(illustration by Ralph Steadman)
The mint julep is decadent and depraved. This is a drink almost wholly associated with one event, and while not a patently BAD drink, it is nonetheless fairly ridiculous in its conception and execution. First and foremost, here is a drink made to entertain the countless thousands who, for one Saturday in May, turn out in their loudest rags and pretend for one drunken day to give a damn about horse racing, as if the whole country was suddenly some inbred, watercolor Vegas. Tasteful it ain’t, but tasty it can be, and, what the hell, Horsey Christmas only comes once a year and ridiculous can be fun too. The littlest things really make a big difference in this drink, so here is the basic idea followed by some pointers:
1 teaspoon fine sugar
2 teaspoons water
6-8 mint leaves
3 ounces bourbon
PROCESS: This is what I do to get the most from the mint and get the best frost built on the glass. Mix the sugar and water in the serving vessel (yes, pewter or silver-plated cups if you’ve got them). You are basically just making simple syrup, so if you want to use that, 2 teaspoons of 1:1 simple should do it. Next, place the mint gently into the glass and press it with a muddler or the back of a spoon. “Bruising” it in this way releases yummy minty oils; abusing it releases bitter, plant-y flavors. Move this to the freezer and pull out the ice tray.
There are special, canvas “Lewis bags” and wooden mallets sold for crushing your ice. But if you don’t have these things, take a sturdy piece of wood — a short section of 2x4, a baseball bat gripped halfway up, whatever you got that is hefty and mallet-like — wrap your ice cubes in a clean T-shirt (or canvas, if you have it, sticks less), set it on the counter, and go to town. We’re going for consistency here, so try to beat it all level, more or less. The cloth soaks up extra moisture, which keeps the ice dry and aids frosting on the glass. Use a lot of ice, more than you think is necessary. This drink is all about chill and dilution — it’s meant to be enjoyed over hours as the flavors change and the sun scorches.
Get your cup from the freezer and cram it full of crushed ice — it’s snow cone time. Dump your bourbon over the top, stick a spoon in it, and swirl it all around, mixing in the sugar and chilling the bourbon while remembering that the mint down there still wants to be treated like a lady. This will make room in the glass for more ice, which you should pack in earnestly and even pile up into a dome on top. In swirling you should have started to develop a nice frost on the cup that this ice will help keep. Oh yeah, don’t touch the glass once it’s in the freezer (you see what I mean about this silly drink?) as this will ruin the even frost; never let anyone tell you a pocket hank isn’t good for anything. If you want to look like a real asshole, handle and serve each with a linen doily. Don’t forget a sprig of mint tucked in there to make it look and smell nice.
INGREDIENTS: White sugar is fine. Use a little more if you like it sweet. If you are not using syrup, putting regular sugar in a spice grinder will make it finer and easy to dissolve; otherwise, you’ll be stirring for a while. The mint leaves should be of a healthy size and should smell heartily minty. Use more or less depending on what you’ve got lying around — follow your nose.
Admittedly, I’m not a big bourbon guy as I mostly find the stuff a little sweet (nonplussed emails to firstname.lastname@example.org), but my palate and a connoisseur friend of mine tell me Elijah Craig Small Batch is great bang for your buck and it certainly conveys that “decadent and depraved” Derby vibe pretty well. I also like Knob Creek, but, let’s face it, we are not hurting for choice these days in the under-$50 bourbon market, so grab whatever you prefer. Woodford Reserve is actually the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, if that sort of thing matters to you, but Woodford has about as much historical claim to Derby tradition as Tostitos does to college football. Old Forrester is what Churchill Downs pours into the “juleps” they sell en masse to the non-gentry.
Whatever your choice of bourbon, I wouldn’t use the good stuff past round two. There’s three ounces of bourbon in these, guys — you won’t notice the downgrade.
In some future week I will cover better things than bourbon to put into the historically venerable julep, but for now, I think I’ll slip into a pastel jacket and bowtie and quietly hate myself for a while… I swear I had some mint around here somewhere…