The Mint Julep: A Refined Southern Beverage
Like the Sazerac (another refined southern beverage), the Mint Julep’s base liquor is bourbon. A connoisseur of bourbon can easily discern and appreciate the differences in texture, smoothness, and oakiness of a wide range of bourbons. But to the common palate, bourbon can be a harsh liquor whether it’s served straight or on the rocks.
Enter: the cocktail.
The cocktail was developed to not only make liquor more palatable, but also to enhance the natural flavors of particular spirits. For instance, just the other day an Irish friend of mine remarked that something magical happens when you add just the right amount of ice and water to Jameson Irish Whiskey. By itself, Jameson is harsh. But the ice and water bring out a distinct sweetness in the whiskey that makes the drink – in the words of my friend – “like refreshing sweet water.”
Among the more famous bourbon-based cocktails are the Old Fashioned, the Milk Punch, the Whiskey Sour, and the Sazerac. Then, of course, there is the Mint Julep, which also has its own day on the calendar.
The Mint Julep and the Kentucky Derby
Every year on the first Saturday in May, Mint Juleps are served across the country celebrating the Kentucky Derby. At the Derby itself, Mint Juleps are made with Early Times, which is technically a Kentucky whiskey, not a bourbon. But Early Times has the contract with the Derby, so Early Times it is. Of course, in your kitchen or bar you can use whatever bourbon you want. And you don’t have to limit yourself to serving Mint Juleps on the first Saturday in May… or even to the month of May. I have found that Mint Juleps are quite refreshing all summer long. Most recently, I’ve been using Jim Beam Black, Double Aged to make my Juleps.
The Mint Julep and Walker Percy
“Drinking mint juleps, famed Southern Bourbon drink, though in the Deep South not really drunk much. In fact, they are drunk so seldom that when, say, on Derby Day somebody gives a julep party, people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of Bourbon. Men fall facedown unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahlil Gibran and the limberlost….
“Reader,…here’s my favorite recipe, “Cud’n Walker’s Uncle Will’s Favorite Mint Julep Receipt.”
“You need excellent bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly—and here is the trick in the procedure—crush your ice, actually powder it—preferably in a towel with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.”
To Muddle or Not to Muddle? That is the Question.
For a Mint Julep, “to muddle” means to crush the mint leaves in the bottom of the glass with a muddler (or some other flat-ended instrument).
The purpose of mudding the mint leaves is to extract the essential oils (and fragrance) from the leaves, which will in turn infuse the bourbon with the flavor and smell of mint.
There are, however, different ways to do this. The method I have been using lately is one that I learned from my brother-in-law. Instead of muddling, he placed several sprigs of fresh mint in a clean bar towel and soaked it in a bowl of bourbon (he was making a pitcher of Mint Juleps for a party). After allowing the mint sprigs to soak in the bourbon for several minutes, he wrung out the towel over the bowl, then placed the towel back into the bowl. He repeated this process several times over a 10 to 15 minute period. He was essentially infusing the bourbon without having to muddle the mint leaves. One distinct advantage to this method is that you will not have to worry about getting tiny bits of mint stuck in your teeth as you sip your Julep. The same method can be used with sturdy paper towels, if you first remove the leaves from the stems.
Another method of extracting the oils from the mint leaves without muddling is to add the sprigs of mint to the simple syrup while it is cooling.
Making simple syrup is quite simple. Using equal parts sugar and water, dissolve the sugar in the water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir frequently so that the sugar does not burn. For 2 cups of sugar and water, the process should take about 5 minutes. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat and allow it to cool. Place 5 or 6 sprigs of mint in a covered container with the simple syrup and refrigerate overnight.
For the following recipes, I am assuming that you will infuse the bourbon by wringing it out in a bowl of bourbon… But the recipes will work the same if you have infused the simple syrup instead.
Recipe for a single Mint Julep
- 3 ounces of bourbon
- 1.5 tablespoons of simple syrup
- 1 tablespoon (or a splash more) of water
- Crushed ice
- Sprig of mint
- Toss a couple of mint leaves in the bottom of a Julep cup.
- Fill the cup with crushed ice.
- Add the simple syrup, the bourbon, and the water.
- Stir quickly to frost the cup.
- Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint, and enjoy!
Recipe for a batch of Mint Juleps
- 3.5 cups of bourbon
- 1 cup of simple syrup
- Water to taste (when pouring individual Mint Juleps)
- Crushed ice
- Several sprigs of mint
- Infuse the bourbon as described above.
- In a large glass bowl or glass pitcher, add the bourbon, the simple syrup, and a little water (to taste). Stir well, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. This will allow the flavors to "marry."
- To make individual Mint Juleps, simply place a few mint leaves in the bottom of a Julep cup, fill the cup with crushed ice and pour in the Mint Julep mixture. Garnish with a sprig of mint and enjoy.
A Note about Serving Mint Juleps
Mint Juleps are traditionally served in a silver julep cup filled with crushed ice. Feel free to use a Collins or High Ball glass, if silver is not available. The sprig of mint used as garnish is supposed to protrude from the top of the cup, and the straw (if used) is supposed to be cut short. Part of the joy of sipping a Mint Julep is sticking your nose in the minty bouquet every time you take a sip.