The making of a mighty refreshing mint julep – and how to make it a bit less sweet

“If you’d asked me at 30 where I’d be during the Masters when I was 46, I’d have pictured myself on a boat fishing, smoking a cigar, drinking a mint julep and watching it on television.”

Jack Nicklaus (champion golfer with more majors currently than Tiger Woods)

It’s May 4th today – the first day of the Kentucky Derby – and the drink in most hands is going to be a mint julep.

The mint julep has much in common with its British counterpart, the Pimms: it’s ideally served in the chilled, silver goblet; there is a profusion of mint; and the drink is the harbinger of the summer – in particular the smart, sporting, hat-arrayed summer (Pimms is the refreshing drink favoured by polo spectators).

But where the Pimms No 1 cup is gin-based, the mint julep is really all about Bourbon (follow this link for the difference between Bourbon and Rye) – and that fixes it firmly as a drink of the southern states – particularly Kentucky. It’s the sort of drink you can imagine Scarlett O’Hara enjoying.

And, although the mint is a very traditional garnish for a Pimms, whole handfuls of it aren’t ‘muddled’ in – a technique which makes the mint julep a ‘smash’, along with the mojito.

It’s a pretty sweet drink. A ‘julep’ was originally a sweet drink intended to make some bitter medicine go down more easily. Most cocktails have a mix of sweet, bitter, strong – this one is missing the bitter, and the Bourbon, the ‘strong’ is heavily diluted by all the ice. To redress the balance you could add a few drops of bitters – I’d suggest Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Aphrodite bitters.

Resist the temptation to add a straw – it’s the scent of the crushed mint which gives this drink its sense of identity – you need to get your nose down into it!

how to make the perfect mint julep
Churchill Downs race course – home to the Kentucky Derby

For a cool $1000 (perhaps more now) you can buy the ultimate mint julep at Churchill Downs, the race course where the Kentucky Derby takes place. This is made of Woodford Reserve (the official Kentucky Derby Bourbon), with ice from the Bavarian Alps and mint imported from Ireland. It’s served in gold-plated cups with silver straws. It is, however, money well spent – profits go to charities caring for retired race horses.

Recipe for a refreshing mint julep

For one

• 60 ml/¼ cup Bourbon
• A few sprigs of mint … and, you may not have known this, but thyme flowers go well in a mint julep
• 1 tsp icing sugar – or instead of the sugar and water, you can use sugar syrup
• 2 tsps water
• A few drops of Dr Adam Elmegirab’s Aphrodite bitters

1. In a silver cup…or if you don’t have one, a highball glass… mix most of the mint (save the nicest sprig for garnish) and the sugar and water using a muddler, or the end of a long teaspoon.
2. Fill the cup about three-quarters full with crushed ice.
3. Add the Bourbon, stir again with the muddler.
4. Serve, garnished with the remaining sprig of mint.

Other posts you might find of interest

For the recipe Francis Drake’s mojito, follow this link.

For how to pick your way through the controversies surrounding the perfect Pimms, follow this link.

For a virtual tour of the Kentucky Derby, follow this link.

Music to mix to

The Clovers – One Mint Julep

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