Who Won the Derby?
As we all know, it's hot in Texas in the summertime -- very hot. It can be hard to get motivated to do anything outside other than walking (very quickly) from the house to the car. This heat is something we southerners are accustomed to, however, and many years ago, a refreshing drink, supposedly of Arabian origin, was adopted as "the quintessential southern drink" in the United States -- the Mint Julep.
Mint Julep History
According to Dale DeGroff in The Craft of the Cocktail, the julep originated in eighteenth century England and consisted of Cognac and peach brandies. From this envolved today's Mint Julep, which is still in keeping with the tradition of a sweet, dark gold drink.
A Mint Julep is more than just deliciously refreshing. It symbolizes hospitality, something we southerners are known for. In East Texas, people place bundles of mint in their doorways to welcome guests. In ancient Greece, mint leaves were crushed and rubbed on the table to show hospitality to visitors. Worldwide, and in many cultures, displaying or serving mint in one shape or form is considered to be a welcome sign.
In Mexico, mint is called Yerba Buena (which means "good herb") and is commonly used in the Mexican meatball soup Albondigas. In the Middle East, a refreshing and colorful bowl of tabouli wouldn't be the same without the addition of finely chopped mint, and I wouldn't think of serving a lemon or chocolate tart without placing a few perfect mint leaves in the center for decoration.
Finally, in Brazil, mint is crushed with turbino sugar in a pestal and mixed with the Brazilian sugar-cane liqueur, cachaa, for a delicious cocktail called a Caipirinha. There is so much sugar and mint in this drink that you're chewing it by the time you get half way through.
Fortunately, mint is easy to grow. It is happy growing in the sun or partial shade and likes to be kept fairly moist. It will grow well in either a pot or in the ground, and it comes in many different varieties such as chocolate, pineapple, and the classic spearmint and peppermint. The classic varieties are traditionally used for the mint julep drink but all types of mint would make an interesting Mint Julep cocktail.
I'll Have What She's Having
At last, we arrive at the 'good herb's' use in cocktails. I'm not going to get into who should take credit for making the mint julep so famous, but I will mention The Kentucky Derby's tradition of serving this drink at its race events in a fancy, silver cup. In Louisiana, the cocktail is sipped out on the front porch in the dead heat of summer in a small, crystal glass, with or without a stem.
In East Texas, they don't care much what they drink a mint julep in -- silver, crystal or just plain old glass -- as long as there is plenty of ice. Crushed ice is preferred. To make a spectacular mint julep it is important that the drink is really cold. A frosted glass would be most welcome, but if that isn't possible, it can be made up for with an abundance of crushed ice.
Some don't realize that advance preparation is needed in mixing up a mint julep. It begins with making syrup by boiling water and sugar together for 5 minutes. After the sugar is completely dissolved, the liquid needs to be cooled, placed in a covered container with 6 to 8 bruised mint springs, and then refrigerated overnight. Because of the need for this advance preparation, mint juleps cannot be whipped up on the spur of the moment. But, please believe me, they are worth planning for when you are entertaining guests.
National Mint Julep Day is May 30.
A premium Kentucky Bourbon is what is usually preferred in making a quality mint julep. My preference would be Maker's Mark. Maker's Mark was established in 1805 as a gristmill/distillery, and it's the nation's oldest working distillery on its original site located on the banks of Hardin's Creek near Loretto, Kentucky. It is also one of the smallest distilleries, crafting Bourbon in batches of less than 19 barrels. It has a smooth, sophisticated flavor and is hand-made at every step. It also is not too sweet to mix with the syrup used in a mint julep.
My second choice would be Jim Beam, another not-too-sweet Bourbon good for mixing with a sweet cocktail. It's also a little less expensive than Maker's Mark and is easy to find at any liquor store. You may prefer to experiment with different Bourbons to determine which is the best for mixing with your mint cocktail.
Always serve ice cold!
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 2 cups water (branch water is ideal)
- fresh Mint
- crushed Ice
- Kentucky Bourbon (2 ounces per serving)
Make a simple mint syrup by boiling sugar and water together for 5 minutes; cool. Place in a covered container with 6 or 8 bruised mint sprigs. Refrigerate overnight. This makes enough syrup for about 44 juleps.
Make a julep by filling a julep cup or glass with crushed ice, then adding 1 tablespoon of mint syrup and 2 ounces of bourbon. Stir rapidly with a spoon to frost outside of cup or glass. Garnish with a fresh mint sprig.Makes 44 mint juleps.
- Always use premium Kentucky bourbon.
- Use crushed or shaved ice and pack in cup.
- To bruise mint, place in a cup and gently pass the back of a spoon between cup and the leaves a time or two. You want the mint to release some of its fragrant oils.
- Add a straw cut to protrude just above the rim of the cup and serve. You should be able to get a faint whiff of the mint sprig when you're sipping.
- Keep the covered syrup in the refrigerator (after removing the mint leaves) if you don't plan on drinking all the servings.
The English originated the julip with this delicious drink using Congac and peaches.
- ½ ounce of peach brandy (such as Marie Brizard Peach Liqeur)
- 2 ounces of VS Cognac
- 2 tender sprigs of fresh Mint
- 2 wedges of sweet ripe peach
Strip the leaves from one sprig of mint and muddle them together with the peach brandy and peach wedges. Add the Cognac and shake. Strain into a highball glass filled with crushed ice and stir until the outside of the glass frosts. Add more crushed ice, if necessary. Garnish with the second sprig of mint.
As a variation, you can substitute bourbon in place of Cognac. Makes 1 Peach Julep.