How to Make a Perfect Mint Julep

2012. Some will tell you this is the year of the Mayan Apocalypse. Others are just as certain this is the year of the Zombie Apocalypse. I don't buy either of those things, but one thing I do know is that 2012 is a portentous year nevertheless. Why?

Because in 2012, the Kentucky Derby falls on May 5, and you know what that means? Derby de Mayo! Gird your livers, kids, or the first Saturday in May this year may nearly kill you.

Start the day off right with a well-made mint julep. Yes, yes, start in the morning! That means a brunch julep or even perhaps one for breakfast. In the South, where the julep originated, it was often a drink taken upon rising from bed, before going out to meet the day.

But don't be a slouch. A proper julep is a beautiful thing, but you can't be lazy. A bottled premix isn't the way to go here. Today, I give you three and a half tips for a proper julep, but first, as a refresher course, let's review the basic procedure:

  1. Add sugar and water (or simple syrup) to a glass or julep cup.
  2. Add mint and lightly muddle, being sure to swab the sides of the glass with mint.
  3. Fill glass half full with crushed ice.
  4. Add bourbon and stir. Add more crushed ice and stir again, until the glass frosts up.
  5. Garnish with a bouquet of fresh mint.

Tip 1: Use a Good, Strong Bourbon

The julep is a drink to sip slowly. As the ice melts into the drink, it not only dilutes but further chills the beverage, resulting in a cocktail that only gets more refreshing as you enjoy it. But note the word "dilutes." As the ice melts, the bourbon dilutes. Start with a good, strong bourbon—something bottled at 90 proof or higher. I also like a bourbon with a rye backbone, rather than a wheated bourbon, because I feel that wheaters are sweet enough on their own; using one in a julep results in a drink that's too sweet for my tastes.

You don't need to go with bourbon, of course. You can use brandy or rye, for example, or even a good aged rum. But still, think about the proof level of the base spirit before you choose.

Tip 2: Respect Your Mint

About a year ago, I wrote a piece for this space in which I discussed the proper way to muddle mint. The trick is to have a gentle hand and not crush the mint. It's better to lightly bruise it, to release the minty oils; crushing it releases grassy and vegetal flavors, which can ruin a cocktail.

Are you the visual type? See below. The first photo here shows crushed, overmuddled mint. The second photo shows Goldilocks mint: just right.

Top: You don't want this! No no! Yucky! Bottom: This is what you want. Michael Dietsch

I should add that it's not even necessary to muddle the mint for a julep. Place a sprig into the palm of one hand. Using your other hand, slap (or spank) the mint sharply, once or twice. Just slapping the mint will usually release enough of the oils for a cocktail. Rub the mint on the sides of the cup, and then leave it at the bottom of the glass.

Be sure to also lightly slap the mint garnish you place atop the glass immediately before serving. The aromas of mint will tickle the nose and awaken the palate for the lusciousness that awaits.

Tip 2.5: Or Make a Minted Simple Syrup

Not everyone likes leaves in their cocktail. If you'd prefer to leave the leaves out, make a minty simple syrup, no more than one day ahead, so it tastes minty fresh. Take half a cup of sugar, half a cup of water, and 3/4 cups of packed mint leaves, and cook them together on a stovetop until the sugar dissolves. Strain and refrigerate.

Tip 3: Manage Your Crush

A proper julep depends on crushed ice, but there are several ways to go about crushing. You can invest in a proper ice crusher, of course. Or use the one you already have: your blender.

Be aware, though, that blenders tend to be a little too efficient; some of the ice will completely melt, so be sure to drain the water off before you build your julep. You don't want to water your drink down before it has time to properly chill, leaving you with an insipid julep. No one likes an insipid julep.

Another method is to place ice cubes in a plastic or canvas bag and then whale away at it with a mallet or rolling pin. A canvas bag will wick away some of the moisture, whereas plastic will not. If you're using plastic, drain the ice before using.

So with these tips, you should be able to make the best damn julep you've ever had. Just remember, though, it's going to be a long day, so be sure to pace yourself, and have plenty of food and water on hand, or you'll wake up on the 6th, praying for the world to end.