As a classic summer cocktail, it doesn’t get much better or easier than the mint julep. Endlessly refreshing and simple to build it’s also a cocktail with hundreds of tasty variations.
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What is a Mint Julep?
At its most basic, the mint julep is a recipe with whiskey, sugar, mint and lots of ice. Traditionally served in a pewter or silver cup, it’s garnished with a healthy sprig of fresh mint as the herbal garnish, with a straw tucked close into the mint so that with every sip of the julep you get a nice whiff of mint, too.
The julep may be associated with horseracing and the Kentucky Derby in particular, but it’s the best kind of summer drink. It cools you off, delivers sweet refreshment and keeps its flavor as it melts. A well-made mint julep can be dangerously easy to drink.
To me, even thinking about the smell and taste of a julep takes me back to the track and family Derby parties. The mint julep is about the experience of the cold cup, the tickle of the mint against your nose as you take a sip and the long slow burn of bourbon after each sip. For those of us in Kentucky, the mint julep is an experience, not just a cocktail. We’ve all got a personal history with the drink.
History of the Mint Julep
The mint julep is an old cocktail, probably from the 1700s and its origins go back centuries further to find the related word julab in Arabic for sweetened rose water. For centuries, the word julep (and its related terms in various European languages) referred to concoctions for medicinal use sweetened with syrup. Like the old fashioned, the julep has its root in sweetening tinctures and medicines for easy consumption.
But with the accessibility of ice in the early 1800s, the mint julep was born – served over a cup of chilled, crushed ice, with a little sugar and mint, the julep softened whiskies of the time (although cognac, brandy or rye were likely the first spirits used). It was popularized first in the south, but rose to fame throughout the country. Several presidents sipped on them as well – Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt and others.
The Connection Between the Mint Julep and the South
The first mint juleps, born in the south, were likely crafted by enslaved hands. It became a regional drink associated with the south and Virginia in particular. And one of the most famous julep slingers in the country was an emancipated man name Cato Alexander around 1811 in New York. Another former enslaved man was John Dabney who famously served juleps at the Sweet Springs resort in West Virginia. It’s likely most of the mint juleps made in the south were first made by enslaved people of wealthy families in the South.
We know so little about early bartenders of color, I’ve got two links for you to check out for more information about early black bartenders: The Lost African American Bartenders who Created the Cocktail and The All Too Quite History of Black Mixology. Although they document what’s known about African American bartenders in history, there’s much more we don’t know. Both articles are wonderful deeper dives into the subject. The contributions of African Americans to the history of cocktails in this country has been under-represented for centuries and we’re just now able to get some of that back through dedicated research and historical investigation.
Now while the julep was associated with Virginia and the south, it didn’t become the official drink of the Kentucky Derby until 1938. In a normal Derby week, Churchill Downs would serve well over 120,000 mint Juleps. This week, in 2020, with no crowds, far fewer people will be drinking at the track. But we can hope that all of Louisville, and many others around the world, will lift a julep cup filled with crushed ice, a little sugar, and a lovely dose of mint to help up celebrate this Saturday.
How to Make a Mint Julep
Mint juleps are easy cocktails to make. The classic mint julep recipe is simple. I take a mint leaf and rub it along the inside of a julep cup, then add a little simple syrup and 9 or 10 additional mint leaves dropped into the bottom of the cup. I muddle lightly. You just want to wake up the mint, not abuse it.
Next I fill the glass with crushed ice, add bourbon and give it a quick swirl. After I spank a sprig of mint against my wrist or back of my hand I place it in the drink. I nestle the straw right next to it and sip away.
As simple as that is, there are some tips and tricks I’ll mention for you here.
Tips on Making a Classic Mint Julep
Use a Metal Cup for your Mint Julep
Honestly, this one makes a difference. I’ve made completely identical juleps and placed one in a rocks glass and the other in a pewter or silver cup. The metal cup wins every time. Scientifically I don’t know if the metal cup keeps the cocktail cold longer, but it seems that way.
Certainly, I know that the experience of drinking a mint julep is enhanced by the cold sensation of your fingers every time you lift the glass to your lips to take a sip. And the mint julep is one of those cocktails that’s a full experience when done right.
Use Crushed or Pellet Ice for your Mint Julep
Go to the effort to create or buy crushed or pellet ice. Larger ice cubes won’t dilute as quickly, and with a cocktail that’s almost all spirit, you want to let the dilution sweeten and soften the flavors of the bourbon.
Now, I build my bourbon cocktails with spirits at 95-100 proof. But, if you like a lower proof bourbon, you might look for a little smaller metal julep cup to build it from so there’s not as much ice diluting the mint julep.
Crush Ice Wrapped in Cloth, Not Plastic
When crushing the ice, I use my kitchen hammer and tea towel. If you have a Lewis bag for crushing ice, use that! The cloth from the bag or tea towel soaks up the small bits that melt immediately, and by keeping the ice dry, it melts a little slower. I’ve had to use plastic bags on occasion and the ice melts quickly then refreezes in odd-shaped chunks.
Spank the Mint for Your Julep
The oils you want to wake up for the cocktail are on the fragile leaves. Smacking the sprig of mint against the back of your hand or clapping it between two hands releases the scent and flavors from the plant. Make sure to spank the mint before sliding it in the glass right next to the straw.
A Straw Goes NEXT to the Herb Garnish
Place the straw in the herb garnish or right next to it. The mint julep is about the experience, you want the mint right next to your nose each time you take a sip. And use a paper or reusable straw to help save the planet, ok?
Use Mint Leaves, Not Stems and Muddle Lightly
To keep your mint julep sweet, avoid adding long stems into the drink to muddle. Just add the leaves and be careful as you muddle. Mint is so fragile it often turns bitter if you over-muddle. I just press lightly 2 or 3 times to waken the mint and get the fragrances flowing.
Use Simple Syrup in your Mint Julep (not sugar)
I don’t love crunchy bits of sugar in the bottom of my cocktail, so I prefer making mint juleps with simple syrup. For the classic mint julep, all you need to do is put ½ cup of sugar and ½ cup of water in a small mason jar and shake it until the sugar dissolves. Done.
Best Bourbon for a Mint Julep
Everyone wants to know the best bourbon for their mint julep. First, I’ll say that if you have a bourbon you love, make your julep with that bourbon. You can also use any whiskey you prefer. If you’re a rye person, or you love Tennessee whiskey, by all means, drink what you love.
Now, as a Kentuckian, I prefer to make mine with Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. At least, the first one. But I generally choose bourbons closer to 100 proof as my preference in building cocktails. I can take longer to sip it if it’s an iced cocktail. And, I won’t have to worry about overdiluting the cocktail as much. That’s a strong cocktail for many people, but I’m a Bourbon Woman and we love our whiskey higher proof.
On Kentucky Derby Day, I’d prefer you chose a stronger proof Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey for your mint julep, but in all honesty, as long as you find one you love in your julep, I’m happy.
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Recommended Bar Tools
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You probably already have these, but you may need them, too:
Classic Mint Julep Recipe
- ½ oz simple syrup
- 10 mint leaves
- 2 oz bourbon whiskey around 100 proof
- Garnish: mint sprig
- Take one mint leaf and rub it along in the inside of the julep cup, especially the rim.
- Add simple syrup and mint leaves. Muddle lightly and add crushed ice. Fill with ice, add bourbon, and stir just once or twice to combine. Add a mint sprig with a straw right next to it.