Mint Juleps

September 27, 2012

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about one of my very favourite drinks, the Mojito.

This week, it’s the turn of another, and much more venerable mint drink, the Mint Julep.

“The Mint Julep is basically just a Mojito but with Bourbon”.

Or so said the poor lady who went on to royally screw-up a Mint Julep (in ways you couldn’t imagine) on video, forcing this fine video rebuttal from veteran cocktail blogger Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Morgenthaler’s video is great.

I’ll get to his recipe in a minute.

The ‘Julep’ seems to be yet another of those potent potions that started life as a medicine (remember my posts on Pink Gin, Dubonnet, Benedictine, Gin and Tonic, Navy Rum, Absinthe and even the original ‘cocktail’?)  The word is probably Arabic, and according to David Wondrich all early citations are for Julep as medicine pure and simple.

Yet by the time it got to America, they were putting booze in it (what a surprise) and after a while they added mint. And a while later that word, like the word ‘smash’, meant a mint drink.

And like the Sazerac, it wasn’t originally a whiskey drink. It was made with brandy. Only after the phylloxera epidemics of the 19th century wiped out most of the grapes did the spirit of choice switch from Cognac to Bourbon.

Throughout 19th Century America, the Mint Julep ruled the roost as the quintessential drink of the civilised gentleman, and the most famous mixed drink known to man. In short, it was the Martini of its time.

But by the early 20th century the Julep was already in fast decline. It was now a symbol of a fading, if not lost, quaint agrarian (and certainly Southern) past. I recently watched the John Ford film ‘Judge Priest’ about ‘the South of yesteryear’ and the Mint Julep (along with the black maid and the brave Civil War veteran) is one of the recurring symbols of this era.

And so I had imagined that it was still that way in the South. Any respectable bar in a good Confederate state would regularly mix up Juleps for its more discerning patrons. A little research on the net suggests that this might not be the case. I have read reports that in Kentucky, spiritual home of the Julep, they are almost unheard of outside of Derby Day (when they are the traditional drink) and then drunk mostly by tourists.

Now the big admission. I hadn’t actually drunk a Julep until a couple of weeks ago. Like the Sazerac, the Mint Julep is one of those drinks that I have read about for a long time, but never quite had the ingredients for. With the Sazerac, rye whiskey, absinthe and Peychaud’s Bitters were all difficult for me. What was the hard-to-find ingredient for the Mint Julep? A tin cup. Yes, Juleps are supposed to be served in special metal ‘julep cups’ and I’m a bit silly about getting things right sometimes. I never found one. Instead I just used the bottom of a small cobbler shaker.

OK, the basic Julep recipe is Bourbon, sugar, water, mint and a lot of ice. The first recipe I tried was the one I mentioned in Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s video:

Mint Julep #1 (Morgenthaler)

2 oz Bourbon

1 tsp simple syrup

12-20 mint leaves

several mint sprigs

Gently muddle the leaves and simple syrup (in a Julep cup, if possible). Add Bourbon. Fill with crushed ice. Garnish with a bunch of mint sprigs.

That’s it. A very simple recipe. As I mentioned with Mojitos, it’s very important not to over-muddle the mint leaves. Just press them lightly so that they release their essential oils. And as I also mentioned, crushed ice makes the drink. Smash the hell out of it with a rolling-pin in a laundry bag (take your undies out first). Pack the ice in, and the Julep cup will frost nicely on the outside.

Morgenthaler used Woodford Reserve, and as I adore that Bourbon (available cheaply in Taipei, here), I tried that too.

BUT … I wasn’t particularly impressed. I think I like my mint drinks sweeter. I’m not usually a huge fan of sweet, but I like my Mojitos with twice as much sugar as my Daiquiris. I decided to sweeten things up. That meant more sugar and a sweeter Bourbon.

Now I’ve noticed that cocktail writers who are old-time bartenders seem to make their drinks sweeter than those who are more ardent modern cocktail revivalists. These old-timers probably realize that the average bar punter likes their drinks sweeter than we modern cocktail geeks. So I turned to the New Orleans drinks god Chris Macmillian.

Mint Julep #2 (Macmillian)

3 oz Bourbon

1 tablespoon simple syrup

several mint leaves

several mint sprigs

Gently muddle mint leaves (in Julep cup if possible). Pack the cup with crushed ice, making a large cone on top. Pour Bourbon over the top slowly. Pour sugar syrup slowly over the top. Do not stir. Give a nice big sprig (or few) of mint a good slap to wake it up, and garnish.

Chris makes his with Maker’s Mark, a much sweeter and smoother Bourbon than the Woodford, and one which I was not particularly fond of. Also 1 TB sugar is a big raise form 1 tsp. That said, with the trickling through the ice, not so much of it actually gets through.

Well, I likes this one much more. I think I was right about wanting it sweeter. And maybe I was just getting used to Juleps. I liked the next couple even more.

