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Mint Juleps Make Life Better

It’s Kentucky Derby time! Next Saturday marks the 138th run for the roses at Churchill Down in Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll be fortunate enough to be there for my first Derby. Hopefully it will be the first of many.

Derby week is always right about the time spring hits its stride.  That means it’s time to usher in warmer weather cocktails to cool those hot afternoons. I love that bartenders and mixologists are pushing the noble craft forward, but I’m also a purist. I don’t believe you can top a properly prepared classic cocktail made with great whiskey.  As I’ve stated numerous times, the mint julep is my favorite of them all.

Scan the internet and you’ll find countless articles and blog posts on the mint julep. Doing some research of my own I ran across articles claiming that Louisville, KY locals rarely drink mint juleps except for Derby week.  I sure as hell hope that isn’t true!  Last week a highly regarded whiskey writer called the Mint Julep a “special occasion drink”.   I certainly don’t believe that’s true, but if it is, then it’s a personal mission of mine to change that perception.

See, in my opinion, mint juleps are for drinking whenever the mood strikes you. Much like a great bottle of wine can turn a humble dinner into a great meal, a mint julep does the same for any hot afternoon. Mint juleps really do make life better. That’s not too dramatic I promise.  If you have never brought a frosted julep cup to your nose, inhaled its sweet, intoxicating mint and spirit aroma, and then felt your whole body cool as the elixer slid down the back of your throat, then you don’t know what you are missing.  And we need to fix that pronto!

So what do you need to know about the Mint Julep’s history? Well for starters it’s like anything else.  We always want to trace something back to a single origin, but history is messier than that. What seems most consistent is the term “julep” likely comes from the Persian word “julab”, which is literally a mixture of rose infused water. A broader definition might be simply that of botanicals and water.

At some point, the julep reference began to refer to medicinal concoctions of herbs and spirits.   I am sure someone along the way pulled a Mary Poppins, adding some sugar or syrup to “make the medicine go down” in a much more delightful way. These juleps, or at least the idea of them, made their way to the Southern United States.  Once here we applied our own bit of ingenuity to the cocktail (like we do with most things!).

Cognac or rum were the original spirits used to make a mint julep, but eventually Southerners substituted what they had – Bourbon and/or Rye Whiskey.  We owe the cocktails solidification into the bar keep’s arsenal to Kentucky Senator, Henry Clay.  Clay introduced the mint julep to bars in Washington D.C. some time in the early 1800′s. The rest is history.

I like history, but I like talking whiskey and cocktails more.   That’s why this week I’ll be breaking down each component in the classic Mint Julep, and telling you not only what I recommend using to make one properly, but also why each ingredient and technique is so important.  By Wednesday or Thursday you’ll be primed and ready for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but most importantly for those ordinary hot afternoons.

Let’s make some juleps!

-Jason

15 Comments

  1. Rick B. says:

    Hmmmm…. I do know where a mint patch is here in the neighborhood. Might have to raid it and give a julep a try. I’d probably try one with Bulliet, that shouldn’t get lost in the mix.

  2. DBMaster says:

    If memory serves, Jason’s favorite Bourbon for a mint julep is Buffalo Trace (standard expression).

  3. MAL says:

    I’ll be hosting my annual mint julep gathering on Saturday night, can’t wait. I too, although not a professional bartender, make a damn fine julep. Its not perfect though, and thats because I’ve read that the perfect julep can only be crafted by a southern gentleman. I’m from the north and some would say I’m no gentleman, so I guess I can’t make a perfect julep.

  4. Mal, that is pure myth my man. While I am a southern gentleman, and I do believe I make one of the finest mint juleps in the land, I also believe anyone can make a great one with a little forethought. And while I know you were joking a little, I am serious – everyone can make a great Julep with some care.

    Do you have any secrets in yours?

  5. DBMaster I hate to give it away now when I’m about to in another day or so, but yes BT (Standard) is a favorite. But I need to qualify that statement. If you are looking for a moderate strength julep and favor something not quite as sweet – BT is a GREAT one. For something a bit more fruity, I love Four Roses Small Batch. Try a BT Julep and a FR Small Batch Julep side by side and tell me the whiskey doesn’t make a BIG difference in the finished product.

    My house julep however, and probably one of my faves, is Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond. It’s 100 proof and just a fantastic julep maker. Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond does the trick also if you want something with a bit more zip and spice.

    More on this subject shortly.

  6. Lanny DeVaney says:

    One word of advise about mint – here in the South it is *very* easy to grow, maybe too easy. It will really take over. For instance, I planted some last spring (’11) in a raised bed with tomatoes and peppers. Our winter here in north Alabama was so mild this year that the mint never died off and this spring the entire raised bed was covered in mint. It has shooter roots that can be several feet long. The end result is I have about 10 wal-mart bags full of mint leaves, so I’m well prepared for this Saturday.

  7. iskch1 says:

    Mint Juleps & Margaritas weekend!

  8. Rick B. says:

    Lanny is absolutely correct. If you plant mint keep an eye on it as it will become a noxious weed if left unchecked. I once spent two growing seasons and about 5 gallons of broadleaf control fighting back a sprig of lemon mint my wife thought might be fun to have in the herb garden.

  9. Kris L-B says:

    I just made my first ever mint julep and I followed your recipe on YouTube (but using standard Four Roses), and it is FANTASTIC. Many thanks for sharing your expertise and opinion. I’m looking forward to many more of these once it warms up a bit. Thanks again!

  10. sam k says:

    I have a nit of a wild mint patch down near the stream, and our julep season corresponds to that patch, when it’s ready, julep season has begun. When it fades, the time has passed. It is a short but glorious and much anticipated time at our house.

    Also, if you’ve never seen Chris McMillian mixing a julep while reciting Joshua Soule Smith’s classic ode to the drink, do yourself a favor: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJV-O1e10z8

  11. Sam this is simply the best cocktail video on the internet. While I believe there are whiskeys that work better in a Mint Julep than Maker’s Mark, there is absolutely nothing that can be faulted with Chris’ recipe. It’s the perfect mint julep. And honestly mine is virtually identical, save for the different spirit.

    Thanks for posting this fantastic video.

    “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the Julep. The mint julep.” Love it.

  12. Kris – glad you enjoyed it. It’s a simple recipe, just some basic components. I’ll be talking about that in the next day on the site. Stay tuned!

  13. sam k says:

    I think Chris must have had some sort of arrangement with MM…it seems to be featured in every video he has that uses bourbon.

    I’m going to give the OGD BIB a shot on your recommendation. I think it will be perfect!

  14. SteveBM says:

    After mixing up mint juleps daily since last Friday, I find myself strongly agreeing with the title of this post!!

  15. Glad to hear it SteveBM!

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