Saturday is Derby Day, which means that across the country, celebratory sippers will be nipping at their mint juleps, and more than 80,000 of the drinks are expected to be served over Derby Weekend at Churchill Downs.
Tragically, most of these juleps are likely to suck.
With a formula almost as old as the republic, the mint julep is a product of an era in which things were done much more slowly. Somewhat labor-intensive to properly make, a good mint julep can't be rushed, and cranking them out by the hundreds, using prepared mixes and flavored syrups, can only result in sadness.
That's not to say you can't prepare these in quantity for a Derby party. If that's the course you want to take, I'd suggest relying instead on an assembly-line model of manufacture, rather than trying to incorporate all your ingredients in one bottle to simply be mixed with ice and a mint sprig garnish.
To ensure julep success, here are some tips:
- Take the term bruise to heart when approaching the mint. Smashing it vigorously with a muddler or wooden spoon will not only create a messy julep that will leave bits of mint stuck in your teeth, but will release the bitter flavors in the mint leaf. Instead, gently tap at the mint to release the aromatic oils, and swab the sides of the glass with the mint leaves to better disperse the flavor.
- Eschew mixes. You wouldn't use Velveeta when making a Mornay sauce, would you? Then don't use cheap shortcuts with your julep. The sweetened, mint-flavored whiskey you see at this time of year just isn't going to get you the same results as going with fresh. (Though you can speed up the process by premixing your sugar and water over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, then cooling before use.)
- The quality of your ice matters. You want the ice to be finely crushed, almost to a powder, but with some larger, pebble-sized pieces in the mix. You can use a kitchen ice crusher to get there, but you can also fold several ice cubes up in a clean kitchen towel, or in a purpose-built Lewis bag, and whale away at it with a mallet or rolling pin until the ice is pulverized. And keep the ice as cold as you can —a slushy julep is a sad julep.
- Don't get too caught up in the rigidity of what passes for tradition. Juleps have long been made with everything from cognac and rum to rye whiskey and bourbon, and many times with combinations of these spirits. Some minimalistic styles call for swabbing the glass with mint and then discarding it, while others leave the mint in the glass. Still others adorn the drink with the standard mint bouquet, along with sticks of pineapple and slices of orange. (Check out Daniel's article on julep variations for a few recipes to try along with the classic.)
The overall lesson: The julep is flexible. Make the drink the way it tastes best to you (and know that these points should be viewed as suggestions on how to make a tasty julep, rather than rules). Anyone who says you're committing heresy by dashing a flavorful rum atop your julep, mixing it with brandy rather than bourbon, or garnishing the drink with a pineapple stick should feel free to grab a beer instead.
- 1 teaspoon (5g) sugar, to taste, dissolved in 1 teaspoon (5ml) water (or use 2 teaspoons/10ml simple syrup)
- 8 to 10 leaves fresh mint
- Crushed ice
- 2 to 3 ounces (60 to 90ml) bourbon, to taste
- Mint sprigs, for garnish
Place sugar and water at the bottom of a julep cup or tall glass and stir until sugar is dissolved. (You can also speed up the process by using simple syrup.) Add mint leaves and gently bruise with a wooden muddler or a wooden spoon. Take care not to overwork the mint, but swab the sides of the glass with the mint's aromatic oils. Half-fill glass with crushed ice and add bourbon, stirring to combine. Fill glass completely with crushed ice and stir until outside of glass frosts. Add more crushed ice if needed to fill and generously adorn drink with sprigs of fresh mint. Serve with a short straw, so that the fragrance of the mint bouquet will greet the drinker with each sip.
Julep cup, Lewis bag