As usual, one of my best booze anecdotes comes from Eric Felten’s great book, How’s Your Drink. He tells how Teddy Roosevelt defended against accusations that his high-spirited behaviour was due to high quantities of spirits. He threatened to sue anyone who printed them. Someone did. He sued. This was just a few years before prohibition and he wanted to straddle the great moral issue of the day. So he swore (on oath, in court) that he never drank highballs or cocktails, but that while in the Whitehouse he had sipped a few Mint Juleps. Luckily for posterity, there is a record of how they were made for the President in the day:

T. R. ‘s Libelous Mint Julep

4 oz rye whiskey

1/4 oz brandy

fresh mint

1 sugar cube

Sliced pineapple. banana, orange and cherries

Gently muddle a few leaves of mint with the sugar and a good splash of water (in a Julep cup, if you can). Add spirits and fill with crushed ice. Stir until the outside of the cup frosts. Garnish with plenty of fruit and mint.

This is quite different, but really quite good. I don’t usually go for all that fruit (the ‘garbage’ as it was called back in the days when it was common), but it was nice for a change, and you can’t deny the appeal for some people who like a fancy fresh-looking presentation (I’m thinking of my wife here). Rye makes for a great change, if you can get it (and for my fellow Taiwan-dwellers, sorry, you’re out of luck), and I’ve noticed before that a little bit of brandy goes very nicely with rye. And I can’t think of a nicer way to get my daily vitamins.

Finally here’s a Julep which is called a Smash. There’s not much difference really. They’re both terms for mint drinks. The Smash is just smaller. This one was provided by cocktail-revival godfather Dale DeGroff as his contribution to the last section of David Wondrich’s book Imbibe – the section for modern drinks ‘in the spirit of Jerry Thomas’.

Whiskey Peach Smash

2 oz Bourbon

1 oz orange Curacao

5 mint leaves and 1 sprig

3 peach slices

1/2 lemon, quartered

Muddle the mint leaves, two of the peach slices, lemon pieces and Curacao. Add Bourbon, shake well and strain into a rocks glass of ice. Garnish with mint sprig and the last slice of peach.

DeGroff calls for ‘bonded’ Bourbon, so use 50% ABV if you can. I used Knob Creek.

I really liked this too. I have to conclude that a little sweetness and a touch of fruit doesn’t hurt a Julep (or Smash).

That’s it for Juleps.

Part 1: Mojitos

Part 2: Smashes

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11 Responses to “Mint Juleps”

  1. benedictchapman Says:

    If you’re exploring mint julep alternatives, there is a school of thought that says that the mint is only there for scent, so it shouldn’t be added to the bourbon but instead just packed in the top of the glass so that you have to shove your nose in it as you drink.

    Mr Boston describes this as ‘southern style’, though I suspect that is overstating its provenance.

  2. benedictchapman Says:

    And speaking of bourbon, Garage Project posted this today. It looks very interesting.

    (If you don’t know, Garage Project is a boutique brewery operating from the old petrol station on Aro Street that do experimental and adventurous brews.)

  3. benedictchapman Says:

    Also, I love Chris McMillian’s mallet. A must for every serious bar.

  4. theboolion Says:

    Ben, I think you may be right as to the original intent of the mint. I’m sure that 90% of the effect at least comes from the smell, and experts always stress (as with the Mojito) to get your nose right in it (so short straws if any) when drinking.

    I read yesterday there’s millions of sensory (glands?) in the nose and only a couple of thousand in the mouth, so our perception of taste is hugely altered by the smell. Very little of the mint ‘taste’ need come from the mouth.

    Also, at least one recipe I read did instruct to press the mint around the cup and then throw it away.

    I didn’t personally read anything suggesting leaving it out altogether except for the garnish, but yes, it surely wouldn’t surprise me if this was (one) traditional practice.

    That Garage Project Rye looks interesting. Remind me to pay them a visit next time in in NZ (which may or may not be February). It’s great to know that there’s stuff like that going on in the old home town.

    And the ice mallet – yeah, I seriously thought about getting one (and a canvas bag), but kitchen space is at a bit of a premium in our house, so I use a kind of rolling pin (which doubles as a muddler). And I found out that a short pestle thing (for grinding herbs), though much smaller, works even better due to the weighting. But mallet, cool. It shows you mean business.

  5. putneyfarm Says:

    We like a julep but make “smashes” more often…a bit more modern…

    • theboolion Says:

      Yeah, I’ve been ‘Smashing’ too. Do you shake them? A lot of people seem to – Wondrich even says it in ‘Imbibe’, but I can’t see why. Well, I’ve only tried brandy and gin smashes so far. I was going to get onto Genever and Old Tom this weekend, but my mint plant has died. I can never keep those things alive for mroe than a couple of weeks.

      • putneyfarm Says:

        We do shake, as we discovered the drink from “Imbibe”… Mostly use whiskey in the smashes, but Old Tom good, too…

        We have the opposite problem with mint…grows and spreads like weeds…


  6. I, for one, like the flavor that the undies impart while I crush the ice in the laundry bag…

    The Pegu Blog author Doug Winship actually decries whiskey juleps as inferior, and instead prefers his own mix of rye, cognac, AND rum: http://www.killingtime.com/Pegu/2008/09/14/mxmo-xxxi-nineteenth-century-cocktails-%E2%80%94-the-mint-julep/


  7. […] This post is the last in a short trilogy on mint, following Mojitos and Juleps. […]


  8. […] Mint Juleps « The Boo Lion Says: September 27, 2012 at 11:14 pm […]


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