If you doubt that the mixing of a Mint Julep is a volatile subject the farther South you travel, consider how humorist and Kentuckian Irvin S. Cobb digested Baltimorean H.L. Mencken's suggestion that one might be concocted with over-bruised mint and whiskey other than Bourbon: "Any guy who'd put rye in a Mint Julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."
Tough crowd! Julep enthusiasts live by strict codes that often dictate such minutiae as when to pick the mint, the straw to use, the drinking vessel, the tool for bruising the mint, and so on. Without broaching Cobb's pet peccadillos, it may be time—as Churchill Downs readies for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby by pouring lakes full of Juleps as its official quaff—to effect a glasnost of sorts regarding looseness of recipes with a couple of modern formulations.
The idea is not so shocking. The drink has evolved enormously ever since the term julep derived from the Persian gulab, or rose water, over a millennium ago. The first were purely medicinal tinctures, sweetened on the spoonful-of-sugar theory. In his 1634 poem "Comus," John Milton's introduces the spelling j-u-l-e-p as well as the notion that it might be an intoxicant." ("And first behold cordial julep here/ That flames and dances in his crystal bound/ With spirits of balm and fragrant syrups mix'd.")
However, the first juleps were made with brandy, rum or gin—no whiskey at all. At an event leading up to the Derby, Bulleit Bourbon took the bold move of recreating a throwback recipe that mixes Cognac and rum (in this case, Zacapa 23). Dubbed a Mint Julep 1862, the cocktail loads the palate with dark fruits up front before it offers a sweet finish that, due to the mint, is sprightly and refreshing. Of course, the examples of Bulleit holding its own in a traditional Julep and one made with muddled lemon were in evidence, too. The lemon's tartness balanced the spiciness of the Bulleit, even adding a bit of zest, as well.
Mint Julep 1862
From How to Mix Drinks by Jerry Thomas, adapted by Dale DeGroff
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 tablespoons water
3 sprigs fresh mint
1.3 oz Cognac
2 dashes high-quality rum
Method: Dissolve the sugar into the water in a tall glass or a silver chalice julep cup. Add the mint and press gently in the sugared water to extract the flavor; remove the sprigs and set aside for the garnish. Add the Cognac and then fill with powdered ice. Place the mint into the drink stem side down and dash with the rum. Set the drink aside for five minutes to frost.
Nay, it wasn't until 1803 that mint was even mentioned as part of a julep—and then it was ascribed not to Kentucky, but to Virginia, of all places.
Not to fear, it was Kentucky that made the Mint Julep famous. Not just because of its wealth of Bourbon, nor it's being the home of the Kentucky Derby, but because the Commonwealth's foremost politician, Henry Clay, introduced it to Washington, D.C., making it a national rage in the 1850s. But half a century of contentious debate throughout the South had presaged that.
At any rate, on this 89th Run for the Roses (that's not a typo, it took a half century for the Derby to attain that floral sobriquet), new forms of Julep culture have arrived, which transcend the usual mint-sugar-Bourbon-chipped-ice prescription.
Take for instance, the Jockey's Julep, a rollicking ride that is a fruity interpretation of the drink. While Cobb might raise an eyebrow at the Bourbon choice (Basil Hayden enjoys a high rye content), the spiciness of that particular brand helps ground the cocktail and strengthen the mint content in the face of the berries.
Basil Hayden's Jockey's Julep
Created by Rob Floyd (Los Angeles, CA)
2 parts Basil Hayden's Bourbon
8-10 mint leaves
1 part fresh lime juice
3/4 parts simple syrup
Method: Muddle mint leaves and blueberries in a mixing glass. Add remaining ingredients and shake over ice. Fine strain into a rocks glass with crushed ice. Garnish with blueberries and a sprig of mint.
Woodford Reserve, The Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, picks up on the Run for the Roses theme with the quantity of limited-edition, hyper-priced Mint Juleps it offers at the race: 89. Seventy-nine of them ($1,000 a piece) come in silver drinking cups with gold-plated medallion and sipping straw. The other 100 ($2,000 a piece, presold out) come in gold-plated cups with silver medallion and the same gold-plated sipping straw. They are both packaged in a box made of American oak—just like Woodford is when it's in the barrel. What sets this Mint Julep apart content-wise is the use of ice infused in rose water. (The reference there is to the emblematic flower of the race, and not the gulab's original makeup.)
Another entrant with a name reminiscent of New Orleans—and not Kentucky—is the Storyville Julep. But its idiosyncrasy comes from as far away as Hawaii: pineapples. Now that's a drink with a very Southern influence. Knob Creek, with 100-proof strength and rich textures, fits in well with the onslaught of honey. For a faster trot down the rail consider the 120-proof Single Barrel Reserve.
Knob Creek Storyville Julep
Recipe by Bobby "G" Gleason, Beam Master Mixologist
1 1/2 parts Knob Creek Bourbon
1/2 part thin honey syrup (3 parts honey, 2 parts water)
1 1/2 parts fresh-pressed pineapple juice
6 fresh mint leaves
Method: Muddle pineapple, honey syrup and mint in a tall highball glass. Fill with ice, add Knob Creek Bourbon and stir top with club soda. Garnish with a pineapple clip and mint top.
If you wish to cleave to a more traditional recipe, consider this:
1 dozen mint leaves
1 tablespoon simple syrup
2 dashes Angostura bitters
2 ounces quality Bourbon
Method: Place the intended serving vessels in the freezer at least half an hour before post time. Combine half the leaves with the syrup and bitters in a mixing glass. Gently muddle (crushed leaves reveal a bitter side). Add the whiskey, and muddle some more, while stirring. Retrieve the glasses from the freezer. Fill them with crushed ice, and pour the mixture in. Garnish the mouth of the glass with the remaining mint. Serve with napkins.
However you fall on opened up field of Juleps, there are still a few rules:
1. Juleps aren't just for Southerners. Even Britain's Oxford University created a Mint Julep Day, celebrated in June.
2. Use fresh mint. Pile it on.
3. Drink with a short straw. This puts your face closer to the glass to appreciate the mint bouquet.
4. Don't limit yourself to drinking of them to Derby Day. This drink should be enjoyed whenever mint grows. (You might also watch horseracing and wear mad hats more often too.)
5. Cobb was right. Don't over bruise the mint.
6. Respect them. While their frosty temps and sugary nature make them go down easy, there's very little mitigating the alcohol content. It doesn't take many to get you trouble. At least, that's the musical warning behind the Clovers' hit "One Mint Julep."