It’s Derby Week here in Louisville, which means everyone’s skipping out on work early and polishing their julep cups. You may not be coming to town for the Kentucky Derby this weekend, but you can still put on a hat, stir up a mint julep or mint fizz mocktail, and tune in for the greatest two minutes in sports.
The julep is a traditional cocktail (read: strong) that’s bourbon-based: fitting, since Louisville is the traditional gateway to rural bourbon country, and the Urban Bourbon Trail is popular with visitors to the city. Kentucky bourbon even made the New York Times last year when someone made off with 65 cases of $1200-bucks-a-bottle Pappy Van Winkle.
I used to think mint juleps were gross, but I’ve learned a few things since I took my first sip.
Since the julep relies on just a few ingredients, quality matters. Use cheap bourbon and your drink will taste like minty cough syrup. This drink demands good bourbon and homemade simple syrup.
Elijah Craig is our favorite, but we also like Bulleit, Knob Creek, and Maker’s Mark. (I’m a huge Trader Joe’s fan, but don’t put TJ’s bourbon in your mint julep.)
As the ice melts, it will dilute your drink slightly. Make sure your ice is fresh, and take the extra time to crush it. (I put my cubes in a gallon-size ziploc bag, wrap the whole thing in a sturdy kitchen towel, and hammer away.)
Classic mint julep
It doesn’t hurt to chill your glasses in advance. This recipe goes light on the simple syrup. If you like your julep sweeter, add up to 1 ounce.
mint-infused simple syrup:
• 1 cup sugar
• 1 cup water
• handful of fresh mint sprigs
• 1/2 ounce simple syrup
• 1 1/2 cups crushed ice
• 2 ounces bourbon
• fresh mint sprigs (to garnish)
Combine sugar and water; bring to boil over high heat, watching closely. Reduce heat, keeping just high enough to maintain simmer; add mint sprigs. Simmer for 5 minutes; remove from heat. Allow to cool and then refrigerate.
To make the mint julep: fill a julep cup or old-fashioned glass with crushed ice. Add mint syrup and bourbon; stir. Add crushed ice to fill to top; garnish with mint sprig. Taste and add more syrup if desired. Stir before serving.
We don’t do many sweet drinks around here, but when we do, I like to make our own by adding syrup to club soda. This gives me total control over how much sugar is in the drink, and since I made the simple syrup myself out of straight white sugar and water, I am acutely conscious of the fact that I am pouring sugar into my beverage, which helps me exercise restraint.
Mint fizz mocktail
These are a nice alternative to the traditional julep for the adults. My kids also love these easy drinks, which you can make with only the stingiest amount of sugar, because anything with a real glass, a garnish, and a straw already puts these drinks firmly in “special occasion” territory.
• Mint-infused simple syrup (see above)
• club soda
• crushed ice
• squeeze of lemon (optional)
• mint to garnish
Fill glass with crushed ice; add club soda and 1 tablespoon simple syrup. Stir and taste, adding more syrup if desired. Garnish with mint sprig.
P.S. Your Derby questions, answered.