The Kentucky Derby is Saturday. It’s the one day when tens of thousands of people suddenly care about horse racing. It’s also the one day when tens of thousands of people drink mint juleps. It’s the Super Bowl of bourbon and thoroughbreds.
Ask Kentuckians and they’ll likely say real Kentuckians don’t drink juleps most of the year. They’re right. But many Kentuckians and experienced Derbygoers have been weened from the real thing onto a syrupy premixed mint julep, which is really only acceptable at the track (it’s something about the atmosphere, the feel of a Derby or a day at the races that makes a preference for fussy cocktails seem like the worst possible character trait anyone could have).
A good mint julep is, like all good warm weather drinks, refreshing. It’s cold. It’s full of ice that melts and doesn’t water down, but enhances the cocktail. It has an aromatic opening act that prepares the nose and mouth for the arrival of quality spirits.
And like all warm weather drinks, a good julep should be easy to make. It should be something you can serve at a party, either because you can make a pitcher of it*, or because it’s so simple you can freshen guests’ drinks without removing yourself from the goings-on entirely.
With this in mind, here’s how I make my mint juleps: (But first, a disclaimer: There are debates over whether muddling mint is acceptable — those in favor say it infuses a cool flavor throughout the cocktail, those against say it ruins the true taste and distracts from the mint’s real mission of mounting an early sensory assault — and whether the drink should be diluted for quick drinking and faster refills or mixed stronger, anticipating that a leisurely drinker will allow the crushed ice to melt at a pace that leaves a glass entirely empty except for a shriveled mint sprig. I ignore these debates. The real focus should be on the type of bourbon used.)
I avoid sugar. I put a double shot of bourbon into a shaker with about six ice cubes and about six mint leaves. I shake it for about 15 seconds. I pour the entire thing into a glass. I drink it slowly. **
I use 100 proof bourbon. I find this tastes better and lets me avoid any unwelcome conflicts of flavor between corn-heavy spirits and crushed mint. The drink ends up fairly diluted, and you must drink it slowly for maximum enjoyment. The mint might stick to your teeth, but this recipe effectively lightens a hefty bourbon, making for a drink you can sip all night and all summer.
*There are many recipes for how to make a pitcher of mint juleps. Many of them are quite good. However, I find that drinks involving bourbon and sugar tend to be among the most divisive with party guests. Some like them strong, others sweet. Unless I know my guests’ preferences, I tend to avoid making these types of cocktails in large quantities.
**For those times when I have made a pitcher of julep, I’ve used a recipe that calls for syrup, though I’ve used the same high-proof bourbon.