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Mint Julep Perfection: The Components

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.

Simple Syrup:

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!

-Jason

Review: 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Barrel Select Bourbon

Barton Brands Distillery, owned by Sazerac (the same folks that own Buffalo Trace), has produced 1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon for almost a decade or so now. This bourbon is called “barrel select”, which essentially means it is a small batch bourbon. The master distiller selects barrels that he deems “ready” for batching together with other barrels and then bottles these “batches” separately. The minimum age of each barrel in 1792 (the year KY became the 15th state) is 8 years. That’s a fair bit of age, and what some believe to be a real sweet spot for most bourbons. Of course that’s extremely subjective.

With so many fantastic American Whiskeys under the Sazerac umbrella, I am interested in seeing how this one stacks up. It’s been a long time since I’ve sat down and had a pour of 1792.

1792 Ridgemont Reserve Bourbon, 46.85% abv (93.7 Proof), $25

Color: Deep Amber/Copper

Nose: Firm rye spice really elbows its way through at first with undercurrents of ripe fruit (Red Apple, Banana, Orange rind) and soft caramel eventually revealing themselves. There’s a ton of dried oak throughout. This is rye forward bourbon for sure and really shines after a good bit of air time. I find this common with many high rye mashbills (Old Grand-Dad Bottled in Bond comes to mind).

Palate: Much like the nose, the rye asserts itself immediately. It’s prickly, peppery, and very dry with mint, licorice, cinnamon and again loads of dried wood flavors. It’s certainly a bit of an oak monster with some astringency and a thin quality on the palate. Some maple sugars and faint fruit flavors (apple, dried apricot, golden raisin) take time to come through.

Finish: Bright and sharp with ample cinnamon warmth (big red chewing gum). The rye and oaky dryness again dominate. Moderate in length

Overall: There are some things to really like with this whiskey, but unfortunately some misses as well. Firstly it is not cloyingly sweet in the least, and might appeal to folks that don’t have a big sweet tooth. It also has a bracing nose backed with fruit and subtle sweetness that I felt was quite good. However, I enjoyed sniffing this one more than sipping it. That mentioned dryness overpowers and dominates the richer, sweeter undertones. Those flavors simply can’t get enough traction on the sip. With a bit of air time and a splash of water, things open up considerably, but it’s still unbalanced.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 7.9 (Good)

Perspective: The large vs. small barrel debate

Some of you may have seen the news from Buffalo Trace on their experiments with smaller vs. larger barrels. Long story short – they concluded that small barrels were not optimal for aging whiskey “to maturity”. In order to get these findings, Buffalo Trace aged their standard bourbon (Mashbill #1) for 5 years in 5, 10, and 15 gallon barrels.

Many, including me, were glad to see the results of this experiment come through. Noted whiskey writers like Chuck Cowdery, and (I believe) Lew Bryson, were able to actually taste the whiskeys from Buffalo Trace late last summer/early Fall. Cowdery wrote a post on his site as well as an article (available on Kindle or Nook) on the topic.

I have stated my feelings about small barrels over the last couple of years. I don’t believe they are a secret to anyone that reads this site regularly. Smaller barrels (of the 5, 10, and 15 gallon variety) have become the barrel size of choice for most of the micro distilleries popping up all over the place. Proponents claim they “age the whiskey quicker” than the standard 53 gallon barrel used by larger distilleries. I’m no chemist. I’m pretty sure I never got better than a “C” average in the subject. I do know this – age is age. You cannot age something faster, especially not whiskey.

My personal experiences with younger whiskeys aged in smaller barrels aren’t scientific in the least, but they ARE based on smell and taste. At the end of the day isn’t that what matters? In nearly all examples of small barrel-aged American Whiskeys that I’ve tried, a somewhat funky, green wood, and resiny bitterness asserts itself on the nose and palate. Fortunately some I’ve tried have had less of this quality, making them quite enjoyable, but elements of these flavors are still present.

Basically I agree with Buffalo Trace’s end conclusion – smaller barrels do not age whiskey more optimally than larger barrels, especially long term. But do larger barrels produce a better young whiskey than small barrels? Example: to my knowledge nobody has tasted a large barrel and a small barrel side by side at say 6 months, 1 year, 18 months, etc. etc and reported the results. Last week I was able to gain a lot more perspective on this debate……..

