rye whiskey, social hour, tom macy, cocktail, classic cocktail

Mint Julep

Recipe

   

 

In a julep cup or rocks glass, muddle the mint leaves with the simple syrup and whiskey - be careful not to "over-muddle". Fill 3/4 of the way with crushed ice, or the smallest ice cubes you have. 

 

Stir/swizzle for about one whole minute.  The goal is to melt the ice as much as possible while keeping the mint at the bottom. Continue to add more ice as along the way as needed.   When finished, top with more crushed ice so it forms a mound above the cup/glass. Garnish with the mint sprigs and serve with short straws.

Overview

The mint julep is one of the oldest and tastiest cocktails you'll come across.  It’s also one of the simplest.  There are only 3 ingredients, and it is prepared right in the glass it’s served in.   The secret to nailing this cocktail is using the proper the ice and allowing time for it to dilute. More in the notes below.

 

Of course, the Mint Julep is best known for being the official libation of the Kentucky Derby, the famous horserace run at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of every May.  On this day Mint Juleps are consumed throughout the land, including an estimated 120,000 at the derby weekend festivities alone.  

 

But while few cocktails enjoy the honor of having a day that they are universally consumed, I still think this sells the Mint Juleps short.  They are just too good to be enjoyed only once a year.  Mint Juleps make for excellent summer refreshment, and are one of the few whiskey classics more at home out on a porch than by a fireplace. 

If you make a Mint Julep, let me see!  

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Commentary

 

Crushed Ice is Key!

For best results crushed ice is essential to a julep, or at least cracked ice cubes.  The smaller cubes melt quicker providing some much needed extra dilution.  The Mint Julep is one boozy cocktail, yet it goes down dangerously easily.  Crushed ice helps to lengthen the drink and it softens it’s blow.

 

The other benefit of crushed ice is it chills the drink way down to deliciously arctic temperatures.   Of course we know all cocktails taste better cold, but in the case of the julep this is crucial to its balance. 

 

By today's standards, the Mint Julep is an unbalanced cocktail.  Usually a drink with that much sugar would also have some citrus juice to balance things out, but that’s not how the julep rolls (more details on it’s quirky composition are below).  Still, all that sugar is necessary to bring out the flavor of the mint; sugar works in cocktails the way fat does cooking.  This is where the crushed ice comes in.  When something is very cold our perception of it’s flavor, including sweetness, is lessened - the same  istrue for things that are very hot.  So when the julep is chilled down to below freezing levels - which is very possible, ideal even - it doesn’t come off as cloying, but rather, unbearably delicious.

Basic Julep Modifications

​​The Mint Julep recipe is easily modified with simple substitution,

keeping proportions and preparation more or less the same.

Base Spirits

While bourbon is the definitive choice, just about any aged spirits can be used in a Mint Julep, with fantastic results.  For starters, using rye whiskey makes for a subtle but noticeable shift that showcases rye's spiciness and makes for a drier drink.  Cognac, or brandy, makes a very tasty julep too, though I find it to be a little on the soft side.  If you go this route look for something higher proof, like Louis Royer Force 53.  Or compromise and do split the base with cognac and bourbon or rye, as in the Prescription Julep below.  

 

Aged rum also works. This harkens back to early colonial drinking habits when rum was the national spirit of choice. I recommend using Jamaican rum, though any solid amber rum will perform admirably. It's also nice as a float over the top to finish off the drink, again, see the Prescription Julep.

Sweeteners

Some older Mint Julep recipes call for raw sugar or powdered sugar, but I strongly recommend a using syrup.  You can see how to convert raw sugar quantities into syrup quantities here.  Basic simple syrup gives you the cleanest flavors, but many prefer a syrup with darker sugar like demerara for added richness. Honey and maple syrup are also fair game.  

 

Here are two of my favorites variations using simple substitution: 

 
 

Sections

 

The Julep: A Categorical Outlier

A classic julep is composed of a spirit (and sometimes a modifier), sweetener and mint (or perhaps another herb), and is served over crushed ice.  As I discuss in depth on the Shaken Cocktails vs. Stirred Cocktails page, the vast majority of cocktails can be placed in the "Shaken"  or "Stirred" camp, stylistically speaking.  But the julep doesn't fit neatly into either and possesses elements of both.  Being composed almost entirely of whiskey, it has got the booziness of a typical stirred cocktail, but the fresh mint and extra dilution from the crushed ice gives it bright and refreshing qualities you'd expect from a classic shaken cocktail.   

 

This puts the julep a category all it’s own, which it technically always has been.  As I have noted before, in the 19th century mixed drinks was separated into several categories, a cocktail was just one of them.  Today those distinctions are largely unnecessary to the casual drinker (but still very interesting for nerds like me).  Though in the case of the julep and it's unique configuration, this specific classification is still relevant.  A julep is a julep, it's not like anything else, and nothing else is like it.  

Prescription Julep

Bringing together three different spirit categories, this recipe - which appears in David Wondrich's "Imbibe!" (he also says it's his favorite julep recipe) and originated from a 1857 humor article. The name is clearly poking fun at the drink's medical origins, more on that below.

1½ oz cognac

¾ oz rye 

¼ oz Jamaican rum (for float) - preferably Smith and Cross

½ oz demerara syrup

10-12 mint leaves

 

Prepare as above and float the rum over the top.

