The Kentucky Derby Sine Quo Non: The Mint Julep, Part One

Today, the focus is on creating the perfect Mint Julep. Installment two will discuss the history of the drink.

Briefly, though, the Mint Julep has been considered the official drink of Churchill Downs and of the Kentucky Derby since 1938, and over the two-day event of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby each year, approximately 120,000 Mint Juleps are served at the track. Never ones to miss a marketing opportunity, Churchill Downs has had an official Bourbon for its Mint Juleps, for 18 years Early Times, but since 2015, that was changed to Old Forester. The track also caters to the upper class who congregate during Derby days, selling an ultra-premium Mint Julep served in gold plated cups featuring silver straws, premium Bourbon and, yes, ice made from spring water brought in from the Bavarian Alps. The cost? A mere $1,000.00 per drink.

The Mint Julep is ostensibly a very simple drink to prepare, with its few ingredients and seemingly simple construction rules. Sure, you can dump some mint leaves into a glass, muddle a bit (heaven forbid you don’t muddle but instead leave it intact), add booze, ice and sugar, and voila’, a Mint Julep! Uh, no, not really. Ok that can pass in some places for a Mint Julep, like maybe in Montana or Minsk, but don’t you dare serve it to a Kentucky native or to a real Kentucky Derby fan. You may be wearing your “Mint Julep” home.

Search the web or bartending books and you’ll find that recipe, and many, many more, as to how to construct the perfect Mint Julep, and you’ll also find so many other Julep recipes – Brandy Juleps, Champagne Juleps, Rum Juleps, Gin Juleps, Southern Comfort Juleps, and a load of different Juleps named after their particular birthplace, such as the Jamestown Julep, the Georgia Julep, and yes, the Manila Hotel Julep that for some reason includes the addition of Barbados Rum.

Well, forget all that and remember this – the recipe for the best and most authentic Mint Julep this side of Churchill Downs:

You’ll need a 12-ounce tall glass, and while it can be a Collins Glass, a Beverage Glass, a Hiball Glass or a Highball Glass, it should actually be a Mint Julep Glass, such as the authentic couple shown here, plus Bourbon, Sugar, mint sprigs (not just the leaves) and ice, and that should only be shaved ice – no crushed ice and certainly no ice cubes.

Kentucky Derby 143 12oz. Gold Limited Edition Mint Julep GlassKentucky Derby 143 12oz. Gold Limited Edition
Mint Julep Glass

Kentucky Derby 8-Pack Icon Swizzle SticksKentucky Derby
8-Pack Icon
Swizzle Sticks

Kentucky Derby 143 Official 12oz. Mint Julep GlassKentucky Derby 143 Official 12oz.
Mint Julep Glass

$5.99 each

In the bottom of your glass, alternate mint springs with layers of your shaved ice. When you have six or seven mint layers separated by the ice, basically filling the glass, it’s time to first add your sugar and then muddle, and muddle thoroughly. Then add your Bourbon, and stir, then chill (see the tips below). Once chilled, add a couple of mint leaves dusted with powered sugar for decoration, and enjoy.

Some Tips to Make your Mint Julep especially GREAT!

Don’t muddle the mint leave too much – the more the leaves are bruised the more bitterness is released, changing the taste of the drink, and not for the good

The real, intense flavor of the mint needs time to permeate the Bourdon and drinking your Julep too soon misses much of the potential flavor of the drink. Let it sit, preferably in a refrigerator, for at least a half hour, and preferably for a full hour, before you imbibe.

As to your choice of sugar, there actually are a few choices. The worst choice, of course, is standard granulated sugar, that really has to be stirred hard, usually to the detriment of the other ingredients, to thoroughly dissolve. As to a powder-like sugar, the choice has to be confectionary sugar. But there is one other choice, and that is a liquid sugar. You could make a simple sugar syrup yourself by heating equal parts granulated sugar and water and staring until fully dissolved and then letting it cool, or you can use the one product on the market better than that, though it is not always easy to find, and that is Trader Vic’s Rock Candy Syrup. That is the PERFECT sweetener for virtually any cocktail the needs a sweetener, and I use if wherever I can instead of any other type if sugar. Finally, while I like raw agave as the sweetener in many different drinks, especially in Margaritas, it is not the best choice for a Mint Julep. If you use a sugar syrup remember that the syrup is only, as a general rule, 50% sugar, so you’ll normally need to use twice as much as you would if using pure sugar.

Before using them, press your mint springs between your hands in order to loosen the oils so that the most flavor possible will be released when you muddle.

This seems like it’s a no brainer, but any drink is only as good as the ingredients, and for a top shelf Mint Julep, use top shelf Bourbon. If you’re expecting a large crowd, don’t try to economize and disappoint them with that Walmart or Kroger house brand, or the one in that nice looking bottle that’s imported all the way from Wisconsin. Julepiphiles will tell you, stick with Kentucky’s finest brands, unless of course, you and your friends are Tennessee expatriates and can only drink Jack Daniels. But that raises the question of exactly what does qualify as Bourbon, and the answer, though with historical precedent, may surprise you.

As with Champagne, a bottle of sparkling wine can ONLY be called Champagne if it originates in the Champagne region of France. With Bourbon, it’s actually the same thing – for old, old line purists, a bottle of American Whiskey can ONLY be called Bourbon if it comes from Bourbon County, Ky. But that is problematic, and accordingly Bourbon aficionados take a slightly less severe take on the place of origin, and consider your bottle to actually be Bourbon if it was distilled anywhere in the state of Kentucky. And there is good reason for that. It seems that the original Bourbon County was divided up into about three dozen different counties when Kentucky became a state back in 1792 and so tradition is upheld with Bourbons from across the state. Also, it seems that no companies are currently operating Bourbon distilleries in today’s Bourbon County, Kentucky.

Many Mint Julep recipes call for the addition of water, either pure water or seltzer, and generally something like “two teaspoons” or “a splash”. You’re filling your glass with ice, right? Why water down your Bourbon with even a small amount of water, when the melting ice will be doing that? And the Mint Julep is not a Vodka Collins or Watermelon Cooler, i.e., it is not a drink meant to be carbonated. Go ahead and do it, if you like, just don’t call it a Mint Julep.

See Part Two: “History of the Julep, Mint or Otherwise

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