Cocktail Hour: The Mint Julep

Mint JulepsIt’s Derby Day!  Well, almost.  Tomorrow is the Run for the Roses, the 2010 Kentucky Derby.  This is when everyone– at least in this section of America– is obsessed with young horses running their hardest, obnoxious (and some elegant) hats, Derby pie, and Kentucky Burgoo.  Oh, yes, and Mint Juleps!

I can’t think of a cocktail which is imbibed at a more specific time– and almost always ONLY that time– as the Mint Julep.  It’s also another one of those drinks that is often butchered, with pre-made, toothpaste-meets-bourbon mixes, bright green “julep syrup”, and other atrocities.  In 2003, an Enquirer article named many Louisville natives who’d never had one, and admit that only tourists really like them.  Oops.  Why don’t they drink them? “Because there are better things to drink the rest of the year.”  Ouch.

So skip the pre-made Derby mixes, and make your own.  I only had my first Julep last year, at a Derby party hosted by a colleague.  His bartender did a good job in making them not-so sickly sweet (though he admitted he’d never made one before, a running joke at the party).  They include four things:  mint, ice, sugar, and bourbon.  That’s it.  It’s in the crafting of the julep where you get some controversy.

There are two schools of thought:  those who muddle, and those who make mint syrup.  Thus, there are two preferences: those who don’t mind bits in their drink, and those who do.   Either way, you need to use fresh mint– no mint extract, non-homemade mint syrup (you know, the green stuff), don’t throw in a Lifesaver–  mint.  It’s easy to get most of the year at the grocery store, though folks can run a bit low in Cincinnati a few days before Derby.

If you muddle, be careful when muddling.  You’re less muddling, and more pressing– muddle too hard and the bits are too big, and really get quite annoying.  It also releases too much chlorophyll, which will make your drink bitter.  What you want is a release of essential oils, according to Josh Durr, who provided a little background for the post.  Reserve your aggression for drinks like the caipirinha, in which you muddle fruit.  They need the heavy muddling action!

Next, ice:  crushed ice, if you please, which will give you the correct texture and chill factor.  Tradition insists upon shaved ice (turning this into a minty, adult Icee), but crushed will work well.  Folks like Josh make their own, purified, square  ice– and though I am obsessed, I haven’t quite gone that far yet (mostly because of lack freezer space!) so, I admit, I used the stuff out of my icemaker.  Works just fine.

Third, sugar:  There are three schools of thought here: simple syrup, granulated, and powdered sugar.  Simple syrup, made with or without mint, is probably the easiest to mix.  Granulated sugar, which would need to be muddled with the mint, could bruise the leaves too much, leaving you with a bitter tasting Mint Julep.  Powdered sugar is very traditional, but can be a bit difficult to mix.  I’m going to go with simple syrup.

And last, bourbon: Early Times is the official Bourbon of Derby, but I made mine with Four Roses, because it’s my favorite.  I would also use Maker’s Mark.  Good, quality Bourbon– not plain whiskey– is what you want for your traditional Julep.  Don’t get the stuff with the mint already in it.  Ew.  Just stick with bourbon, and you can use it throughout the year (and not just for one season).

Oh– and the glass– traditional is the pretty, pewter Julep cup.  Guess who doesn’t have one of those?  You got it (and I couldn’t find any in town).  A pint glass or Collins glass will do nicely.

Mint JulepsYou have your ingredients together.  So what do you do with it?  Choose your own adventure here, and read on:

3 oz bourbon

3-4 sprigs of mint (if you are muddling, save extra for garnish)

1/2 oz simple syrup

Crushed or shaved ice to fill the glass

If you are muddling, put the mint and the simple syrup, and a bit of the bourbon into the glass.  With a wooden muddler, press the mint leaves gently against the bottom of the cup.  Fill the cup with crushed ice, and add the remainder of the bourbon (or the bourbon and minted simple syrup, if you are not muddling).  Stir with a bar spoon until the outside of the glass is frosty.  Garnish with springs of mint juleps, and enjoy!

To make minted simple syrup:

1 cup sugar

1 cup water

5-6 sprigs mint

In a saucepan, combine all ingredients, and simmer until combined. Cool. Strain into a resealable container (to remove mint springs) and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

Enjoy the races– my bet is on Dublin to win– and for some more minty cocktails, check out this video with Josh Durr on Louisville TV, where he’ll show you how to make a caipirinha and his twist on a Mint Julep (hint: he subs maple syrup for simple syrup).