Jersey Julep

This ingeniously simple variation was created by the talented Adam Ramsey when he was working the Flatiron Lounge and is one of our go to julep variations at Clover Club.   

 

2½ oz apple brandy - preferably Laird’s 100 proof

½ oz maple syrup

10-12 mint leaves

 

Prepare as above.

 

Classic Mint Julep Variations

Taking things a step further than substitution, here are three standalone Mint Julep  variations, each with their own individual pages.

The Julep Story

Juleps are among the oldest of all alcoholic mixed drinks and a prime example of the historically blurry line between alcohol and medicine.   Throughout history the word "julep" is found repeatedly in old texts referring to medicine of some kind and having nothing to do with mint of spirits.   The word's etymology reaches all the way back to ancient Persia when it was "gulab", which meant rosewater.  It wasn't until the dawn of the United States in the late 18th century when julep beings to mean something different.  Why the switch?  According to David Wondrich, it was a joke.  Medical remedies often contained alcohol back then, so it’s not too much of a stretch assume that the julep was a sought-after “prescription”.  

 

By the early 19th century the julep had evolved to exclusively into a recreational beverage and by the 1820s, when the ice trade was in full swing, they were a sensation. Even skeptical European travelers fell sway to the the julep's spell, often remarking it was the thing only tolerable about our new vulgarity-filled nation. 

Juleps were particularly popular in the sweltering south, where they were often served with the addition of mint and sipped from silver cups or goblets, the latter presumably being used as a display of wealth.  Back then, upper class gentleman preferred French brandy, aka Cognac, in their juleps. Using a cheaper domestic whiskey - what we'd call bourbon today - was seen as lower class.  Obviously, that has since changed.  

 

Kentucky Derby

The Kentucky Derby's roots go back to 1870, and its spectators have been enjoying Mint Juleps for some time now, as they are both time-honored fixtures of Southern culture.  Though it wasn’t until 1938 that the drink was officially designated as the event’s signature beverage.  Since then, the two have become indivisible.

Traditional Julep Cup

The footed beaker-like metal cup that you seen in the photos above is widely accepted today as the  proper vessel for a Mint Julep.  They became standardized through their use at the Derby after they were first introduced in 1951 as a premium serving option.

 

I don’t generally advocate using specific glassware for certain cocktails, though I admit are few sights more stirking than a julep served in one of these beauties.   That being said, you certainly don't need one to make a great Julep.   It's just a fancy frame.  These are classically made from silver, or are silver plated, though copper, nickel or pewter are also common, and much more affordable.

Purchase:

Souvenir Kentucky Derby Julep Glasses

The derby also offers julep “glasses” which can be purchased along with the drink.  These were introduced in 1939 to solve the problem of patrons stealing the glassware.  The derby still features a new glass each year. You can peruse some of the past year's here.    They may not be as sexy as the metal cup, but are a pretty nifty collector’s item if you ask me.

Mint Syrup

Being a delicate leafy green, mint’s piercing aromatics are extremely fragile. So the common method of heating the ingredient in simple syrup on the stove doesn’t work so well.  The mint looses it’s luster very quickly.   So it’s best to let the mint infuse into cold simple syrup.  It’s easy, but it takes time and you have to use a lot of mint. 

 

  • 1 bunch of mint - 10-12 springs, including stems

  • 2 cups simple syrup

 

Combine mint and syrup, press mint lightly if you like, but don’t fully muddle.  Cover and refrigerate for 3-4 days.  When desired flavor is reached discard the sprigs.  Don’t worry if the syrup is a light brown color.  It's completely natural, safe and will taste just fine. ​

Mint Juleps for a Crowd 

Serving Mint Julep at a party sounds like a lot of fun, until you think about muddling drinks to order.  The solution?  Make a mint syrup and prepare the cocktails in one large batch.  Let me be up front about this.  There is absolutely no substitute for to aroma and flavor of fresh muddled mint leaves.  But you can get pretty close.

Mint Tea Syrup 

This was developed by my partner and mentor Julie Reiner (whose name you'll find all over this site), it is also an excellent alternative to mint syrup, and much quicker,  if not isnt exactly the same.  You can also make an excellent single servings of  "Mint Tea Juleps" by replacing mint tea syrup for simple syrup in the traditional recipe.

 

  • 2 bags of mint tea

  • 1 cup boiling water

  • 1 cup sugar

 

Steep teabags in water for 15-20 minutes.  Remove teabags, add 1 cup of sugar and stir to dissolve. Refrigerate. 

Makes 16 servings:

 

  • 5 cups bourbon

  • 1 cup mint syrup or mint tea syrup

  • A whole bunch of crushed ice - At home, I’d get a store bought bag of ice and throw if on the ground a bunch of times, or whack it all over with a muddler, what relives for stress.

 

Combine the bourbon and mint in a pitcher and refrigerate, this can be done the night before. To serve, pour about 3 oz ounces of the mixture into each glass.  Fill with ice and briefly stir.   Top with more ice as needed.  Garnish with mint sprigs and serve with short straws.

The Georgia Julep.

 
 
 

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tom@socialhourcocktails.com Brooklyn, NY

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