Sure you can start with a classic mint julep, or look up mint julep variations online, but wouldn’t you rather create your own? In the spirit of mad scientists/mixologists everywhere, take a minute to get a few tips before heading out to create your own mint julep riff.
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How to Hack your Mint Julep
As a cocktail, the mint julep recipe (just whiskey, sugar, mint and ice) presents itself as an easy cocktail to master. But look a little deeper and there are endless mint julep variations to discover with those few elements.
Like any great classic cocktail, the julep’s simple ratios and elements means it’s easy to manipulate and blend with different flavors to create new combinations. If you want to create your own mint julep recipe, think about what flavors and what tastes you want to focus on.
Do you have a favorite herb you’d like to use instead of mint, say lavender? You might decide to pair that with honey syrup or blueberry syrup to create a julep. Do you have a favorite flavor, like chocolate, or pecan or strawberry you want to highlight? Think about base spirits or herb garnishes that would pair well with those flavors.
I love playing with the mint julep because you have just a few variables to tweak, but hundreds of possible variations. It’s as fun for me as playing with the old fashioned.
Let’s go through the elements we’ll tweak in a riff on the mint julep:
- Base spirit (2 oz) – this is the bulk of the alcohol in the drink, and traditionally it’s whiskey. Early versions of the julep were likely brandy or rum based (see this article on the Classic Mint Julep).
- Herb – traditionally mint, but you could choose any kind of herbal aromatic. Basil, lavender, sage, etc.
- Sweet (1/2 oz) – the classic mint julep relies on a sugar cube and water or simple syrup, but you can use other flavored syrups, liqueurs, jams, or sweet muddled fruit.
With just those three elements to manipulate, we can drive the mint julep to many tasty destinations. Let’s start with the base spirit.
How to Swap out the Base Spirit in a Mint Julep
Don’t like whiskey? No problem! The earliest mint juleps were likely made with brandy or rum. Try swapping out that whiskey for a sweet brandy or cognac. If you enjoy a little more heft to your julep you could use an unaged spirit, or a rum.
Make sure to pay attention to the proof. Since you’ll be putting the cocktail over crushed ice, dilution will occur. If you want to keep the flavor and alcohol taste present in the cocktail, don’t substitute a low ABV base spirit.
If I’m using a non-whiskey spirit, I prefer aged spirits. Aged rums and tequilas can make a beautiful mint julep, and often have flavor profiles reminiscent of whiskey.
Because different base spirits work best with different herbs and sweet elements, make sure all three are in alignment and smell and taste good together.
If you love rye and bourbons in your mint julep, your choice of the particular brand and proof of whiskey greatly impacts the final flavor of your julep. Choose a high proof bourbon and you’ll be able to taste the change in the sweetness of the drink as the bourbon dilutes without getting watery. Choose a sharp, peppery rye and you’ll have a great counterpoint to the sweet mint and sugar base.
If you decide to add a fruit element, choose a whiskey with either aromatics or flavors that remind you of that fruit. Want to go for cherries? I’d use Old Forester 1920, which always tastes like cherries to me. Going for maple or coffee syrup? I’d look to Willett’s three year rye as I get those notes (and some mint) from their whiskies.
Herbs to Use in Your Mint Julep
While mint is traditional in the mint julep, as a type of drink the julep can have any herb you like, as long as it pairs well with the other ingredients in the cocktail. Practically any fresh herb can be used as your garnish and muddling element.
When choosing an herb for your mint julep variations, you can also infuse the simple syrup with the herb as well and amplify the presence of the flavor in the mint julep cocktail. Many people do this with the simple syrup, infusing it with mint to carry the mint flavor throughout the cocktail.
Some herbs you might consider:
- Varieties of mint like chocolate or pineapple
- Basil (especially cinnamon basil or Thai basil)
- Rosemary (amazing with peach)
Be aware that different herbs require different amounts of muddling. A woodier, bushier herb, like lavender or rosemary can take more muddling than mint or basil, which are much more fragile. Over muddle a fragile herb and you turn the mint julep cocktail bitter.
