The julep is just about the perfect warm-weather drink. It starts strong, stays cold, and finishes as little more than minty, booze-flavored ice water. It's like a hangover cause and cure packed into a single, frosty metal cup. Sure, it's most often associated with the Kentucky Derby, which takes place in early May, but as far as I'm concerned, this is a drink that's perfectly suited to even the most sweltering months.
The way a julep evolves over the time it takes to drink it, shifting from intensely alcoholic to refreshingly watery, is one of its most interesting qualities, and lies at the heart of understanding just how customizable a cocktail it is. The sweetness level, dose of liquor, and intensity of mint aroma are all highly personal decisions, easy to adjust no matter your cocktail-making skill level. And, regardless of how you make it, the crushed ice will rapidly melt, transforming each sip into something different from the one you took before.
Today, when we talk about juleps, we're almost always talking about the version that has become most classic: bourbon, sugar, and fresh mint, served in a frosted glass heaped with crushed ice. But there's no reason at all to limit ourselves to that one formulation. Baked (or should that be "frozen"?) into the julep's history is an assortment of iterations, sometimes starring other liquors, like brandy, gin, and rum, or fortified wines, like sherry and Madeira.
Really, as long as you follow the same basic framework, a julep can take a million different forms. First, you need some kind of herbal, vegetal, or fruit component for aroma and flavor. Traditionally, that'd be the mint, and mint is a damned compelling choice, given how refreshing its scent is. (It's no accident that it's also the most common breath-freshener flavor.) But, of course, you can expand beyond the mint, as I do in my mezcal variation described below. The one thing I'd caution against is turning to tart citrus, like lemon or lime. Not that you can't, but that'd push the drink in a very different direction, taking it out of the julep cocktail family and nudging it toward sours territory. (You can brush up on your cocktail taxonomy in our guide here.)
Next, you need a spirit, and, as I mentioned above, the liquor cabinet is your oyster...or, the world is your liquor cabinet...or, I don't know. You get the point.
Third, you need a sweetener. Traditionally, that's just sugar, mixed with water (either directly in the serving cup, or beforehand if you want to pre-batch it) to make a simple syrup. But this is another area in which you can really have some fun. I've been adding maple syrup to my juleps for years out of sheer laziness, since I couldn't be bothered to actually dissolve the sugar (when I say lazy, I mean lazy). But laziness breeds invention, and so it goes with maple syrup, which has become a welcome sweetener in my julep cup any day, not just when I can't bring myself to lift a shiftless finger. I play with that maple syrup idea in my ginger-rum variation described below.
All sorts of other sweeteners, from agave syrup to molasses and sorghum syrup, as well as toasted sugar, could be interesting, too. Beyond that, you could get your dose of sweetness by grabbing a bottle of sweet liqueur, which can be a fun way to add another layer of flavor and not just sugariness. Think Grand Marnier for an orangey hit, amaretto for a nutty component, or crème de cacao (which I use in yet another variation below) for the subtle flavor of chocolate.
After that, the ice itself is critically important. First, it needs to be good-quality (since you'll end up drinking most of it), and second, it must be crushed or shaved. It's the tiny particles of ice that rapidly chill the drink, creating the frosty effect that adds to a julep's cooling appeal.
There are a lot of ways to do that, including using an ice crusher, a blender, or a food processor (you can run the ice through the grating disk), but those all require getting out bulky appliances. My favorite method is using a Lewis bag, which is just a strong canvas sack meant for...crushing ice. Dump your ice in, close the bag, and whack it repeatedly with a mallet or a big wooden muddler. Out comes crushed ice, while the bag itself wicks up any melted water. It's a unitasker for sure, but it can be rolled up and stashed away without taking up too much storage space.
Those are the basic principles, at least as I see them. To get your summer julep-making going, here are four actual recipes, starting with the classic and progressing through the increasingly off-the-beaten-path. Follow them as written, or use them as inspiration to come up with your own ideas.
Classic Mint Julep
If you've never made a julep before, you should probably start with the most famous rendition, starring bourbon, fresh mint, and sugar. Cocktail writer Michael Dietsch has already described for us the key steps to julep success, so I'll avoid repeating each and every one of his tips here.
One thing worth noting: While you definitely don't need metal julep cups to make juleps, they are a heck of a lot of fun to drink from. It took me a while to work up the conviction to get my own, but I haven't regretted it once.
Chocolate Mint Julep
Twisting the classic mint julep idea just a bit, this variation substitutes crème de cacao for the sugar. It's a liqueur that's sweet enough to do the work of the sugar, while adding a chocolate flavor that pairs perfectly with both the vanilla-caramel bourbon notes and the fresh mint. Your best bet is a good-quality crème de cacao that has a true chocolate-and-vanilla flavor, not a cloying, artificial one. One of the best is Tempus Fugit (which is also the secret ingredient in Stella's tiramisu).
Do bear in mind that this version leans a little on the sweet side, a natural consequence of its overall sweet flavor profile; using rye in place of bourbon will result in a slightly drier drink. If you want a truly savory julep, it's best to mosey along to one of the other versions here.
Dark and Stormy Mint Julep With Rum and Ginger
A Dark and Stormy is made with Gosling's rum, ginger beer, and lime, so the idea here is to play with those flavors in the format of a mint julep. I start by muddling a couple slices of fresh ginger in the serving cup to release their juices, then add several mint leaves and lightly bruise them as well. A dose of maple syrup goes in the cup during the muddling stage, which helps add some of the dark depth that the Gosling's brings to the original Dark and Stormy. Molasses could work, too, though it will be quite a bit stronger in flavor. No lime here, though, since that would add a sour element I don't really want in a julep.
Then I splash the aged rum on top, give it a stir, and pile on the ice. It has those rich, round, sweet base flavors of rum and maple syrup, the freshness of the mint, and then that zesty spiciness of ginger, which wakes the whole thing up and pulls the sweetness into focus.
El Derby Ahumado (Basil, Cucumber, Jalapeño, and Mezcal Julep)
This one is definitely the furthest from the classic julep, but it's as drinkable as it is atypical. The name means "the smoked derby" in Spanish, my nod to the mezcal that lends the drink its campfire aroma. Though I suppose it could also describe a pretty awesome-sounding horse race, where the horses and jockeys get so lit up that they can't be bothered to move and everyone just kind of lazes around in the sunshine. Anyway, I'm getting distracted. Mixed with the mezcal are muddled cucumber (for thirst-quenching freshness); jalapeño (for green, vegetal spice); basil (for an herbal note); and agave syrup—which is made from the same Mexican succulent that mezcal is—though sugar would work just fine in its place.
Instead of garnishing with a tuft of fresh mint, you can bury your nose in some sprigs of fresh basil, then snack on the cucumber stick that's jammed into the ice. It's just enough refreshment to tame the jalapeño heat and keep you coming back for more.