The best juleps are homemade, of course: Here, sipping
quality bourbon, simple syrup, and fresh mint in a silver cup.
April showers, sometimes tropical, have propelled the garden mint skywards. A few days ago there were just a few paltry shoots poking out of the ground. Now a towering phalanx of purple-stemmed English peppermint with the most luscious fragrance has slipped through the boxwood hedge and is engulfing the jalapenos.
Just in time for the Kentucky Derby this Saturday. Will Recapturetheglory nose out bookmakers’ favorites like Big Brown or Colonel John? I have no idea. But I do know one thing: All that mint is just calling for a julep. Or two.
But what is a julep? It seems the term is an old one, derived, according to the ever authoritative Wikipedia, from the Arabic julab and the Persian gulab, which refer to a refreshing rosewater drink. Over time the taste for juleps moved westward to the Mediterranean where mint was more common. Eventually “julep” came to be used generically for any flavored concoction that disguised the taste of medicine.
How exactly the mint julep came to be the iconic drink of the American South is unclear. We do know that one John Davis, in an 1803 book entitled Four and a Half Years of Travel in the United States, described the cocktail as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians in the morning.” Apparently gentleman farmers knocked one back before going out to plow the back forty. But in the early days, they probably used a slug of corn whiskey, rye or whatever “spirituous liquor” they had at hand. Note too that Virginians, not inhabitants of the Blue Grass State, are the named imbibers.
However it came to pass, the mint julep has been the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby for nearly a century—and, according to the official web site, the Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail has been the “official mint julep of the Kentucky Derby” for 18 years—about as long as Early Times has been sponsoring the Derby and other races at Churchill Downs, I would guess. (This may be the place to point out that Early Times is not bourbon, but a blended Kentucky whiskey. Both are made of corn, barley and rye, but by law, bourbon must be at least 51 percent corn.) Last year Churchill Downs race-goers quaffed 120,000 juleps during the Derby and its companion race, the Oaks—a bartending feat which involved 10,000 bottles of that cocktail mix and over 1,000 pounds of fresh mint.
Real Southerners know that it's all just an excuse to sip outrageous amounts of their favorite bourbon. The great novelist Walker Percy, in a 1978 monograph simply titled Bourbon, observed that few Southerners actually drink juleps. Percy himself preferred to sip bourbon neat for the “aesthetic” pleasures of “the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot, bosky bite of Tennessee summertime…” But on Derby Day, he wrote, “people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of bourbon. Men fall face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahlil Gibran and the limberlost.”
Bob Dylan, whom you’d think would sooner chug Southern Comfort out of the bottle like Janis Joplin, gave such a precise recipe for a mint julep on his radio show in 2006 that you figure he’s been secretly imbibing them for years. “First up, you take four mint sprigs, two and a half ounces of bourbon. I’d put three. A tablespoon of powder sugar, and a tablespoon of water. You put the mint leaves, powder sugar and water in a Collins glass. You fill the glass with shaved, or crushed ice, and then add bourbon. Top that off with more ice. And I’d like to garnish that with a mint sprig. Serve it with a straw.”
Dylan not withstanding, a julep is not a mint-packed mojito. The notion of sticking four sprigs into the bottom of the glass would make General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. (more about him in a moment) rise up from the grave. In fact the mint should be barely a whisper, just a leaf or two, not muddled or mashed, but gently bruised. In the words of a dying Virginia gentleman (courtesy of Francis Parkinson Keyes), one should “Never insult a woman, never bring a horse into the house, and never crush the mint in a Julep.”
Probably the most authentic recipe—and the one most likely to yield a Walker Percy-sized 5 ounce bourbon julep—is the one on the Buckner family website. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., a grandson of a Civil War general of the same name, who himself was killed on Okinawa in 1945, gave a ceremonial mint julep recipe imbued with quasi-religious fervor. There’s lots of good Southern talk about “dipping a consecrated vessel into a spring of cool, crystal-clear water [bubbling] from under a bank of dew-washed ferns.” You must “gather the sweetest and tenderest shoots” from “beds of mint growing in aromatic profusion” and “gently carry them home.” And it helps to have an ancestral sugar bowl and a row of silver goblets.