Change the Sweet Element in the Mint Julep
Mint julep recipes often rely on either a simple syrup or a paste made from sugar and water in the julep cup. Look beyond that to add additional layers of flavor and aroma to your cocktail. Maple syrup and mint are a glorious combination. And you know that honey and mint pair well from sipping on mint tea sweetened with a spoon of honey.
You could also use a bit of that syrup from your cherry jar, or any flavored syrup you have in the fridge. Peach simple syrup with a basil changes the game for the julep. Tart peach flavors paired with the aroma and slight licorice flavor of basil always sing together.
If you don’t mind making your julep a little strong, look toward a liqueur or sweet cordial to add both sweetness and additional flavor elements. Some of my favorite additions are:
- Cherry liqueur
- Chocolate liqueur
- Pecan liqueur
- Orange liqueur
- Ginger liqueur (paired with chai simple syrup is amazing)
- Peach/Apricot/Plum liqueur (any stone fruit will work)
If you add liqueurs, try to keep the amount of alcohol in the cocktail at 2 to 3 ounces total. Higher than that and you’ll only be able to have one and make it home safely.
Add Fruit Flavors to Your Mint Julep
You can tell by the list of liqueurs above that many fruity flavors work wonders within the basic mint julep. The julep, by its very nature can be seasonal. Fresh fruit muddled in the bottom of the julep cup with the herb can make endless varieties of the julep. Peaches, nectarines, apricots, strawberries, blueberries and blackberries all pair well with whiskies and make excellent mint julep variations.
If you don’t have fresh fruit on hand, jams and preserves are an amazing substitute for liqueurs or fresh fruit. A tablespoon or two can stand in for a sweet simple syrup, and combination preserves can build complexity without adding many ingredients.
Here are some examples of preserves and jams to try:
- Apple Butter
- Blackberry jam
- Fig butter
- Raspberry jam
- Strawberry jam
- Peach preserves
- Orange marmalade
One great thing about a traditional julep served in its metal cup – you can’t see through the glass to view the color of the cocktail. You can’t see if it’s clear or cloudy. That means using jams and jellies, which make the cocktail cloudy and unappealing if used in a cocktail built in a glass, have no effect on the overall visual appeal.
That’s one reason I don’t usually employ jams and jellies in cocktails that I’m going to build in a glass. I prefer my cocktails less murky. But in a julep cup, you can’t really tell if the jam makes it a bit cloudy.
Suggested Flavor Pairings for a Mint Julep Cocktail Riff
To begin the process of designing your own mint julep, pick out the flavor combination you’d like to work with. Think about what theme you’d like to start with – fruity, savory, sweet, etc. and build the elements of the mint julep around that. Think outside the box, pairing unusual flavors together like basil and tomato jam. Or, steer toward comfort with pecans and maple.
Here are some flavor combinations to consider, but remember the sky is the limit here. Choose a flavor combination you love, or one that sounds intriguing and get started mixing up your own mint julep:
- Peach/Basil or rosemary
- Peanut Butter/Banana
- Strawberry/Basil or lavender
- Coffee/Cinnamon Mint
- Pineapple (and coconut)/Mint
- Lavender/Bergamot (Earl Grey)
- Maple/Fig or cinnamon
Easy Example of a Mint Julep Riff
In addition to the 7 fun and easy mint juleps, I decided to play with some flavors I had around the house. I used frozen cherries, a little maple liqueur, Old Forester bourbon and chocolate mint. I put together a Cherry Mint Julep that’s a simple riff on the classic and easy to put together.
You could easily substitute maple syrup instead of maple liqueur, or use cherry preserves instead of fresh cherries. Check out the recipe below for more details.
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Cherry Mint Julep
- 2 oz bourbon
- ¼ oz cherry liqueur
- ¼ oz maple liqueur
- 8 large mint leaves
- 5 cherries fresh or frozen, but defrosted
- Garnish: mint and frozen cherries
- Muddle large mint leaves and cherries in the bottom of a julep cup. Add maple liqueur, bourbon and cherry liqueur and give the cocktail a good stir. Fill with crushed ice, stir once or twice and place the mint sprig and straw in the cocktail. Garnish with a skewer full of frozen cherries.