In the canon of cocktails, there’s perhaps no potable more exalted than the mint julep — that romanticized icon of the American South. It’s caused many an imbiber to wax poetic, describing it as the very dream of drinks and comparing it to sipping the nectar of the gods. Indeed, we ne’er had felt such solace in our souls, such tenderness, as with one slow sip of this sweet, fragrant quaff!
The mint julep is perhaps most beloved in Kentucky. Since 1938, it has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby — and over the course of the two-day Kentucky Oaks and Derby, more than 120,000 juleps are served at Churchill Downs. Kentucky distilleries vie for the honor of having their bourbon used for the official Derby-day juleps, and there are even premium, custom-made mint juleps served in gold-plated cups with silver straws that go for $1,000 a pop. But with such a reputation (and price tag), you have to wonder: where did this cocktail come from?
The word julep traces back to ancient Persian, in which the word gulab translates to “sweetened rosewater.” Around 1400, the French adapted the word to julep, which, per a citation in the Oxford English Dictionary, meant “a medicinal syrup made only of water and sugar.” According to Richard Barksdale Harwell, author of The Mint Julep, Virginians began adding alcohol to the syrup in 1787, and mint in 1803. The first mint julep recipes called for imported brandy or rum, but soon enough, locally made rye whiskey and bourbon became the spirits of choice.
Today, preparation (and enjoyment) of this drink is steeped in carefully observed rituals. For many, Kentucky bourbon is the only acceptable spirit for the cocktail. Some recipes call for sugar; some for simple syrup. And historically, there has been much debate over how the mint is treated: Some say the mint must be fresh and left perfectly intact. Others call for bruising, or muddling, the mint, and then either removing or leaving it in the cup, to bring an earthier quality to the julep.
Us? We’ve got a foot in each camp. By rubbing mint leaves in the glass, we bruise them ever so slightly, releasing their cool, peppery aromatics without making the cocktail too herbaceous. And garnishing it with a lush mint bouquet brightens the drink as a whole — you can smell the mint well before you take a sip; it’s lovely. But more importantly, using a delicate touch with the mint lets the Kentucky bourbon shine!
Pouring the libation over shaved ice is key: it melts at exactly the right rate, so you get the ideal bourbon to water ratio with every sip. (That said, crushed is fine if you’re in a pickle.) And traditionally, it’s served in pewter or silver cups — which, it is said, must be held by either the rim or the bottom to create an unblemished layer of frost on the outside of the cup. (But seeing as most modern households or, ahem, test kitchens don’t typically keep silver cups in the cupboard, we served ours in a tall old-fashioned glass.)
Whatever you serve it in, this mint julep is refreshing and convivial — the perfect, delicately sweet, warm-weather drink for whiskey lovers. We like it for a weekend spent sipping on the icy cocktail from the comfort of a rocking chair on the porch, with the wind chimes whistling in the breeze and a novel in hand. But for watching the Kentucky Derby? All that heart-racing excitement will require a spread of buttermilk fried chicken, pimento cheese, and fried green tomatoes to accompany the many, many juleps.
Our tips: We like using a mild, fruity Kentucky bourbon, like Bulleit in our mint julep — if you like yours on the sweeter side, just add a bit more simple syrup. (And yes, if you insist, you can muddle the mint.)
2 Gelson‘s organic mint sprigs, plus 3 leaves, divided
2 oz bourbon
¼ oz simple syrup
2 cups crushed ice
Rub the 3 mint leaves around the rim and inside of a julep or rocks glass, then discard them.
Fill a glass halfway with crushed ice, add the bourbon and simple syrup, and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty.
Fill the remainder of the glass with crushed ice.
Make a small bouquet of the mint sprigs. Trim the stems down to 4” inches and pick any leaves off the lower two-thirds of the stems.
Place the bouquet of mint in the center of the cocktail. Serve immediately.