But here’s what Buckner says about the actual making of the julep: “In each goblet, put a slightly heaping teaspoonful of granulated sugar, barely cover this with spring water and slightly bruise one mint leaf [italics are mine] into this, leaving the spoon in the goblet. Then pour elixir from the decanter until the goblets are about one-fourth full. Fill the goblets with snowy ice, sprinkling in a small amount of sugar as you fill. Wipe the outsides of the goblets dry and embellish copiously with mint."
Fresh purple-stemmed English mint from the garden, slightly bruised, adds a
whisper of flavor to a bourbon julep.
Nowhere in all this discussion does Buckner or anyone else address the type of mint that is to be used. In my opinion it should be the purple square-stemmed English peppermint that’s growing in my garden—OK, you can use spearmint in a pinch—but certainly not chocolate or pineapple or orange or any of the other flavored varieties that you might be tempted to try.
Buckner's recipe is for the die-hard bourbon lover. It goes without saying that that the bourbon should be sipping quality. You could go a notch down from the very costly single barrel bourbons that ought to be drunk neat—something like W. L. Weller 7-Year Old or Buffalo Trace would be an excellent choice. But if single barrel Rock Hill Farms is your favorite elixir, use it by all means.
Still, you might want to play with the other ingredients. Instead of sugar--powdered, superfine or otherwise--you could use simple syrup made by boiling one cup sugar in one cup of water. Mark Brown, president of The Sazerac Company, which owns a slew of great bourbons, recommends a homemade mint-flavored syrup: Use 2 cups sugar to 2 cups water; when the water boils, add the sugar, but don’t stir. Boil for 5 minutes, then spoon out the sugar. Pour the remaining syrup over 6 to 8 fresh mint sprigs, top off with torn leaves from 2 to 4 more sprigs, and refrigerate overnight.
On the other hand, there are some who find the sweet stuff in the bottom its own reward. In that case, use a spoonful or two of granulated sugar drizzled with a little water.
General Buckner and Dylan both insisted on shaved or at least finely crushed ice. We once had a great crank-handled ice crusher, but it vanished sometime in the 1970’s. General Buckner crushed ice in a canvas bag–-B points out that those annoying carryalls that are handed out at every conference could be pressed into service—but you could also use any non-terrycloth dish towel. Quite frankly, this is a pain—enough to drive one to e-Bay where it happens that a vintage Ice-O-Mat crusher is up for sale ($1.99 opening bid).
Even if you have an automatic icemaker that delivers crushed ice with the press of a button, you will have to crush it even finer. The main thing to remember is that you’ll need two to three times as much ice as you expect. It may be heresy, but in my opinion the julep is at its best 10 minutes after you make it, when the ice, sugar and bourbon start to meld of their own accord.
Enough talk. Here’s the recipe--as Dylan said, “Two or three of these and anything sounds good.”
The Perfect Mint Julep
Makes 1 mint julep
1 tablespoon simple syrup (or 1 heaping tablespoon sugar plus 1 tablespoon water), or to taste (see note)
2 or 3 leaves fresh mint
36 to 48 ice cubes
3 ounces bourbon, or to taste
2 or 3 sprigs mint for garnish
Additional sugar or simple syrup, as desired
One silver julep cup or 8 ounce glass
One six-inch straw
1. In the bottom of the cup or glass, put a tablespoon of simple syrup (or one heaping tablespoon sugar drizzled with 1 tablespoon water). Use more if you prefer a sweeter julep. Add the mint leaves and press lightly with the back of a spoon.
2. Crush the ice cubes in a clean, non-terry dish towel, using a hammer. The ice should be finely crushed. Fill the cup with ice to the brim.
3. Pour over the desired amount of bourbon. Add more ice to fill the cup, garnish with sprigs of mint and plunk in a short straw. Walk around chatting to your guests for 10 minutes. Start sipping. If you’d like it sweeter, add simple syrup or sprinkle with sugar to taste.
Note: To make 1 cup simple syrup, bring one cup of water to a boil. Stir in 1 cup sugar and boil until the sugar has dissolved. Let cool before using.