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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

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

The Classic Mint Julep Cocktail

Over the years I’ve made Mint Julep’s many ways – granulated sugar, simple syrups, brown sugar, fruit, citrus, you name it. But I’m really a purist at heart, and this is the best recipe because nothing gets in the way of the bourbon, mint, sweetness, and powdery crushed ice. Think of it as a bourbon and mint snowcone of sorts.

There are a few keys to this one – light crushed ice, gentle mint muddling (no mashing!), the mint syrup, and using a bourbon that brings a nice balance of sweetness, spice, and oak flavors. I really enjoy Buffalo Trace, Four Roses Small Batch, and Wild Turkey 101 for this purpose. If you want to mix it up a little, replace the bourbon with a great rye whiskey like Rittenhouse or Russell’s Reserve.

I hope you will give this one a try for the Kentucky Derby this weekend, but please don’t stop there. There’s months and months left to enjoy this cool, classic Southern cocktail. Cheers!

Ode to the Mint Julep

Would it surprise you if one of my favorite pieces of literature was written about whiskey? Or more specifically about the great Mint Julep? Probably not, and hopefully after reading it you will understand why. For those that have seen it already, I do apologize. It has made the rounds in recent years, brought to the fore by Chris McMillian, a New Orleans Bartender (and drinking historian) at Bar Uncommon. If you visit there while Chris is working, you might be able to coax him into reciting this gem as he crafts a handmade Mint Julep for you.

This bit of prose published in the Lexington Herald in the late 1800′s, was written by Lexington, KY journalist and judge Joshua Soule Smith. Hopefully it will strike a chord with you as it did me. It’s Kentucky Derby week and it’s time to talk about that Southern Institution – The Mint Julep.

The Mint Julep by Joshua Soule Smith

Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep – the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain. The honey of Hymettus brought no such solace to the soul; the nectar of the Gods is tame beside it. It is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings.

The Bourbon and the mint are lovers. In the same land they live, on the same food they are fostered. The mint dips infant leaf into the same stream that makes The Bourbon what it is. The corn grows in the level lands through which small streams meander. By the brook-side the mint grows. As the little wavelets pass, they glide up to kiss the feet of the growing mint, and the mint bends to salute them. Gracious and kind it is, living only for the sake of others. Like a woman’s heart it gives its sweetest aroma when bruised. Among the first to greet the spring, it comes. Beside gurgling brooks that make music in the fields, it lives and thrives. When the bluegrass begins to shoot its gentle sprays towards the sun, mint comes, and its sweetest soul drinks at the crystal brook. It is virgin then. But soon it must be married to old Bourbon. His great heart, his warmth of temperament, and that affinity which no one understands, demands the wedding.

How shall it be? Take from the cold spring some water, pure as angels are; mix it with sugar till it seems like oil. Then take a glass and crush your mint within it with a spoon – crush it around the borders of the glass and leave no place untouched. Then throw the mint away – it is the sacrifice. Fill with cracked ice the glass; pour in the quantity of Bourbon which you want. It trickles slowly through the ice. Let it have time to cool, then pour your sugared water over it. No spoon is needed; no stirring allowed- just let it stand a moment. Then around the brim place sprigs of mint, so that the one who drinks may find the taste and odor at one draft.

Then when it is made, sip it slowly. August suns are shining, the breath of the south wind is upon you. It is fragrant cold and sweet – it is seductive. No maidens kiss is tenderer or more refreshing, no maidens touch could be more passionate. Sip it and dream-it is a dream itself. No other land can give you so much sweet solace for your cares; no other liquor soothes you in melancholy days. Sip it and say there is no solace for the soul, no tonic for the body like old Bourbon whiskey.

Drink your Bourbon!

-Jason

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.