Thursday afternoon I received a call from Mike Williams, proprietor of Tennessee Distilling Company, makers of Collier & McKeel Tennessee Whiskey. Since April 2011 Mike’s been distilling (not sourcing), bottling, and selling one of the first whiskeys in Tennessee (since Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel) to follow the Lincoln County Process (charcoal “mellowing”). Mike didn’t call me to come review his whiskey. Instead he had a different proposition for me – - “Jason I’m moving some barrels to our new distillery location. We happen to have a 53 gallon barrel that has been aging for the same period of time as our 15 gallon barrels.” I was intrigued. He then asked me, “Would you like to come try them both side by side?” It took me about a half second to say “yes”. We made arrangements to meet last Friday afternoon.

For some quick background – Collier and McKeel has been experimenting with barrel sizes since the distillery opened. The whiskey was initially aged in 5 gallon barrels with a goal to move to 15 gallon barrels as soon as possible. That goal was met quickly. Within a few months Collier and McKeel whiskey was being aged in 15s.

By the time last Fall rolled around, the distillery had begun producing consistently enough to warrant a look at 53 gallon barrels. Mike sourced some of the standard 53s, and filled one in October of last year. It was this very barrel that Mike Williams referenced on the phone with me. When I met him that day he also confirmed that both barrels were filled the same day in October and aged the same length of time at just over 6 months.

Mike does know my thoughts on small barrels. In some respects he shares the same viewpoint – we’ve discussed it before. In an effort to make the tasting as unbiased as possible I suggested tasting them blind. I turned my back for 4-5 minutes while he pulled off a good pour from each barrel into a couple of glasses. After giving me the signal, I turned around and moved in quickly so as not to study the color too intently from afar. I cannot tell a lie, my eyes did examine the contents a bit longer than I’d like. The variances were not that dramatic, but enough to clue me in. Color can be a dead giveaway because the larger surface area interaction in the smaller barrels deepens the color in a shorter period of time.

Even before trying Sample B (Large Barrel), a deep whiff of Sample A (Small Barrel) was all it took to determine that it was in fact aged in the smaller barrels. I nodded in the direction of Sample A and then continued with the comparison. Sample A (Small Barrel) demonstrated a far headier sweetness on the nose with much more caramel, vanilla, and wood spice influence. The big backbone of oak and wood resin bitterness helped give it away. Sample B (Large Barrel) in contrast was brighter, crisper, and with that new make whiskey funk (sour grain and cereals) often more prevalent on heavy corn mashbills (Collier and McKeel’s grain recipe is 75% Corn, 15% Rye, and 10% Barley Malt). Tasting each whiskey didn’t do anything to sway my initial thoughts on which was which. It was clear from the start.

Once Mike confirmed my thoughts were correct, he asked for my opinion on which I enjoyed most. Simply put, Sample A (the 15 gallon barrel) was by far the best of the two. It certainly tasted young (it is!) but there was no contest. I even blended a portion of each sample together and gave that a try. The result was the same. The smaller barrel produced the best whiskey at this age. And it was good whiskey. The 53 on the other hand was thin, and still tasted primarily of the new-make.

Mike let me know that Collier and McKeel intends to age more 53 gallon barrels to hold until they are ready. They will continue sampling these larger barrels alongside the 15s to determine at what point the big barrels begin to shine. Until then, they will sell whiskey from 15 gallon barrels. “I would love to go away from 15 gallon barrels”, added Mike. “From a cost standpoint alone, I can get the larger barrels in my hands for 2/3rds of the price of the 15 gallon barrels. Right now the 15′s just make better whiskey at this age range. It’s a balance for us.”

This experiment was a great one for me to see first hand. It also put things into better context for me. Buffalo Trace’s conclusion is still correct. Larger barrels do in fact age whiskey more optimally. They also can age whiskey for a longer period without the adverse affects of too much wood interaction. However, my Friday tasting with Mike was a great example of where the small barrels yielded a better product at 6 months. At what point that changes remains to be seen. I hope to have an opportunity to try the same large barrel in another 6 months to a year and see where things are at that point.

