The mint julep gets a bad rap.
Kentuckians, especially the Louisvillians and bourbon aficionados among us, tend to write the Kentucky Derby’s signature cocktail off as something for amateurs or tourists – at best relegated to a Derby Day-only experience. We hear countless variations on the old joke “throw out the mint and syrup; drink the bourbon” going as far back as famed Louisville newspaper editor Henry Watterson (Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form on it…Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away, and drink the whiskey.) to the Kentucky Derby Book’s author Bill Doolittle. But, a well-made julep can be refreshing and quite tasty. I recently spoke with my friend Elizabeth O’Neill, the Master Taster at Woodford Reserve, about the mint julep’s origins and the proper way to prepare a julep.
The mint julep – a combination of Kentucky bourbon whiskey, simple syrup, and a sprig of mint – arose on horse farms as a medicinal elixir, Elizabeth says. “It was a way of treating aches and pains in the era before you had aspirin lying around to treat every headache or sore muscle.” The signature silver cup also originated on horse farms, where “silver cups were used as trophies at horse races, and drinking out of the winning cup was a celebratory tradition.”
These days, Elizabeth says, mint juleps are meant to be fun – “like an adult slushie!” The rule she observes in advising folks on how to mix the perfect mint julep is that there’s no wrong way to enjoy the cocktail: “Play with the amounts of sugar or bourbon to develop a taste that you like!”
To make a great mint julep at home, according to Elizabeth, you have to start with a good bourbon. She suggests Woodford Reserve Distiller’s Select, the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. You’ll also need simple syrup – a mixture of one part water to one part sugar which has been heated until it dilutes, then cooled – crushed ice, and several sprigs of mint. Place the mint in the julep cup first and muddle it a bit, then pour in an ounce or so of simple syrup. Fill your cup to the top with ice, then add about two ounces of bourbon. Be sure to add a generous sprig of mint to garnish – according to Elizabeth, “the majority of the taste experience is through smell. If you don’t have that up-front aroma of mint, you won’t really experience a mint julep.” Most importantly, “Drink it how you like it!”
Whether enjoyed solely on the First Saturday in May or as a refreshing cocktail during the summer months, the classic mint julep is a drink that deserves a little more respect!