparation of the quintessence of gentlemanly beverages can be described only in like terms. A mint julep is not the product of a FORMULA. It is a CEREMONY and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the old South, an emblem of hospitality and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.

    So far as the mere mechanics of the operation are concerned, the procedure, stripped of its ceremonial embellishments, can be described as follows:

    Go to a spring where cool, crystal-clear water bubbles from under a bank of dew-washed ferns. In a consecrated vessel, dip up a little water at the source. Follow the stream through its banks of green moss and wildflowers until it broadens and trickles through beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion and waving softly in the summer breezes. Gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots and gently carry them home. Go to the sideboard and select a decanter of Kentucky Bourbon, distilled by a master hand, mellowed with age yet still vigorous and inspiring. An ancestral sugar bowl, a row of silver goblets, some spoons and some ice and you are ready to start.

    In a canvas bag, pound twice as much ice as you think you will need. Make it fine as snow, keep it dry and do not allow it to degenerate into slush.

    In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outsides of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint.

    Then comes the important and delicate operation of frosting. By proper manipulation of the spoon, the ingredients are circulated and blended until Nature, wishing to take a further hand and add another of its beautiful phenomena, encrusts the whole in a glittering coat of white frost. Thus harmoniously blended by the deft touches of a skilled hand, you have a beverage eminently appropriate for honorable men and beautiful women.

    When all is ready, assemble your guests on the porch or in the garden, where the aroma of the juleps will rise Heavenward and make the birds sing. Propose a worthy toast, raise the goblet to your lips, bury your nose in the mint, inhale a deep breath of its fragrance and sip the nectar of the gods.

    Being overcome by thirst, I can write no further.

    S.B. Buckner, Jr.

    • Claydesta, yes, there is certainly more than one way to make a julep. This one is also referenced in The Kentucky Mint Julep, a charming little book by Colonel Joe Nickell.

  • claydesta

    I'll have to look for that. Mostly as a southerner originally, I just like the imagery of that letter.

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