Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Mint Julep, Part I, History, and the Traditional Southern-Style Mint Julep

It's Kentucky Derby season!  That's right folks, it's that time of year where we all pretend that we care about horse racing.  And, in honor of the occasion, we're doing a 3-part series on the Mint Julep, publishing gems through the end of the week.

Now before saddling up to the local OTB, and before lighting up that Marlboro Red, you know, just to fit in the aforementioned OTB, take a moment to learn of the Mint Julep.

The Mint Julep is the only cocktail that comes to mind around Derby season, and consists of 4 basic ingredients: bourbon, mint, sugar and water. 

It is thought that the first Mint Juleps were made on the east coast around 1750 or so, a likely combination of mint leaves and whatever moonshine was available in Maryland, North Carolina and Virginia (source link).  For the linguists, the word "julep" is derived from the word "julab", a drink made of water and rose petals that was popular in the Middle East and Europe.

The drink didn't make its way to the Commonwealth of Kentucky until the 19th century, whereupon the main alcohol consumed was what we now refer to as bourbon (though again, it probably tasted more like your everyday moonshine back then, and different from the bourbon we know of today). 

In 1938, the Mint Julep became associated with the Kentucky Derby by way of the commemorative glassware that Churchill Downs used when serving the cocktails.  The Mint Julep had made many appearances in prior years at the horse track, but it was the glassware sealed the Mint Julep and Kentucky Derby together in perpetuity.

If you're enamored with the history of the drink, I recommend checking out Joe Nickell's book "The Kentucky Mint Julep."  If Joe's book doesn't satisfy your Mint Julep obsession, you sir, have a problem. 

You should know too, that no one in the Commonwealth drinks these things, even during the Derby.  The Mint Julep is a part of the event for part-time revelers, and not the good ol' Kentucky boys and girls ("You can tell the people from out of town at Derby parties...[t]hey get all excited because they feel like a julep is the thing they have to drink.").

Which is not to make you think that the Mint Julep is a bad cocktail.  It's a fine drink all its own, though, it is usually not as minty as people would like to believe.  It's far more bourbony than people realize.  Yes, I just made up the word "bourbony" - try and use it in a sentence today, I dare you!

Bourbon is one of my favorite alcohols.  Thing is though, sometimes a Mint Julep makes you feel as though you're misusing good bourbon by adding anything to it but a splash of water.

Today, we're going to try our hand at the first of a few recipes, the Traditional Southern-Style Mint Julep.  Be forewarned, this traditional version is really really bourbony.  Mint is an aromatic in the Traditional Southern-Style version, and little more.

Tomorrow, we're going to make a Muddled Mint Julep, a version that is likely more palatable for the average cocktail drinker (and likely too, an abomination to anyone who reveres bourbon neat).

To the drink!

Traditional Southern-Style Mint Julep

4 ounces Kentucky bourbon
1 teaspoon simple syrup
4 to 6 mint sprigs

Pour the liquid ingredients into a juliep cup or collins glass filled with crushed ice.  Stir well until the glass is frosty.  Garnish with the mint sprigs, extending them above the rim, and serve with a straw.

For this cocktail, I'm using classic Jim Beam White Label, Simple Syrup, and organic mint leaves.

I'm a big fan of this version of the Mint Julep, though it will be too strong for many drinkers.  You're essentially making a sweet version of a straight bourbon, with some very pleasant aromatics thrown in the mix. 

I think Jim Beam is a good choice here.  I should add, that I think Jim Beam is a quality bourbon.  Yes, it's cheaper than everything else on the shelf, but, their white label is a good product.  Believe it or not, I prefer it to Jack Daniels whiskey.  Do I think it compares to Woodford or something in the middle range of bourbon price points?  No.  But that's OK, Jim Beam is perfect for this type of mixed cocktail, whereas Woodford may be a better choice when drinking bourbon neat.

You're going to enjoy this drink if you like whiskey, it's that simple. But, if you find it a little strong for your tastes, I have a few suggestions:

1. Let it mellow. Don't touch the drink for five minutes, and let the ice do its work. You'll be surprised the difference in the first taste of a drink after its freshly made, and after its had a chance to marinate for a minute. And sometimes, the first taste of a drink will go a long way in determining your overall enjoyment of (and moreover willingness to finish) the rest of the drink.

2. Increase the syrup by just a touch. Not a lot! Just a little - like a half more of a teaspoon. Any more than that and you're going to be drinking sugar-whiskey, and you're really veering away from the core of the traditional Mint Julep recipe.

3. Swirl the mint leaves in the drink, and then place them back as a garnish. This is going to impart a touch more mint flavor into the cocktail - probably more than you'd likely think.

I'd do one or two of the above, but only if necessary. I enjoy the drink as is, but if you need a little bit of a buffer to make it drinkable, have at it. You're supposed to enjoy cocktails, remember? It's no fun if you're suffering through them!

Tommorrow, we're going to make a Muddled Mint Julep, a sweeter version of the drink. The Amateur Mixologist, your home for all Mint Julep related news and information.

For more drink links, random musings, and my attempts to be witty, check us out @IMakeDrinks on Twitter.


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