A few weeks ago I posted about the “shades of gray” that exist within the whiskey industry. Add the large vs. small barrel debate to the list. It’s very easy to be on one side or the other of this discussion. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

If you are a new distillery looking to make the best whiskey you can make, I would still urge you to go with large barrels. However if time is of the essence and you must make the best whiskey you can in the shortest amount of time – small barrels are still your best bet.

Thanks go to Mike Williams at Collier and McKeel for the chance to taste these side by side. It was an education and it was fun.

Review: Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C (Tornado Surviving) Bourbon

In the spring of 2006, a tornado rampaged the grounds of Buffalo Trace distillery, doing considerable damage to two barrel aging warehouses, Warehouses B and C. Warehouse B had no barrels aging at the time, but Warehouse C held 24,000 barrels of whiskey that were now exposed to the elements due to damage to the upper regions of it’s roof and walls.

The bourbon in the third release of the E.H. Taylor Jr. label comes from 93 barrels aged in the top two levels of Warehouse C. These barrels were exposed to the extreme temperatures and weather for at least a few months until the repairs concluded the summer of 2006. Gimmick? Eh, I would say it certainly has the marketing folks fingerprints all over it, but it’s a pretty cool story.

What we do know is the “angels share”, a term commonly used to describe the amount of whiskey that evaporates or leaves the barrel over time, was nearly 64% for these barrels. That means the barrels had only about 35% (on average) of the whiskey still left in them. The bourbon was also between 9 years and 8 months to 11 years and 11 months old when it was batched together and bottled.

Here are my thoughts on this tornado dodging whiskey……..

Colonel E.H. Taylor Jr. Warehouse C (Tornado Surviving) Bourbon, 50% abv (100 Proof), $75

Color: Deep Amber

Nose: A fruit and spice forward nose with ever present oak throughout. Rich dark dried fruits (raisins, plums, figs) soaked in old rum, candied orange, nutmeg, clove and tobacco make for a simply gorgeous nose. Phenomenal!

Palate: Cinnamon, rye spice, and chili right from the start of the sip – very concentrated warmth up front. Candied dark fruits, berry syrup, and brittle caramel lend sweetness. Most of the flavor and punch are in the front half of the mouth, dipping significantly at mid palate, and then building again with very strong wood resin grip and bitterness towards the finish.

Finish: Big baking spices (cinnamon, clove, nutmeg), bitter orange, black tea, and dark caramel. Moderate length.

Overall: E.H. Taylor Tornado (we’ll call it) has a big flavor profile befitting its story. I love the nose, finding it to be damn near perfect. The palate let me down just a bit with much of the excitement happening up front, and then petering out rather swiftly. Nevertheless there’s fantastic flavor here of the rich, deep, fruity, and spicy variety. If very well spiced and fruity bourbons are your thing – this will be right up your alley. This is also the best of the 3 E.H. Taylor releases to date by a considerable margin in my opinion. The price however could use some review. I’d like to see this much closer to $50, and in return the value quotient would improve. Regardless it’s still a superb whiskey worthy of consideration if you don’t mind paying the price.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.9 (Superb/Outstanding)

Shades of Gray

Earlier this week I read a post from David Driscoll of K&L Wine and Spirits, an excellent California based retail store. I’ve frequently mentioned K&L and David because they are an example to what I feel wine and spirits stores need to aspire towards. They educate buyers regardless of the price or producer, bring unique products to attention, and really just make sure K&L is a resource for it’s loyal customers.

The premise of David’s post was the fact that the spirit and whiskey industry is complicated. We get caught up in this notion of “small batch” and “craft” and really – what is that? I’ve had the pleasure of emailing back and forth with David over various topics. He’s taught me a great deal about a number of artisan producers – their passion for just simply producing great stuff regardless of volume (or perhaps even profit), and also their relentless pursuit of the best raw materials. We’ve also had some interesting disagreements on a number of subjects. However his post last week titled “It’s Complicated” encompasses a lot of my thoughts about the world of whiskey today.

I urge you to read this if you are in any way “black or white” on craft/micro producers vs. the big boys. David discusses his recent visit from a passionate Grand Marnier representative. Apparently dreading the session, David was immediately engulfed by the guys passion upon hearing him speak (watch the video K&L’s blog a few posts down). I got to thinking about that and I believe the same is true for many of the big boys of bourbon and American whiskey.

The world is shades of gray folks. It’s so common for people to approach both with preconceived notions and opinions that can many times be changed if you are open to it.

