As we continue our off-season cocktail discussion I'd like to turn our attention to one of my favorite concoctions-- a rather forgotten classic that you generally only hear about on the first weekend in May: The Mint Julep.
The mint julep is one of the most simple, refreshing cocktails available, yet you will be hard pressed to find a bar that can construct the drink properly. I cannot count the times I've ordered one and been given looks of confusion from the bar staff, or worse, watched with woe as the bartender pulled out his phone in a last ditch effort to educate himself on the beverage. What then comes is usually a watered-down, sad mix of whiskey and soda with a minty backdrop. As with many of the cocktails Jeff has already discussed, if you want something done right you've got to do it yourself.
At the base level the mint julep only contains four ingredients: bourbon, mint, sugar, and ice. It's the process of crafting the drink that is crucial to creating this cocktail well.
The drink was originally served in metal cups or goblets. The reasoning for this is that the drink is very strong, and is meant to be served very cold and sipped for a long period of time. The metal cup allegedly stays colder than its glass brethren and keeps the ice from melting too quickly. I figure most of you probably don't own a set of metal goblets, so a standard tumbler will work for this concoction.
Once you have your glass, first place about 6-10 mint leaves in the bottom of the glass. On top of them pour a heaping spoonful of granulated sugar. This is one of the areas where recipes differ. Some recipes call for powdered sugar because it will dissolve better in the drink. I've tried both methods, and I prefer using granulated sugar because it aids the muddling of the mint that we'll talk about in a moment, and I prefer the flavor to powdered sugar, but either will make a solid cocktail. Another option is to use simple syrup in lieu of sugar which Jeff explains how to make here.
Next, add a couple of drops of your favorite bourbon to the sugar and mint and lightly muddle the sugar into the mint with a wooden muddle. When you're muddling be sure that you do not over work the mint. The trick is to lightly bruise the mint so the oils get released into the mixture. If you over do it, the mint becomes bitter tasting which ruins the drink.
Now that you have your base, the next step is to add ice. The mint julep is made with crushed ice, a point that is non-negotiable with this drink. To properly do this, you'll need a canvas bag and a mallet. Put a lot of ice in the canvas bag, and crush it until it is almost powdery. This allows for thoroughly crushed, but more importantly, dry ice. The canvas will absorb the water from the melting ice which is very important. Remember, this drink is meant to be sipped for a long time, so we don't want it to be watered down from the start.
Once your ice is sufficiently crushed, pack it into your glass very tightly until it is almost spilling over the top. Then, fill the glass to the top with bourbon. I won't preach about the brand to use, but I highly recommend you don't use cheap bourbon. This isn't a Jack and coke we're making here with a lot of mixer to mask the flavor, so you want to be sure the whiskey can stand on its own. I prefer a high rye bourbon and find Bulleit or Wild Turkey 101 very suitable for this cocktail.
Finally, you want to stir everything vigorously enough to mix the sugar and mint throughout the drink. If you've done everything right up to this point your glass (or metal goblet) should frost over on the outside during this step. Garnish with a fresh sprig of mint to enjoy the aromas as you sip your cocktail on the patio on a warm spring day.
For those of you who desire a bit more pomp with your cocktail making, I recommend reading about General Buckner's Mint Julep Ceremony.
Regardless of whether you are looking to recreate a deep seeded Southern tradition or merely want a good drink, the mint julep isn't just for Derby day.