This time of year, most Kentuckians have begun prepping for Derby season and its requisite soirees, handicapping, more parties, outfit-shopping, and finally the big horse race itself. And of course, a large part of those parties is the proper construction and appreciation of a mint julep.
Mint juleps are synonymous with the Commonwealth and there is much debate about how to game-plan, prepare, and consume a julep properly. Here at the Kentucky Bourbon Trail headquarters, we get numerous questions about this topic, so we thought we would put together a primer for those needing that late hour help to feel like a proud Kentuckian as all the world does on that first Saturday in May.
- First the recipes: If you need a standard recipe, look no further. Want to be a bit more adventurous? You can riff with different bitters or rinses. Two of our favorites are a Campari or Fernet Branca rinse to add herbal/bitter balance to the natural sweetness of a mint julep. Or try searching Imbibe Magazine for even more interesting twists.
- Now that you have your recipe, it’s time to talk equipment. Use your Amazon Prime membership to get that two day shipping for a good ice grinder like this one. We can’t stress how important proper ice is for this drink (see also a Lewis bag). It will provide that deep cold and dilution needed for a correct sipping mint julep. Have a muddler handy and of course, a proper julep cup is key. Might we suggest how to get a fine one?
- Ingredients are next and no surprises here, you need a good Kentucky Bourbon. You can’t really mess this up with any expression, but we do suggest something higher on the proof scale. Your julep will hold up better with the dilution of all that crushed ice and will balance better with the sweetness. Good mint is also a critical element so seek out some high quality Kentucky Colonel mint at your local store or double down on your Kentucky pride and plant some so you are never without (as this stuff is hearty and grows easily).
Now that you are armed with the proper ingredients, equipment, and recipes, we will leave you with some final pro-tips to take your julep game to the next level.
- When making your simple syrup, drop some fresh and clean mint into your saucepan when your syrup is cooling down–almost like making a tea. This will infuse your syrup with flavor and you can cut back a bit on the sugar (most simple syrups are 1:1 ratio, but we usually use .75:1 sugar to water)
- Prepare for your NEXT Derby by using a Chef Ouita Michel recommended technique of stuffing a full bottle of Bourbon with fresh mint and then drink that your next Derby day. It’s amazing the flavor that mint will impart on your whiskey.
- As most trivia buffs know, straws were invented for the mint julep as they make sipping easier and brings the nose closer to the mint garnish–but please think about using paper or metal straws to lessen the environmental impact of discarded plastic.
- And as always, plan ahead and drink responsibly. Derby parties are not meant to be boozy bacchanals but dignified affairs with good sipping whiskey. Mocktails are also encouraged or go with a classic Ale-8-One, Ky’s native soda for a zero-proof option.
If all of this proves to be too much, you can follow Henry Watterson’s advice:
“Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it … Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey. Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey.”
Happy Derby, everyone.