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!


Whiskey Glassware for Nosing and Tasting

Let’s say you’ve gone out and spent some good money on a bottle of fantastic whiskey. If you are like me, you can’t wait to head home and pour that sucker in the first glass you see. This might typically mean reaching for a “rocks” glass, the one that’s squat low and sturdy.

After pouring that sweet amber nectar you raise the glass to your sniffer and then………and then………nothing. Or perhaps very little, if anything, pushes it’s way to your nostrils. That’s because the rocks glass (or lowball or whatever you wish to call it) is fitting for some of the great classic cocktails (like my favorite, The Old Fashioned). It does not however enhance the aroma of the whiskey that’s glimmering and sloshing around in the bottom. The straight sides and wide opening permits way too much of the aroma to escape, leaving you looking like a basset hound rooting the top of the glass to collect what you can.

The Nose Knows
The human nose is powerful. While we can taste 4-5 basic flavors (including umami), our sense of smell can detect 30-plus (I think more than that but I’m no scientist). On top of that, the interplay between nosing and tasting a whiskey makes the experience so much fuller than tasting alone. There are whiskeys out there that I’ve sat down and nosed for 10 minutes before ever taking a sip. I was perfectly happy doing so because the nose of a whiskey can be captivating.

The bottom line is nosing is a huge part of overall enjoyment. I urge you to spend more time doing it (if you don’t currently). In order to get the most out it, you’ll need the right hardware for the job.

The Right Tools
Please drink your whiskey however you want to and enjoy it. I cannot underscore that point enough! But if you are a whiskey geek like me and really want to explore that whiskey, then investing in good glassware is a great place to start. The type of glassware I’m referring to is a nosing/tasting glass.

You can start by looking for a glass that might hold anywhere from 6-10 ounces of liquid and pinches in reasonably at the nose. Picture a white wine or chardonnay glass. The “tulip” shape provides enough of a “bowl” for which to swirl or agitate the whiskey easily, releasing aromas. The tighter, “pinched” opening then concentrates those aromas so you can experience them more easily.

If you are new to whiskey, just exploring, or not ready to invest in glassware – no problem. Don’t make it a chore or put more formality on yourself. I’d rather see you focus on enjoyment rather than stressing over glassware. Use a white wine glass or something in line with the description above. It’s a perfect starter, and I use them today from time to time.

The Next Step
If you are looking for something a little more specialized, give the following suggestions a try. All of them are fantastic for getting the most out of your whiskey. Please click the “red” link titles to view each option more closely.

Riedel Vinum Port Glass: Yep, that is not a misprint. It’s a port glass, but it’s a hell of a whiskey glass too. The 7+ ounce bowl provides plenty of room for the whiskey. The gradual pinching of the opening is not too tight and allows a nice even aroma to leave the glass. This is honestly a favorite of mine. $39.99 for 2 online and in many finer glassware stores.

The Glencairn: The Glencairn has been widely adopted by the Scotch Whisky industry. And with good reason. Notice the nice bowl and smaller opening – perfect for nosing. The thick, sturdy base provides a ideal place to hold the glass or rest it on a table. Not to mention, this glass is nice and sturdy itself. Personally I prefer a stemmed glass. To me they are easier to pick up and I don’t risk warming the whiskey too much with my hands. Overall this is an excellent option, and probably the most popular among enthusiasts. Approximately $10 a glass. You can usually find them for around that price.

The Glencairn Copita Glass: The classic “copita” shaped nosing glass is the perfect whiskey glass to me. This one is my favorite of the entire group. It’s not quite as deep as a port glass, but still ample room to swirl the spirit. I prefer how this glass doesn’t pinch in quite as dramatically as the standard Glencairn. That’s especially good when you are nosing whiskey with really high proof/alcohol percentage. The problem is these glasses are tougher to find, but this link (click the “red” title) will allow you to purchase them for $11 plus shipping.

Riedel Sommeliers Series Cognac XO Glass: This is an expensive one, but a great one. Notice the shape shares some similarities to the Glencairn. It’s a good bit more delicate than the Glencairn and smaller. I would classify this as a great special occasion whiskey glass, but it comes at ridiculously high price – $50+/ glass. Yep, that’s robbery and not worth the money in comparison to the others, but a great glass.

