Mint Julep: Don’t Screw It Up

Pop Culture
The mint julep is a Kentucky Derby staple.
The mint julep is a Kentucky Derby staple. (Eclipse Sportswire)

It’s Kentucky Derby time and that means mint juleps.

And this may come as a surprise: Many Kentuckians hate the mint julep.

In fact, this past week, a Louisville reporter reached out to me digging for dirt on the julep. The fact is, most people make the julep all wrong.

If your julep tastes like Crest toothpaste, then it’s time to make them differently.

For me, bad juleps start with the over-muddling the mint. Of course, a mint julep is merely mint, bourbon, sugar, and water. All recipes call for the mint to be muddled prior to adding the other ingredients. But there’s no need to over muddle.

What you want to do is pull four to six leaves, put them in the glass and lightly press a muddler against them to express the oil, but don’t overdo it. If you muddle the stems, where most oil resides, or push the leaves so hard it’s as if you put them in a blender, you may as well just eat toothpaste.

So, go easy on the mint.

Next up is the ice.

You cannot serve a proper mint julep with regular ice. It must be julep ice, which is sort of a cross between snow cone and Sonic ice—thin stuff that melts quickly. And it’s easy to do yourself: Put ice in a clean rag, fold it and hammer or pound it on a hard surface until the ice has turned into small shavings.

Big ice does not dissolve quick enough and is another reason for the “over minted” effect.  If the ice doesn’t melt, the mint stands out stronger the bourbon.

For the sugar, I like castor sugar, but powder sugar is the most common. You’re really looking for a sugar that will dissolve easily, so stay away from the harder chunky sugars that may stick around whole.

And last but not least, bourbon! You must use a bourbon with some backbone. An 80 proof bourbon won’t be able to stand up to the thin ice and mint. Think 90 proof and higher. I actually like my bourbons 100 proof and higher. As for how much, well, I’m a bourbon author, so I go heavy here. My favorite bourbons for the julep are the official Derby bourbon—Woodford Reserve, as well as Russell’s Reserve and Weller Antique 107.

And hey, after you make them, share your Instagram pics with me @FredMinnick.

Happy Derby week!

Traditional Mint Julep Recipe

4 fresh mint sprigs
2.5 ounces of 94-proof or higher bourbon
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp water

Gently muddle leaves, not the stems. Add sugar and water in a Collins glass or your Sterling Silver Julep Cup. Fill with crushed ice. Add bourbon and garnish with strongly stemmed mint.

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