Ladies and gentlemen, dust off your fascinators and review your bow-tying tactics because it’s the Kentucky Derby this weekend! Luckily for you, I’ve learned a thing or two watching bartenders batch mint juleps by the gallon at Churchill Downs.
The list of ingredients for making a julep is simple; all you need is bourbon, sugar, ice, and a handful of fresh mint sprigs. The subtly different ways to combine them, however, are endless. In fact, they say that no two hosts’ mint juleps taste alike, and that’s quite true in my experience.
Prep goes a long way on Kentucky Derby day, so while most folks muddle fresh mint in the bottom of a silver chalice, I prefer to make a strong minted simple syrup that I steep ahead of time and then garnish my juleps with heady sprigs of peppermint. If you expect to catch the race, do yourself a favor and make the syrup the evening before and crush your ice before guests arrive. To do so, grab a canvas Lewis ice bagand a mallet, or a clean dish towel and a rolling pin (like my Nanna does) to produce fine frozen particulates. Or, if you must, just whiz up some ice for a few seconds in the blender. (I won’t tell). Whichever way you choose, be forewarned that this cocktail simply can’t survive on normal cubes.
Woodford Reserve bourbon is the classic choice for a mint julep, but since we’re here in Rhode Island, I allow some wiggle room for exploration. I love Sons of Liberty New England Bourbon out of South Kingstown, which has the appropriate ABV (46 percent) for making mint juleps. Made with locally grown corn, SOL manages graceful undertones of vanilla and a wash of caramel notes balanced with a lick of heat on the palate. It’s perfect for sipping neat if you’re so inclined, but extra glow-y with crushed ice and fresh mint.
Kentucky Colonel mint is king where it comes tradition and is among my favorites, though orange and chocolate mint also go splendidly with this drink. The beauty of the julep is that you can achieve some lovely aromatic variation depending on the variety of mint you choose.
To enjoy this julep, raise the cup to your lips and deeply inhale the glorious bouquet of fresh mint. If you’re sipping from a silver vessel, handle your julep from the lip and the hem of the tin, or else you’ll end up with a slush of fingerprints on your icy cup. This is A-OK in my book, but is considered a faux pas by those who have been drinking juleps all their lives. Here, I opted for glass in order to solve the mystery of what color a mint julep actually is. One last note before you raise a cup to the fine steeds of racing day: Be aware that you’ll be sipping an icy bath of lots of bourbon and just a little simple syrup. The recipe calls for 3 ounces of whiskey; consider adjusting your intake as you would for a night of martinis.