The Kentucky Derby party just would not be complete without a mint julep, the traditional cocktail of Churchill Downs for nearly a century. Mint juleps are a snap to make, just sugar, water, bourbon, mint, and ice. But though easy in principal, the ceremony behind the cocktail is hallowed ground for serious Southern mixologists. Each ingredient is specific in its makeup, and knowing the proper construction of the mint julep has long been a matter of honor for the Southern gentleman and gentlewoman; it is an ode to a time of civility.
Here, we deconstruct this classic cocktail in hopes of bringing everyone in on the Derby drinking fun.
First a word on origin…
The word julep refers to the drink’s sweetness. Stemming from the Persian word gulab—rosewater—juleps were syrupy medicated drinks consumed for a number of maladies as far back at the fourteenth-century. As things often do, the julep evolved to refer to any sweetened, chilled, and diluted alcoholic beverage in the late eighteenth-century, though was still vociferously consumed as a cure-all here in the United States.
As with most old-time cocktails, the true origin of the mint julep is one of mystery. But we do have a rather famous account of the drink that points to the debate that still roils today about the cocktail and its proper construction (for a cocktail that is seemingly so simple and straightforward, it certainly enlists vociferous arguments). So what is the correct way to make a mint julep?
In the nineteenth-century, the Great Compromiser, U.S. Senator Henry Clay, found himself embroiled in this very debate at the famed Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. Kentucky’s favorite son and statesman, Clay enjoyed his bourbon, famously shipping a barrel from his home state to use during his diplomatic efforts, something the Henry Clay Center for Statesmanship recreated in February 2015 in an effort to spur bipartisanship in Congress (good luck with that). As legend goes, Clay, dismayed by British Naval Captain Frederick Marryat’s insistence that a mint julep can be made with rum or brandy, dispensed the proper way to construct one, as per his diary (courtesy of the University of Kentucky):
And thus, Clay has been credited with introducing the bourbon-borne mint julep to the District of Colombia. Today, the mint julep has been tinkered with and diluted to the point that Senator Clay would surely not stand for compromise, insisting a return to the basics.
- The mint julep is strictly an afternoon drink; never imbibe on one after the sun sets.
- Do not try to pair a mint julep with food. Savor this sip on its own; you owe that to America.
- Do not grab that frosted goblet with your hand alone; wrap the cup with a cocktail napkin or cloth. This not only helps sop up the surfeit of condensation this drink creates, but the barrier also helps insulate the drink, slowing your body heat from warming the cocktail.
- Gents, wear a bowtie when sipping a julep; it’s tradition. Ladies, white gloves and hats are not just a thing of fashion, but a must when enjoying a mint julep on a spring afternoon.
Senator Clay calls for “fresh and tender,” and “the choicest sprigs of mint” for his libation, so you must do the same. Try using red-stemmed mint. With aroma and taste of both spearmint and peppermint, the mint is not overpowering, though gives a refreshing bite—a nice counter to the sweetness of the bourbon and sugar. But, in a pinch, just about any mint will do, as long as it is fresh and clean.
As for proper mint utilization, a soft touch goes a long way. If you are overly zealous with that muddler, the end result is a pulpy mess that will leave a grassy, vegetal flavor rather than crisp mint. Senator Clay calls for delicately rubbing the mint leaves with a spoon on the inner walls of the cup. Fancy, yes, necessary, no. If you’re the muddling type, easy does it—gently bruise the leaves with that barroom baton.
For an even lighter touch, simply slap those mint leaves once or twice, rub the leaves on the inside of the glass, and drop in for the rest of the cocktail construction. The goal is to release the oils trapped in the leave’s tiny capillaries; a heavy hand simply damages and releases sap. Also, be sure to spank that minty garnish before serving; smell is just as important as taste when enjoying food and drink.
