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Why It’s Time to Take Mint Juleps Seriously

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This is Straight Up, a column by whiskey expert and author Heather Greene. Today, Greene provides the ultimate guide to the julep.

"My gosh, when he said he needed 45 minutes to prep before making us a mint julep, he wasn't kidding," said Brenda, a Louisville native sitting on a bar stool next to me at Kingfish in New Orleans. "Normally, I'll just go to Kroger's for a little mint and then to the liquor store for some pre-made simple syrup. In fact, I've never seen anyone do this in Louisville." Brenda is a nurse practitioner born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, an avid fan of white wine, and a new convert to a well-made mint julep. She nudged her wine to the far edge of the bar with her fingertips, picked up her water instead, and waited for legendary New Orleans barman Chris McMillian finish plucking the best and most tender mint leaves out of a large pile he brought in with him at the beginning of his shift. McMillian is the co-founder of the Museum of the American Cocktail and he is arguably one of the best mint julep makers in the United States. "I was going to head out soon, but I'll have to stay for this," Brenda told me.

Our drink was handed to us exactly 40 minutes later, to which McMillian said, "This is a drink you will sit and sip for a long time." His julep was a classic, just bourbon, mint, simple syrup, and crushed ice. For the next hour, it revealed a dynamic personality, coming on strong at first taste, then softening and sweetening as we got to know each other. Sure, I'd kissed a julep once or twice before, but this time, a much deeper relationship developed between us. I hadn't been properly introduced before.

Charlotte Voisey, renowned mixologist and portfolio ambassador to William Grant & Sons, along with Peter Vestinos, president of the USBG (United States Bartenders' Guild) in Chicago, had put me into a mint julep lockdown earlier that day when they asked me to take off my shoes and step into a pile of fresh mint leaves. Voisey and Vestinos laid apple, Peruvian black, pineapple, and nepitella mint varieties on the floor of the ballroom where Voisey was giving a seminar — informing bartenders, media, cocktail fans, and other folks at this year's Tales of the Cocktail conference about the beauty of mint. Later, Voisey told us that mint was once used to refresh feet, closets, and to help with flatulence. What hid behind her bit of whimsy, then, was a clever plan to rejuvenate a room full of hot guests, to make things more pleasant during a steamy French Quarter week. It was the first time I'd rubbed my foot against mint and squeezed leaves of different varieties to release the aromatic oils, which lodged into my brain and stayed there until I was able to satisfy my new yearning to drink it in.

The Kentucky Derby brings fame and press to the mint julep each May, but to abandon the beauty of slowly enjoying a julep during the hot months of July and August is a shame. Make one. Feel the wet snowy ice dripping down the sides of your hands as you palm it into a glass, slap the mint to excite it into releasing its oils, pound something hard into submission. But first, a closer look at the components:

The Mint

Mint — or mentha as it is known scientifically — is a perennial genus of the Lamiaceae family and comprises about 20 different species, including spearmint and peppermint. Mint has square stems, equal and opposite leaf arrangements off the stalk, and tiny pretty flowers that bloom from June until September. Voisey says regular spearmint is fine for a julep, but do look for "smooth, bright green leaves, as these will be the most aromatic." Use peppermint at your own risk, however: According to McMillian, "the man who would put peppermint into a mint julep would put scorpions into a baby's bed." His method is to add a handful of mint to the bottom of his glass or julep cup and muddle it — gently — to release the oils. Too much meddling with your mint will release tannic acids, akin to the bitter taste found in tea leaves. You'll also want to "nestle a decadent amount of mint tips" into the snowy mound atop your julep, too.

The Ice

The goal is to make a light, dry, fluffy snow. Professional drink-makers like McMillian use something called a Lewis bag and a caveman-looking wooden mallet. The ice is placed inside the bag, absorbing water as the ice is crushed with the wooden mallet. You can order the Lewis bag and mallet at Cocktail Kingdom. You can also use a rolling pin and tea towel, or even a blender. Just make sure it's not slushy. Dry it. Press a handful of ice onto the mint in your glass, then pour a bit of sweetener on it (below). Add more ice, then finish with more sweetener, bourbon, and mint.

