The mint julep - Decoded

Just in time for the Kentucky Derby, the Mint Julep is a cocktail worth betting on, especially as we lead into the spring and summer seasons. A cocktail said to have been born in the South at least 200 years ago, the combination of classic American whiskey, bright mint syrup, crushed ice and served in a glass fit for the job, is also a drink that’s easy to make at home, and very rewarding once finished.

If your only experience with the Mint Julep is track side on Derby Day, you basically were drinking a High Ball (bourbon or Early Times and lemon & line soda, with perhaps a mint leaf as garnish). The real thing is a little more complex, and interesting. 

The glass

The Mint Julep is one of very few cocktails that have a glass entirely designed for the cocktail. A regal choice, this glass is made of stainless steel which allows it to be chilled until icy, keeping this cocktail the cold temperature it begs to be. Alternatively, if you were at The Kentucky Derby, you might be served a Mint Julep in the derby glass of the year. Find vintage derby glasses online. If neither are at your disposal, a rocks glass will suffice.

The ice

Crushed ice is essential as the smaller ice particles keep the drink as cold as possible at all times. Also crushed ice allows for slightly faster dilution, acceptable in a drink that is otherwise fairly potent. Don’t skip this step if you can help it. To create crushed ice at home, place ice cubes in the center of a kitchen towel and crush it with hammer or meat tenderizer. If you’re looking to make mint juleps often, look into buying a lewis bag and a mallet. 

The whiskey

The Mint Julep is about as American as it comes and should be paid its respect by being crafted using a good American whiskey. Woodford Reserve is the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, while the Old Forester Mint Julep is the Official Drink of the Kentucky Derby. Both under the house of Brown Forman, marketing aside, they do really make solid choices for the classic drink. But we won’t tell if you play around with other brands such as the delicious Blanton’s Bourbon who’s bottle top even sports a horse and jockey, or the more recent Angel’s Envy Bourbon, created by Lincoln Henderson, Kentucky Bourbon Hall of Fame member and Brown Forman pioneer.

The mint

The main flavoring component in this cocktail, the mint plays an important role in creating the brightness that makes this cocktail a fantastic drink of choice for the spring and summer seasons. Spearmint would be your classic choice, but feel free to play with heirloom mint varieties such as pineapple mint, apple mint, peppermint or even chocolate mint.

The sugar

To obtain enough of the flavor from the mint, make a minted simple syrup by adding equal parts water and sugar in a small saucepan along with a handful or two of mint (depending on the volume) and heat until sugar is dissolved. Allow syrup to cool completely and strain mint leaves out using a fine mesh strainer.

Additionally, press just a few mint leaves in the base of the glass to create a bright mint flavor and a nice base for the cocktail. Lastly, choose a sturdy mint sprig as a garnish to be used for aroma as the cocktail is lifted to the nose. Break the oils on the leaves of the mint sprig by placing the spring in the palm of one hand and smacking it firmly with the palm of your other hand. And as an optional touch of elegance, dust a fine spray of powdered sugar on the top of the crushed ice (and only if crushed ice is used) for one extra layer of aroma, texture and sophistication.