Oft overlooked in cocktail construction, ice is actually a crucial component, especially when utilized properly—it’s not just for cooling. For the mint julep, ice has to be cracked. Period. This is not just for aesthetic reasons, but helps cool the cocktail quickly when stirring, frosting the metal cup in the process, as well as providing dilution to the drink. Ice cubes simply are not conducive to this type of quick cool down—cracked ice offers a better ratio of liquid volume to ice surface area (science). And making cracked ice could not be easier if you follow this simple equation:
- Ice Cubes + Ziploc Bag + Wooden Mallet = Cracked Ice. It’s a pretty simple equation, one that can be performed easily in just about any location. The one variable in the mix, the Ziploc bag, can be substituted for a clean, clean (I can’t stress clean enough here) canvas bag or sack, giving a little more durability for good, clean ice breaking fun. When you’re done, transfer the ice to a container to serve, draining any water from the mix before so.
Clay’s recipe calls for a “mellow bourbon, aged in oaken barrels…” As of 1964, when the United States Congress recognized bourbon whisky as a “distinctive product of the Untied States,” a strict set of guidelines for the making of bourbon is enforced through the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits (27 C.F.R. 5.22). This states that bourbon must be made with a grain mix of at least 51 percent corn; distilled to no more than 160 proof; neither coloring nor flavoring can be added; must be aged in new, charred oak barrels; among other restrictions.
With that said, there are plenty of variations in the nose and tasting notes of bourbon from distiller to distiller. For mellower bourbon with a sweet streak, you cannot go wrong with Maker’s Mark – it uses limestone water, and is the bourbon of choice at the Round Robin Bar today – double bonus. If you’re into a richer flavor, try bourbon with a higher proof, like Wild Turkey Rare Breed (108 proof).
The water component of the mint julep is a little tricky if we’re sticking to Clay’s recipe, which calls for limestone water. Limestone water is an essential ingredient in the bourbon making process, with many insisting that it should be a requirement in the makeup of bourbon (currently there is no distinction in the type of water that must be used in making the spirit). Both in Clay’s day and today, most distillers simply use the water found near their distilleries. Kentucky is home to ancient limestone karst aquifers and springs that have been feeding the bourbon industry for centuries. The sedimentary rock acts as a natural filter, removing impurities like iron – a death knell to the flavor of spirits, especially bourbon, while boosting the water’s pH, and giving it higher levels of minerals like calcium.
Today, limestone water, like fresh water in general, is becoming a coveted resource. Maker’s Mark Distillery’s nearly 700-acre tract of land centers on a karst spring, ensuring a steady supply of the ingredient. But for many distilleries, a direct line to limestone water simply is not in the cards, so reverse osmosis helps purify their H2O.
For the home bar, what’s in the cup? For the truly dedicated, Old Limestone offers bottled bourbon mixing water ($6.95 for two liters, available on Amazon), which is sourced directly from bourbon country and bottled direct from Kentucky’s limestone aquifers. If you are looking for an authentic mint julep, this is the water for you, so having a bottle or two in the home bar is not a bad idea for the bourbon drinker—it’s also a great add for bourbon with a splash of water.
If the idea of purchasing designer water for your cocktails is a bit much, try a flat mineral water, available at most wine and spirit stores.
Though many recipes call for simple syrup, if you’re making just a few juleps, granulated sugar is the way to go. In Clay’s day, refined sugar—everyday white sugar—was readily available, but there is no telling if this was what he used; “granulated sugar” can take on many forms. For my personal taste, I prefer raw sugar. Light brown in appearance, and usually larger granules, raw sugar goes through less refining, leaving a bit more molasses in the final product—hence the color.
The cup is key. Part of the ceremony of the mint julep is the goblet. Traditionally, mint juleps are served in silver cups, and for good reason: For anyone that has enjoyed a proper mint julep, you know what a delight that icy cold cup can be, especially on a sweltering May day. When stirring the cocktail, metal takes on the icy cold temperature much faster than glass, allowing it to frost without excessive dilution, and sipping from a properly frosted mug gives an extra kick of coolness to the lips. And while metal is not exactly the best insulator (there is a reason we use metal in electrical wire and glass in insulation), the silver cup does reflect the sun’s warming rays much better than a clear glass—a daytime drinking bonus, especially in the Sunshine State (see what I did there?). But at the end of the day, it is just fun to break from the normal glassware routine and imbibe from a chalice every now and then—this is tradition with purpose.