The mint julep is a mixed drink originating from the South in the United States. It is essentially a smooth, sweetened, slightly minty bourbon drink. From personal experience, you cannot find this drink (or anyone competent to make it) in the North. However, I would believe it to be a capital offense for a Southern Bartender to be incapable of making one.

Recipe Ingredients:
6 fresh mint sprigs
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp water
3 oz. Bourbon (I have seen a variation with brandy but I suspect it to be Unamerican)
crushed ice

Crush 4 of the mint sprigs and muddle with the sugar and water. Add Bourbon and enough crushed ice to fill the glass. Garnish with the remaining mint sprigs, ideally placing them such that your nose smells the mint as you sip. Supposedly it is best through a grass straw, but I cannot speak to this from experience.

Once, a bartender above the Mason-Dixon line was willing to try to make one for me. I figured I was safe since I was in a Thai restaurant and therefore could count on them having fresh mint. It seemed to take an eternity to arrive, but I was occupied with some Tom Kar soup. At one point I looked over towards the bar and saw the bartender scooping after-dinner mints. I was worried, but thought he might just have another bowl of them on the bar. I was wrong -- he had mashed them up and put them in. Instead of a lightly minty sweetness softening the bourbon, it resembled a cough drop.

Moral: If a bartender doesn't know what a drink is off the top of their head, don't let them make it, especially if it's more complex than mixing liquids and ice.

The Mint Julep is most commonly affiliated with the Kentucky Derby. A bar book and a drink guru taught me to make it similar to the above recipe, however, both said to top it off with a splash of barbados rum. Incidentally, this same guru also strongly suggested using only Ezra Brooks Bourbon.

The "julep" is an old name for a drink flavored with herbs, and the word was commonly used to describe the mixtures used to deliver medicines. The mint julep became popular in the American South because it was made with domestically produced bourbon whiskey rather than the rum popular in the North, which was made from imported molasses. It was originally drunk partly for medicinal purposes, as mint was used to treat various ailments, and the crushed ice made it a pleasant drink for a hot day. No one is sure exactly where the mint julep originated;'s Kathy Hamlin says Georgia is most likely but Virginia is also possible. William Howard Russell, an Englishman visiting a plantation near New Orleans during the Civil War, records being offered one as soon as he woke up in the morning, which he records as being considered "a panacea for all the evils of the climate."

However, the Confederacy's loss of the Civil War and the temperance movement of the late 1800s really hurt the mint julep's popularity. They are drunk now most often as a deliberate imitation of the Old South, such as at the Kentucky Derby. But the mint julep is probably the first truly popular cocktail, long before the heyday of cocktail invention, the 1920s.

Barr, Andrew. Drink: A Social History of America. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1999.

The Perfect Mint Julep

I'm fairly certain this recipe originated with Mark Twain, and that he began, "First, take the best damn bourbon you can find ..." Until I find that source, here's a version told by Master Distiller Jimmy Russell of the Wild Turkey distillery, to journalist Matt Labash.1

"To make the perfect mint julep," Russell intones, "You have to have a sterling silver mint julep cup, and 200 milliliters of Wild Turkey 101 proof. You got to shave the ice in that mint julep cup--you don't want to put it in crushed. Then you go down to the spring where the fresh mint's growing, and early that morning, you take eight to ten leaves of the fresh mint. You put it in, you mash it up to get the juice, then you take about a teaspoon of powdered sugar and enough water to dissolve it. Let it sit for about ten minutes, so you get the sweetness of the mint flavor. Then you strain it into your shaved ice. You take a sprig of mint, with all the leaves, and stick it down into the cup, ice and all."
At this point, all of us journalists are writing scrupulously, eager to impress our friends at our next Kentucky Derby party, which even the non-horse-racing enthusiasts among us are now planning on throwing. "At that point," Russell continues, "you walk to the back of your porch, throw it all away, and drink the 101 Wild Turkey straight," he says, as we all stop scribbling.
"Did you get all that down?"

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When I was in law school I earned my spending money as a bartender at the Boar’s Head Inn, a venerable Charlottesville institution just west of town. All things considered, it was one of the best jobs I ever had. The bar I worked was a rustic little basement tavern in the Inn’s main building, and my customers were mostly U.Va. alumni in town on business, staying at the Inn. Because they never had to drive to their rooms upstairs, the tabs, and tips, were great.

Being that the Boar’s Head was a fairly upscale watering hole, my uniform was black tie and my repertoire ran the gamut of fancy mixed drinks. But the drink I enjoyed making the most, bar none, was the mint julep, a house specialty. There are two acceptable ways to make a proper mint julep. The quick way and the right way.

Most people know the quick way. That’s the way most mint julep recipes are written. Making a mint julep the quick way first involves “muddling” some fresh mint and sugar in the bottom of a chilled pewter or silver mug.

Glass won’t do. The mug has to be pewter or silver. And chilled. At the Boar’s Head, we kept a stock of refrigerated pewter mugs at the ready at all times.

And the mint has to be fresh, of course. You can buy fresh mint sprigs at the produce section, but at the Boar’s Head we had mint planted out back, a lot of it, in an area we could close off when the weather got bad.

Muddling involves taking a few fresh mint leaves, some sugar, and some soda water, maybe a quarter inch, and mashing them up in the bottom of the mug with a wooden pestle. Take your time when you’re doing it. The more you crush up the mint leaves, the more mint flavor you release into the sweetened soda water.

Here’s where you add the alcohol. Bourbon, a shot or so. I used Old Grand Dad or Woodford Reserve. Once the mint is crushed up and the bourbon added, you need to pack the mug with shaved ice. Crushed ice will do in a pinch, but the best ice to use is shaved. You know, the kind you see at the boardwalk in the summer at the Hawaiian Shaved Ice machines.

That’s because, deep down, a mint julep is really just an alcoholic snow cone, and the thinner shaved ice flakes help pick up and defuse the mint flavor.

Once the ice is packed in firmly, take a straw and plunge back and forth into the ice, working the sweetened mint water and bourbon up into the ice. This will liquefy some of the shaved ice and give you some room at the top of the mug. During this process, you can add sugar to taste, making sure to work it into the ice while you’re doing it.

When you’re finished working the mint up into the ice, you need to re-pack the ice, although it shouldn’t be packed flat at the top. Go for presentation here, a loose layer of ice at the top is what you’re looking for.

Spread some sugar on top, and garnish with a few mint sprigs. Add two drinking straws cut short. Why short? So that when you drink it, you’ll have your nose close to catch the mint bouquet. Yes, I said “bouquet.” The mint julep is that kind of drink.

Believe it or not, that was the quick way to make a mint julep. If you have the time to prepare beforehand, though, there’s a better way to do it. You see, the muddling process is just a quick and dirty way to make the sweetened mint syrup for the drink. If you have the mint syrup already prepared, or (shudder) purchased, then you’re a step ahead of the game.

Making it is kind of like making sweet mint tea. Take equal parts water and sugar in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Increase the heat a little bit and let simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Take the pan off the heat, add the mint leaves, and steep for fifteen minutes.

Strain the mixture, and refrigerate the syrup until cold. That’s pretty much it. The syrup makes a better julep because the mint flavor has permeated the mixture more completely, and it flows up into the ice more thoroughly as it’s mixed in. You also don’t have little chunks of mint leaves scattered everywhere in the ice.

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