Crate and Barrel sold a good, solid port glass for $4 – fantastic to stock up on for group tastings. Unfortunately they’ve sold out of them at this time, but keep on the look for them as a great inexpensive option if they bring them back. If I have people over for tastings they are perfect to pour many at a time. If 1-2 break – oh well!

Also I’d recommend steering clear of Riedel’s Single Malt and Bourbon glass. Riedel make great glasses, but I think they missed the mark on both of these. The Single Malt glass just simply sucks – period. The Bourbon Glass, while reasonably good for getting the notes from a whiskey, is designed with an extremely short stem that’s not very natural to hold.

Stock Up Slowly
Take a look at your glassware options on hand for nosing and tasting whiskey. Start small and add a few of these when you can. It’s even fun to have a couple of each over time in case you are in the mood to try something different. The right glassware will allow a fuller appreciation and evaluation of all the whiskey has to offer. It’s educational, fun, and even makes it easier to determine what you like (or don’t).

Coming soon I’ll be doing some videos on my tasting and review process for those that are interested. Please be on the look out.

So what is your favorite whiskey glass?

Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon

Four Roses Yellow Label Bourbon, 40% (Abv)/80 Proof, $17-20

Light and fresh on the nose with Nutmeg, Rye, and Mint. Sweetness on the sniff takes the form of Marshmallow Fluff and Banana with Vanilla undertones. This bourbon remains light and lively in the mouth, with an airy dryness of Oak and Vanilla. The sweetness is minimal up front on the palette with some light maple syrup and caramel. Finishes dry with cinnamon and prickly spice notes coming through. Drink neat or in a cocktail. An excellent value for the dollar, and well made by the folks at Four Roses.

Sour Mash Manifesto Rating: 8.2 (Excellent)

The Perfect Mint Julep

Thank you for visiting the site. Another mint julep recipe on the internet may not be necessary, but I want to save your taste buds tomorrow with the finest mint julep recipe there is.

I’ve tried them all: brown sugar, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, plain simple syrup, over a dozen brands of Bourbon and Rye Whiskey. This is the best. Subtle sweetness, great bourbon flavor, and of course all the romance and nostalgia associated with the classic Mint Julep cocktail.

Picking the right bourbon is a critical step in the process. I like a bourbon with a good bit of spicy, dry, and oaky character to stand up to the sweetness and mint. That character comes from heavier amounts of Rye in the distillers grain recipe. I also don’t think it’s a very good idea to pour ultra premium single barrels and small batch bourbons in a julep. It’s a mixed cocktail and there are tremendous bourbons available in the $20-30 range that give you a nice middle ground to work with. The 3 I’ve listed below are fantastic – give em a try or substitute your favorite. I have some variations on this recipe, but the best will always be the classic.

Please check out the recipe below and let me know what you think. And don’t just make it for Kentucky Derby tomorrow. Mint Juleps are the South’s answer to a Mojito, only it was made a couple hundred years earlier. Enjoy them often.

Until next time…….

Drink your Bourbon!

    Perfect Mint Julep Recipe:

-3/4 ounce Mint Simple Syrup (Recipe Follows) (Half a full jigger or the small side, usually, of a two sided jigger)
-6 Mint Leaves (medium to large size)
-3 ounces (Three Favorites: Buffalo Trace, Bulleit, Four Roses Small Batch)
-Chipped Ice

Pour Mint Simple Syrup in cocktail glass of choice (Double Old Fashioned or Squat cocktail glass). Add mint leaves, and “muddle” gently with a muddler or wooden spoon for 5-10 seconds until glass is fragrant with Mint oils. Be careful not to overly smash and break up the mint.

Add chipped ice right to top of the glass. Pour 3 ounces of bourbon over ice. Stir gently to incorporate mint and simple syrup from the bottom of the glass.

Garnish with Mint Sprig and enjoy the finest Mint Julep you can make/buy/steal. If you require a straw, cut plastic straw one inch above glass rim to bring your nose closer to the cocktail and fragrant mint. Cheers to you!

Mint Simple Syrup:
-2 cups Sugar
-1 cup water
-10 mint leaves plus stems

Place Sugar and Water in a heavy duty sauce pan. Bring to a boil, then turn off the heat. Add mint to the mixture and allow to steep until syrup is cool (room temperature). Place in a container and refrigerate. As soon as mint syrup cools to room temperature it is ready to use for cocktail making, but after 24 hours in the refrigerator it’s at it’s peak.