The Sweetener

Voisey recommends making a mint simple syrup ahead of time (recipe below), which allows for a consistent mint presence throughout the drink. For an easy party idea, you can actually combine the mint simple syrup and bourbon (4:1) ahead of time.

The Bourbon

I like wheated bourbons for my juleps. Wheated bourbons use more wheat rather than rye in the mash bill and because of that, are softer and sweeter. Maker's Mark, Larceny, and Rebel Yell are all good wheated bourbons and easily available. Voisey made a Tuthilltown Baby Bourbon julep, which was unique in that the herbaceous and grainy qualities of the craft whiskey popped. Feel free to experiment with different bourbons, like you might the flavors in a snow cone. No one flavor fits all palates.

The Glass

Mint Juleps are often served in a silver cup, which acts as a heat conductor, wicking any heat out of the drink. This then causes a frosty veneer to envelop the cup, which in turn insulates it. If you don't have a "proper" julep cup, serve in a tall Collins glass. Serve your juleps with a napkin to arrest the transfer of heat coming off your fingertips and onto the glass or cup.

The Straw

The straw should be short enough so that while sipping the julep, you are also enjoying the aromatics wafting from your cocktail. Metal julep spoon straws like these are a fun option or, if you want to go really old-school, use a mint julep strainer like 20th-century dandies might have. (The strainer held the ice away from tender nerves of the teeth.)

The Rule... There's Only One

According to Joshua Soule Smith, a Kentucky colonel who wrote about juleps in the 1890s:

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.

Below, the recipe for a perfect mint julep.

Photo Courtesy of Julep

How to Make a Perfect Mint Julep

Adapted from Whiskey Distilled

There are a dizzying amount of Julep recipes and techniques — enough to fill a presidential library, probably. The following recipe is my version of a Julep, which — gasp! — contains a little lemon. I like the citrus zing offered up by a bit of lemon, and to my palate, adds some depth. Traditionalists like Chris McMillian don't add lemon, of course. It's entirely up to you. Try a few methods before landing on your favorite combination.

1/2 oz. simple syrup or mint simple syrup
3/4 oz. fresh lemon juice (optional)
Handful of fresh mint
2-3 oz. Bourbon Whiskey (depends on how strong you want your drink)

In a Julep cup, place the syrup, lemon (optional), and mint. Gently muddle the ingredients. Add crushed ice, and pour the bourbon over the ice. Stir until the glass frosts. Add more ice so that it creates a generous round mound atop the glass or julep cup. Stick a generous amount of mint sprigs into the ice for aromatics and serve with a straw.

Simple syrup primer

Many cocktail recipes call for simple syrup, a solution made by dissolving sugar crystals in hot water. Hot water acts as a solvent for for sugar, and when the water cools, careful measures of the syrup will harmoniously sweeten your cocktail. There's no comparing homemade simple syrup to a store-bought version (I find that store-bought versions taste cloyingly sweet and artificial). Once you get the hang of whizzing through a quick simple syrup, you'll start experimenting with an endless combination of herbs and spices to create your own fantastic recipes.

Add one part sugar to two parts water, boil, reduce, cool, and use. If you want to add a bunch of mint, just throw it into the saucepan with the sugar and water, but this time simmer for about five minutes, which will thicken the syrup slightly while integrating deeper mint flavors. I'd let the mint simple syrup sit for an hour or so before straining the liquid into an air-tight container for storage. Leftover mint syrup can be used for iced tea, too. While I've never tried pre-batching bourbon and mint simple syrup (4:1) for a party, I love Charlotte Voisey's idea and will be doing that for a party coming up later this month.

Heather Greene is a whiskey expert and the author of Whiskey Distilled: A Populist Guide to the Water of Life, out now.

Mint Julep Photos: Julie Soefer Photography, Courtesy of Julep
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