There has always been something rather leisurely about the Mint Julep. That cool, refreshing mix of Bourbon, Sugar & Mint has a wonderful way of always hitting the spot on barmy summer evenings. Or raising your heart-beat just a flutter, as you watch your horse come in at the Kentucky Derby.
Now while we would always recommend that you use an exceptional Bourbon and the freshest of Mint, it is actually the ice that makes the Julep truly magical. The one thing that you probably don’t even think of as an ingredient, is for this cocktail, the most important ingredient of all.
To get that really good frost on the outside of the cup, the drink should contain a lot of crushed ice, which is stirred vigorously. As crushed ice has more surface area than cubes of ice, it melts a bit more into the cocktail over time, making the drink especially delicious.
The mint julep has been a Southern tradition since at least the early 1700s. The first mention of the drink in the U.S. comes from Englishman John Davis’ book “Travels of Four Years and a Half in the United States: 1798-1802.” In it, Davis describes the Julep as “a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
It has to be realised that back in the 18th century, the combination of ice and the traditional silver cup in which the Julep is always served, made the drink very much a wealthy mans libation. At that time, in the Southern States, ice was expensive and very much a luxury. And a collection of silver Julep cups not only signified wealth but also had a functional purpose, ensuring the cocktail was properly frosted for the best drinking experience.
One of the best descriptions of this magisterial concoction comes from Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. in a letter written to General William D. Connor dated March 30, 1937, the superintendent of the U.S Military Academy at West Point. In it, he is responding to the General’s request for the mint julep recipe. Here is an excerpt:
“A mint julep is not the product of a formula. It is a ceremony and must be performed by a gentleman possessing a true sense of the artistic, a deep reverence for the ingredients, and a proper appreciation of the occasion. It is a rite that must not be entrusted to a novice, a statistician, nor a Yankee. It is a heritage of the Old South, an emblem of hospitality, and a vehicle in which noble minds can travel together upon the flower-strewn paths of happy and congenial thought.”
“… a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint steeped in it, taken by Virginians of a morning.”
Early recipes for juleps used various kinds of liquor. Cognac was believed to be the base of the first Mint Juleps but as time went on Bourbon – America’s native whiskey – became the alcoholic mixer of choice.
Now you’ve got to love a drink that comes with its own accessories and we would be remiss in talking about Juleps without mentioning a Julep strainer. An interesting artefact, this is not a strainer as you normally think of one. Its role was not to hold the ice back as you strained the drink into a glass but instead to hold ice back as you drank the drink itself.
The best way to think of it is that the Julep Strainer can be considered the precursor to today’s drink straw. The julep strainer was designed in such a way that it would sit snugly on top of the typical julep cup and allow the consumer to hold it in place whilst enjoying their perfectly curated mint julep.
As with any cocktails with only a few ingredients, every single component must do some serious work. some tips are –
- Don’t over muddle the mint – muddle just enough to get the oils on the inside of the cup for flavour and aroma
- Use a good, strong Bourbon – the ice is there to dilute the Bourbon, so it’s good to start with something with a bit of backbone.
- Crush that ice – whether you crush your ice in a Lewis bag, a tea towel or a blender, this drink is all about the ice, so pile it high
- Serve it in silver – the best Julep cups have a copper core to keep the drink truly frosty. If you don’t have cups then a tall Old Fashioned or a Highball glass can be used.
If you want to go beyond the traditional, we have 7 Mint Julep variations that are well worth a try.