Last Spring at WhiskyFest 2011 in Chicago I talked to Kris Comstock of Buffalo Trace in the Hyatt Regency Hotel Lobby. I think we all may share a feeling that Buffalo Trace is a “big boy”. It was so interesting to hear Kris talk about his desire to finally get BT’s flagship bourbon into all 50 states, and just how small their production really is. It’s clear the passion and care Kris takes in BT’s products. Ask Jim Rutledge of Four Roses where he gets the distillery’s corn and rye. But be prepared to spend 10-15 minutes learning just how critical Jim feels his relationships with the absolute best farmers in the country (or internationally for Rye) are to his finished product. To make assumptions that these guys are using lesser ingredients because they are bigger is very uninformed. To make assumptions they care less simply because they produce tens of thousands of barrels per year is an even bigger mistake.

On the flip side, you have micro distillers like Rick Wasmund of Copper Fox distillery going to the time and expense of floor malting barley at the distillery’s Sperryville, VA location. My numbers may not be exact but I believe there’s less than a half dozen distilleries in Scotland that are floor malting today. Rick knows it costs more, but he doesn’t care – he does it because it makes his product better. Head out to High West in Park City, Utah and talk to David Perkins about the lengths he went through to perfect his new OMG Rye. Having tasted a number of iterations, I know the care and time and energy High West put in to making sure it was EXACTLY the way they wanted. Spend a day with St. George Spirits in Alameda, CA, and if you aren’t excited about the state of their whiskey program then you are deader than a door nail.

The point is exactly as David Driscoll eloquently stated – It’s Complicated. We screw it all up when we make ourselves choose between the little guys and the big guys. Why in the hell do we do that? Why let romantic notions of the little guy sway our opinions of the bigger companies without facts. Why stay with the “old brand” just because we *think* those little guys can’t possibly be as good because they are not as established.

My suggestion is simple. If you find yourself in only one camp, do some research and try a few products across the aisle and see what you think. At worse you expand your whiskey palate. At best you may just find something you’ll love.

Drink your Whiskey!

-Jason

Review: Willett Family Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon – 8 Year (Barrel 305)

Kentucky Bourbon Distillers (KBD) is an Independent Bottler based in Bardstown, Kentucky. While KBD has been in the process of renovating the old Willett Distillery, until recently it had not been doing any distillation. The company’s model has centered on sourcing choice barrels from other distilleries for bottling under their many labels. After the first of the year KBD was able to crank up the still at the distillery, and I sure hope to see some of their own distillate coming out soon. Until then…….

One of their more popular products is the Willett Family Reserve line of longer aged bourbons. The subject of this review is the 8 year old version. The source distillery is unknown and the folks from KBD would probably have to take out all of my taste buds one by one (a fate worse than death) if they told me. Here are my thoughts….

Willett Single Barrel Bourbon (8 Year) , Barrel #305, 64.15% abv (128.30 Proof), $50

Color: Deep Mahogany

Nose: Baked banana, smoky caramel, sorghum syrup, vanilla, cocoa, flint and roasted nuts.

Palate: This is brooding whiskey – molasses, toffee, dark chocolate caramels, bitter espresso, and heavily toasted bread. There is a good bit of waxiness as well. In spite of the deep dark flavors, this whiskey does not drink it’s proof. I would have guessed something around 100-105 – it hides it very well.

Finish: Huge finish with cocoa, coffee, toffee and more of the wood spices than were present on the palate (clove and cinnamon in spades). There’s a nice interplay between bitter and sweet.

Overall: What a fantastic whiskey! This is “end of a great meal” whiskey that could easily substitute for a well balanced dessert. Intense, sweet, bitter, solidly spiced, and interestingly smoky. I loved it from start to finish. At $50 it’s certainly not inexpensive, but considering the proof it is a tremendous value. Without hesitation, this can go toe to toe with the big boys from the Buffalo Trace Antique Collection. One note of caution – as mentioned in the opener, KBD sources these barrels. I can only imagine their program focuses in some way on consistency and flavor profile, but it’s still a single barrel product. As a result I would expect some variation. Please note that I’ll continue tasting some additional barrels and will post my thoughts and updates as I try them. Even considering the potential for variance, I highly recommend you give this one a try.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 9.4 (Superb/Outstanding)