I mentioned in my earlier post this week that I am a purist for the most part. That doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the bizarre every now and again, but it does however drive my philosophy about a number of things. Most notably food and drink. We tend to over complicate stuff that is so perfect to begin with. When it comes to cooking and making cocktails I start with great ingredients. Then I showcase them as purely and simply as possible.
Mind you, there is no Mint Julep police out there. You can go nuts with this if you so choose. I’ll share with you some of my recommendations on variations that have worked well for me. For now, let’s dive into the individual components that make up a perfect Classic Mint Julep. At the end of this post I have included a video recipe to follow. It was produced about a year ago, the sound is poor, but it’s a great recipe. Supplemented with the information below, there is no doubt that if you follow these simple ideas, and execute well, you’ll be sipping the finest mint juleps on Derby Saturday (and hopefully every Saturday thereafter).
Let’s get started!
The Components for the Perfect Mint Julep
The Right Vessel:
The perfect vessel for a mint julep is creatively enough called…..a Julep Cup. It’s usually made of stainless steel or pewter. Stainless Steel is my preference because it’s a great heat conductor, pulling heat away from the contents in the cup. This helps to create condensation on the outside of the cup that actually freezes with the proper application of ice (below). This frost silver cup is not just dramatic to look at. It’s also quite practical on a hot spring/summer day, helping to produce a colder finished cocktail. Smarter people than me can tell you why. I just know it works.
Where do you find a mint julep cup? They are everywhere online (google it) and you can pay as little or as much as you wish. My one recommendation is to spring for stainless steel – you won’t be sorry. However, DO NOT fret if you don’t have a Mint Julep cup. It’s a unitasker that you’ll use for one thing and one thing only. A simple rocks glass will work just fine. The thinner it is the better for proper frost buildup, but it’ll still taste fantastic regardless. A mint julep in a rocks glass is a hell of a lot better than no mint julep at all.
The Perfect Mint:
Peppermint is to a mint julep what finger nails are to a chalkboards. They don’t go together. If you try to force the marriage, the results can be cringe-worthy. A mint julep requires a much rounder, sweeter form of mint. In short – spearmint. If this is a little confounding, let me give you a practical example. Head to your nearest supermarket or convenience store and purchase a pack of peppermint and spearmint gum. Try both. Which is sharper, spicier, and more intense? I would imagine 90+% of you would say the peppermint. And you’d be correct. Sure the gum probably contains artificial mint, but this little experiment drives home exactly what you’re dealing with in the fresh form.
Spearmint’s soft sweetness blends harmoniously with the bourbon, syrup, and ice. And frankly it doesn’t taste like toothpaste. My favorite types of mint for this purpose is red stem spearmint, and Kentucky Colonel. Both are brilliant choices. If you live in the Southeastern U.S., and purchase packages of mint from the grocery store, take note of a red stem on the mint sprig. If you look closely in the picture above you may be able to make out the rhurbarb colored stem. If you see that, you’ve got what you need. If you have wild mint growing in your back yard, try a leaf. Is it acrid, overly minty, or does it have a soft minty flavor to it? Let your taste buds be your guide, but hopefully the above gives you an idea of what you are looking for.
The Ice is Right:
This is pretty easy. You need good clean ice. If your freezer produces ice with “off” freezer flavors, don’t ruin all your hard work and effort. Go grab a good quality bag ice from the super market. Once you’ve got clean, great tasting ice to work with, it’s time to get to crushing. The perfect mint julep requires an almost snow cone-like powdery ice. First, it chills the bourbon and syrup within much quicker. Second, it helps with frosting the glass. Think whiskey, mint, and simple syrup snow cone and you have the right idea for the ice consistency. So how do you get that? You can use a Lewis Bag if you have one. If not (I don’t have one) you can simply use a good clean lint free tea towel. Grab your ice, load it up in the tea towel, and gather everything up tightly (see below).
Once you have everything tightly gathered, begin bashing away with a meat cleaver or soft rubber mallet. You can even use a rolling pin. The goal is to turn that ice into powdery snow (see below). The tea towel helps to wick away any moisture, leaving the ice dry and ready for making the perfect Mint Julep. When I’m making mint juleps for the masses, I will spend a morning bashing away and reserving the ice in containers I can freeze until I’m ready to use.
I am not a fan of watered down cocktails. To combat this, I use a simple syrup recipe that consists of a sugar to water ratio of 2 to 1. Most use a 1 to 1 ratio. To start, simply take 2 cups of sugar, add 1 cup of water, place in a medium saucepan, and bring up to heat over a medium flame. Don’t use high of heat. All you want to do is fully dissolve the sugar. Once that happens, remove the simple syrup from the heat and reserve to the side. You will need to cool it down to room temperature before making any mint juleps. If you’d like to ramp up the mint flavor, here is a great opportunity to do so. Grab a good 4-6 sprigs of fresh mint and add it to the hot simple syrup while it cools. Much like steeping tea, you’ll infuse the simple syrup with even more mint flavor. You can also make this well in advance (days if need be) and reserve in the refrigerator. It’ll be ready when you are. Remember, you can vary the sweetness you desire with just a bit more or less simple syrup. Play with it to see what works for your tastes.
The Main Ingredient: Whiskey
I’ve said this a number of times already. Each of these components is critical to the finished product. However, because we’re using anywhere from 2.5-3 ounces of whiskey – this ingredient may be the most critical. My preferences lean towards higher proof bourbons for a mint julep. The additional proof takes longer time to water down with the ice and syrup, resulting in a stronger drink to start, but one that mellows more slowly than lower proof whiskey.
Now, if you don’t believe just how greatly a specific whiskey can influence the finished drink, I have another experiment for you. Two bourbons I really enjoy using for a mint julep are Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon and Buffalo Trace Bourbon. Because of the Four Roses’ healthy dose of fruity flavor, the resulting mint julep is more fruit forward. It’s beautiful. The Buffalo Trace is drier and more rustic, yielding an entirely different mint julep, but equally wonderful. Pick your poison.
My “house” julep is made with Very Old Barton Bottled in Bond. At 100 proof and with ample rye character and balanced sweetness, this makes a tremendous julep. Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond, also 100 proof, adds a bit more rye zip. What’s important to note is each of these whiskeys are below $30. The last two I mentioned are well under $20. Don’t break out the expensive stuff for mint juleps. It’s not necessary.
If Rye whiskey is your thing – by all means give it a go. I prefer bourbon in a mint julep, but a great rye adds a whole other dimension of flavor. Give Rittenhouse Bottled in Bond, Sazerac Rye, and Wild Turkey 101 Rye (if you can find it right now) a try.
Mint Julep Variations:
I don’t make variants on the classic very often. When I do, I keep it simple, introducing perhaps one, but no more than 2 additional components. In the heat of summer, when peaches are at their finest, I’ll muddle a good chunk of peach, skin and all (lots of flavor there!), with the mint and simple syrup. It’s pretty fantastic. I have also not hesitated to add a couple dashes of bitters, or even muddled lemon wedge from time to time. Feel free to play with this and add things you like. I’m not a big fan of berries – it sounds good on paper, but the results I’ve found to be a bit inconsistent.
The Finished Mint Julep:
There you have it. The components are pretty simple, but require just a bit of forethought and a little preparation. I’ve included a photo of a finished mint julep below – a Kentucky Snow Cone. Doesn’t that look incredible?
As mentioned to start this post, please check out my Mint Julep Video where I actually show you how to craft one. Now get to making those mint juleps and let me know what you think.
Enjoy the Derby, and Drink your Bourbon!