The Mint Julep

Still the preferred drink of fashion-setters attending the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep can be simplicity itself, or a challenge. Ian Wisniewski looks at its history
By Ian Wisniewski
Originally prepared in the late 18th century using rum, brandy or rye whiskey, the most impressive ingredient in a Mint Julep was actually ice, and not just because it helped to counter the heat in the southern states of the USA. Ice was initially so expensive that serving drinks with an abundance of crushed ice was automatically a status symbol. But at least it was a display of wealth that guests could enjoy for themselves.

When bourbon was first used in Mint Juleps, and how it came to exercise such a monopoly on this cocktail, is uncertain. However, bourbon was more widely available by the mid-19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century the only choice for a Mint Julep was bourbon.

The popularity of the Mint Julep spread across the southern states but reached a peak in Kentucky, where it became an integral element of the horse racing scene, notably the Kentucky Derby. As a showcase for the world’s finest thoroughbreds, this has been run at Churchill Downs on the first Sunday of May since 1875. Tradition dictates that a Mint Julep is raised to toast the winner of a race known as the Run for the Roses, as the trophy for the winning horse is a garland of red roses.

Preparing a Mint Julep can be as straightforward as placing mint leaves at the bottom of a tall glass, stirring in bourbon, sugar syrup or white sugar, piling on crushed ice, and garnishing with a sprig of mint leaves.

But there are various other options, which can make this a far more time consuming cocktail to prepare. It all depends on how much you value details, and how much being able to taste a difference matters.

A great Mint Julep depends on a combination of factors, though it’s the sweetness of the sugar or sugar syrup that is instrumental in balancing the flavour. However, the most controversial issue is how to incorporate the mint leaves, which is actually the longest-running debate on any aspect of the Mint Julep.

One of the earliest authorities on this subject was Jerry Thomas, a legendary mover and shaker who ran the cocktail bar at New York’s Metropolitan Hotel. He also published the world’s first book of cocktail recipes in 1862, entitled How to Mix Drinks, or The Bon Vivant’s Companion. This includes instructions on how to prepare ‘The Real Georgia Mint Julep,’ which entails stirring the ingredients but includes the proviso “do not crush the mint.” While Thomas stipulates brandy as the base spirit, he adds the caveat that whiskey may be substituted for brandy if preferred.

The idea of crushing mint was already a controversial one when Jerry Thomas published his book, though he covered both options by including another recipe entitled ‘Mint Julep,’ (and so clearly differentiated from ‘The Real Georgia Mint Julep’), in which mint leaves are ‘pressed’ in the presence of a sugar syrup.

A belief that pressing maximizes the release of flavour has resulted in more recipes calling for mint leaves to be ‘muddled’ (in the bottom of a sturdy glass, using a pestle), together with sugar syrup or crushed ice to facilitate the process. Meanwhile, going one stage further and actually ‘pounding’ mint leaves runs the risk of releasing undesirable bitterness, and compromising the end result.

The dilemma of whether or not to muddle can be avoided by adding fresh leaves to sugar syrup, and allowing them to infuse for several hours. Straining the infused syrup retains the flavour, but removes any visible sign of mint leaves (which some people prefer).

An alternative method entails pouring bourbon over a bowl of mint leaves, for a 15 minute infusion. The leaves can subsequently be scooped out, placed in clean cotton and wrung out over the bourbon. This ‘mint extract’ is subsequently combined (in proportions as preferred) with bourbon and sugar syrup, which again avoids any mint leaves in the resulting cocktail.

Which bourbon is best for a Mint Julep depends of course on personal preference. However, the level of sweetness provided by the sugar or sugar syrup means a drier style of bourbon is a better counterpoint.

Assembling the ingredients in a tall glass does not quite conclude the matter, as one final procedure is required. The crushed ice must be given enough time to ‘frost’ the exterior of the glass, which doesn’t take long but provides great visual appeal.