I'll admit it. I know next to nothing about horse racing. The one time I placed a bet at the track, my choice was based solely on how much I liked the name of the horse. But, I enjoy the majesty of a beautiful animal, and I appreciate those who care for them well. (And you can probably guess how I feel about those who don't!)
For casual fans, derby days are at least as much about the food and drink (and the hats) as the racing. And no drink is quite so iconic, or so Southern, as the mint julep.
For a Great Mint Julep, Choose Your Ingredients Carefully
The mint julep is deceptively simple — mint, liquor, sweetener, and ice. As with most classics, it's taking care with the details that produces excellence.
It's All About that Ice
Get Sonic ice. Go ahead and laugh, I get it. But you know as well as I do that the unique shape of Sonic's ice has a cult following for a reason.
And when it comes to julep perfection, dilution is a big deal. So, unless you have a pellet style ice maker at home, hitting the drive-through for a bag to-go is, well, the way to go.
(Yes, crushed will do in a pinch, but cut your stir time in half and go easy when you top up.)
Fresh Mint Makes a Difference
I kid you not when I say mint is one of the easiest herbs to grow. It's so prolific that I put it in a pot before I plant it in my herb bed. That's the only way to contain its abundance. If you are serious about your cocktail making, invest $3 in a potted mint plant rather than those anemic sprigs in plastic clamshells that pass for fresh mint at the grocery store.
Oh, and go for spearmint, not peppermint. The taste is a bit smoother and sweeter without the spice. Kentucky Colonel spearmint is the traditional variety for julep making, but don't stress over the varietal. (Yeah, I know, after sending you our for special ice, you were about to draw the line at having an herb hunt.)
Whiskey in a Tea Cup
You're a grown woman. You know what kind of bourbon you like. Use it.
I like Old Grand-Dad 114 it's got a tiny bit of heat and the perfect amount of caramel and citrus. The uninitiated, or the just plain wiser, among you might want to choose something with a bit lower proof. But I tend to nurse a drink like I drawl my vowels, slow and sweet.
So, grab the 80 proof for a party. Or play with creating your own blend, allowing you to make the drink your own without bastardizing a classic.
Make Simple Syrup, Sugar
Any Southerner who has ever ordered sweet tea and been told, "There's the sugar packets," knows the impossibility of dissolving granulated sugar properly in a cold drink.
Don't go there. Take five minutes to make a simple syrup.
The less refined the sugar you use in your syrup, the more nuanced the flavor will be. I like turbinado sugar, also known as raw sugar. It plays up any caramel notes in the bourbon. For a more neutral sweetness, stick to granulated, white sugar.
As long as your tap water tastes good, no fancy-pants bottled water is required to finish out your simple syrup.
More Precious than Silver
While not technically an ingredient, the cup or glass you serve your drink in is a big part of the experience. If you are super traditional, avert your eyes.
I don't love silver julep cups. There, I said it.
Now, if Grandmama gave you a set of perfectly monogrammed julep cups as a wedding gift, don't you dare tell her I said not to use 'em. Use 'em. Hell, send her a thank you note every time you do. I don't want to be out of any Southern grandma's good graces.
But for me, I like a rocks glass — crystal clear with a nice heavy bottom. I enjoy seeing the bronze of the bourbon, the delicateness of the mint leaves, and the motion of the ice cubes as I drink. And, I like to be able to see at a glance when my guests are getting close to empty.
Building the Perfect Mint Julep
Rich Simple Syrup
1 part water (by volume)
1 part sugar (by volume)
In a high-sided saucepan over medium-high heat, bring water and sugar to a boil.
Turn the heat to low and stir constantly until the sugar dissolves completely and the mixture is clear, approximately 3 to 5 minutes.
You can make your syrup a day or two ahead and store in a sealed glass bottle or jar in the fridge until ready to use.
Classic Mint Julep
5-6 mint leaves
1 tablespoon Rich Simple Syrup
2 ounces bourbon
Add mint leaves and syrup to glass. Gently press with a muddler or the back of a teaspoon. Add bourbon. Add ice until glass is three-fourths full. Stir with bar spoon or teaspoon handle a dozen times to dilute. Top up with ice and garnish with mint spring. Enjoy responsibly.
Brew up a batch of sweet tea, adding a sprig or two of mint to the pot as it steeps. serve over pelleted ice in a Collins or iced tea glass with a fresh sprig of mint for garnish.
If you are a julep fan, enjoy the classic from bar to bath...check out my Mint Julep-inspired bath goodies. They make perfect Kentucky Derby party favors too!