The Mint Julep
Muddle mint leaves in the Simple Syrup in the bottom of the glass until broken and the oils are released.
Add the Rye. Stir it all together.
Fill glass overflowing with chipped ice.
Garnish with a sprig of mint coated in powdered sugar.
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Derby time may still be more than a month away, but given our limited list of ingredients at this point, I’d be remiss if I skipped over the Mint Julep. Like the Gimlet, the Julep is a drink that has suffered a great injustice over the recent past by the encroachment of artificial ingredients. Like the Gimlet, it is, however, a drink so much more easily made well than badly.
The choice of whether to use Rye or Bourbon in a Mint Julep is highly contestable. Bourbon is called for in 99% of modern recipes — chiefly in the official Juleps made at The Kentucky Derby. Of course, it’s no odd coincidence that, along with The Derby, Kentucky’s chief crop of note is Bourbon. When I had to make the cut-off for the twelve bottles, Bourbon unfortunately lost out to Rye. Barely. By a whisker. The simple reasoning was that wherever you can use Bourbon, you can use Rye, and Rye is, well, more exciting — both in flavor and in presentation. Most people are a little afraid of Rye, and I like that in a liquor. Some will call my choice here sacrilege. I’ve been called worse. So, if you’re still with me, Rye it is.
As a class of drink, the Julep family traces its lineage back to ancient Persia. Then, and for most of its history, the Julep was simply herbs macerated in sugar syrup. Leave it to the Americans to booze it up. Well, it’s a good thing they did. The Mint Julep is considered to be America’s greatest 19th Century contribution to the drinking world (only the 20th Century Martini can claim greater status). In his essential Gentleman’s Companion Vol. 2: Jigger, Beaker, and Glass, Charles H. Baker Jr. writes: “In any congregation of exotica, there can hardly be room for formulae on such elementary subjects as the ever-present Dry Martini, the Manhattan or the Old Fashioned Cocktail. Our own native Mint Julep was included because it can, and does, stand proudly beside the world’s best concoctions; a masterpiece in its own right…” Not to be outdone, Joshua Soule Smith’s “ode” to the Mint Julep proclaims it “the zenith of man’s pleasure” and states that “who has not tasted one has lived in vain.” I couldn’t agree more.
Today, when we think of the Mint Julep, we all too often think of sickly sweet concoctions served at Disneyland (in New Orleans square, by the “Pirates” exit) or at Kentucky Derby parties, where imitation Mint Syrup is poured all too liberally. Making a hand-crafted julep, however, couldn’t be easier. Instead of regular White Syrup, I infuse mine with mint, as described in the Simple Syrup post. I find that this adds a nice extra mint flavor (real mint being much more delicate than artificial).
Tradition mandates a silver goblet be used. If you have one, go for it. If not, apply the money it would cost to buy a set to your liquor fund and use some other tall, thick-bottomed tumbler (the one pictured is part of a carnival glass set that I inherited from my Grandmother. Cool stuff.). I believe that half the enjoyment is in seeing the drink, and I’ll pass this advice along.
Start enjoying these now, and you’ll be a pro come Derby day. In fact, if you don’t already watch the race, being able to whip up a proper round of Mint Juleps may be all the incentive you need to start.
Esoterica: There are endless things to be written about the Mint Julep, as evidenced above. No one, however, currently embodies all that is good and true about the Julep more than bartender extraordinaire Chris McMillian. He, literally, is The Man. To see Chris in action (with almighty Thor’s hammer, no less) and to have him convince you to hop on a plane to NOLA, just take a look here:
Note that my assembly differs substantially from Chris’. I prefer the flavors all mixed together in each sip. He prefers separation, so that each sip brings different nuances. Take your pick.