It's Derby Time: Real Men Drink Mint Juleps
By Cold, Hard Football Facts sud stud Lew Bryson
Kentucky Derby Day is almost here, the one day a year most people might have a mint julep.
They're fools, of course, because the mint julep is one of the most wonderful booze confections known to drinking man (homo drinko), and is great liver-fodder all summer long.
By the way, for all you who enjoy tailgating at football games: the Derby infield is a great, hardcore tailgate experience. You should go someday.
A lot of you probably don't even know what a mint julep really is. No shame to that at all, except that it means you've never tasted one. Simply put, a mint julep is essentially a sno-cone made with a lot of bourbon and some sugar syrup, garnished with a big clump of mint so that when you take a drink, the mint's right in your nose, where it swirls and mingles with every beautiful blast of bourbon.
I've developed quite a taste for juleps and a thirst for their history, at least for a Yankee. I have in my possession a wonderful little pamphlet entitled "The Mint Julep," by Richard Barksdale Harwell (it's available on Amazon.com and worth every penny).
All evidence points to the mint julep, or "julap," having come from Virginia; indeed, the first published reference to a julep with mint refers to it as "a dram of spiritous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of a morning."
There are many stories about juleps. One of my favorites comes from Harwell's pamphlet, a short story from a Confederacy-era magazine, which concerns a certain "gentleman from Virginia" who stops at a Kentucky inn. He spies a bed of mint and, having ascertained (to his horror) that the innkeeper is not aware of what use can be made of it, calls for sugar, ice, and whiskey to correct his host's errant ways.
The host takes to the julep firmly (of course), and extracts a promise from the traveler to stop in on his return. When the traveler does return, he finds the innkeeper died three months earlier, and his "retainer" tells the Virginian the cause: "One of dem Virginny genman come long here last year and show'd him how to eat grass in his liquor; he liked it so well he done stuck to it till it kill him."
I know the danger well.
Thirsty? If you want a proper julep, you could go somewhere that makes a good one, like Washington, D.C.'s Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel, where some famous people have sipped exquisitely fashioned juleps since the 1820s.
Or you could make one yourself. We encourage you to make your food right, with all manner of great recipes, and drinks are no exception. A julep must be made with some care, if not with the religious pomposity reserved to old Kentucky farts.
But avoid the fake julep. There are all sorts of hideous shortcut concoctions these days; I've even seen juleps made in slushee machines – the kind of thing that really makes me consider keeping the pump-gun in the trunk.
Start with a good bourbon. It's hard to go wrong on that these days, any of these bottlings will set you up in the $15-$25-a-bottle range: Jim Beam Black, Wild Turkey 101, Elijah Craig 12 Year Old, Buffalo Trace, Old Forester 100, Ridgemont Reserve, Virginia Gentleman or Maker's Mark.
The hardest part is shaving off some ice. The finer and colder you can get it, the better – cubes just don't cut it. If you can get one of those sno-cone shavers (Hamilton Beach makes a nice little unit for 20 bucks), you're set.
Now, make some simple syrup. Add equal amounts sugar and water to a small pan, and heat and stir it till it boils. Cool the syrup; you can keep this in the fridge in a sealed container for months. Here comes the ugly part.
Do you muddle the mint? I do. I pour an ounce of syrup and just a splash of bourbon in the bottom of a tall glass (the kind folks used to call a Tom Collins glass), lay about six leaves of fresh mint in there, and lean on it a bit with a bent spoon I've got for juleps. Some people think this is sacrilege. I think it makes a better julep.
Now pack the glass (silver's best, but who the hell has silver julep cups?) with shaved ice about two-thirds full, then add 3 ounces of bourbon. Stir briefly, then fill up the cup with ice and garnish the top with at least three mint tops, pushed right into the ice. Let it sit a minute, then get your nose in that mint and sip. Start making the next one now, you'll want another.
Or you might want to go with the recipe handed down from legendary Louisville newspaper editor "Marse Henry" Watterson: "Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form on it. Select the choicer sprigs only, but do not rinse them. 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."
Take the time to make a proper julep for this sporting event that still stops America in its tracks. I'm back on juleps again after a few years. See, I had a big bed of mint out in the yard just for juleps. But one day I was mixing up a julep, muddling away, and happened to look out the kitchen window. There was my dog, pissing all over the mint. I couldn't face a julep for three years.
But now the dog's too gimpy to make it out that far into the yard, so come post time this Saturday, I'll be shoving my face in the mint with the rest of you. Cheers!
Lew's proper mint julep
- 1 oz. simple syrup
- 4 oz. bourbon
- 9 mint leaves
- Shaved ice
Pour simple syrup and 1 oz. bourbon in a tall Tom Collins glass. Place six mint leaves in the liquid and muddle with a spoon or a blunt device of some sort. Pack the glass two-thirds full with shaved ice and pour 3 oz. bourbon over the ice. Stir briefly. Pack in more ice and garnish the top with three mint leaves and push them into the ice. Repeat.
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