Proposed by: Jonathan
Reviewed by: David
Some weeks the cocktail seems to pick itself. The first Saturday in May is the Kentucky Derby, and of course the Derby means Mint Juleps. It has been the official cocktail of the race since 1938 and thanks to David and my sister-in-law, Beth, I can say that I have enjoyed one (or more) at the home of the Derby, Churchill Downs. I don’t remember what year that was, but that is more about age than it is the sweetened bourbon and its effects.
A julep is a sweetened and flavored drink, originally made with rosewater. Historic accounts note that the original use of mint and sugar to make a julep included other liquors instead of bourbon. In fact, one of the more interesting things is that before its association with Kentucky the julep was tied to Virginia and breakfast of all things. The idea was that folks would mix a spirit with sugar and mint to get going in the morning. As much as I like a julep, I think I will stick with coffee.
Throughout this cocktail adventure, we have added to our collection of appropriate glasses. This is one of few drinks that we have tried that calls for its own style of cup. The traditional julep cup is made of silver or pewter, the better to frost on the outside when properly mixed. These cups aren’t cheap (and beware of the decorative ones popular for flowers and table dressing) but it seemed worth the investment to enjoy the classic.
There are quite a few suggestions how to mix the proper julep, although the ingredients are fairly simple. Bourbon, sugar, mint, water and ice and you are on your way no matter how you choose to get there. It seems like most recipes start with the mint being muddled with sugar and a small amount of water. Ice and bourbon are added and stirred and then more ice is piled in to get the proper chilling.
I don’t particularly like the mint pieces and find the sugar never really dissolves so I went with mint simple syrup and whole mint leaves at the bottom and as a garnish. It should be noted that the type of ice is important. Most recipes say shaved ice, but that is more work than one should undertake for this relaxing drink. Thanks to my wife finding a source and then getting it, we used granular ice which is perfect for this drink.
Here’s David’s Review:
My wife is from Louisville, and I met her during the seven years I lived there. So great is my reverence for that place I wouldn’t deign to review the Mint Julep. That would be a little like reviewing air or the earth beneath my feet.
Oh, I know some people don’t like Juleps. They say they are too sweet or too horsey or too watery or too bourbon-y or too Southern. They dislike the snooty pewter or silver cups and picture the drink as emblematic of a time best forgot. They’ve changed the lyrics to “My Old Kentucky Home,” but no one seems to change them enough, they say. I understand that thinking. The Mint Julep is bigger than itself and evokes more than sweet and minty bourbon.
But, to me, the appeal of a Mint Julep isn’t its associations—or, at least, most of its associations. I think they taste wonderful. Mint is not my favorite flavor generally, but in combination with the mellow, sour drag of bourbon, the mint seems even sprightlier. Many people object to their confection, but, to me, the simple syrup gives the drink gravity and depth as well as sweetness.
And one association I do approve of—the cocktail’s role as the official drink of the Kentucky Derby. I can do without the madras plaid pants, the elaborate hats, and the faux gentility of the occasion. I can do without the parade of wealth. I can do without celebrity and prominence and privilege and exclusivity. But I can’t do without the Juleps.
On a visit to Louisville, Jonathan and his wife Debbie went to the Derby with my wife and me, and I remember buying many official Downs’ Juleps from our un-prominent spot in the infield. It was 1988, I think. The commemorative cup was nice—Louisville locals tend to look down on the track version of the drink—but the day was so much better, bright and warm and funny and, with the neighbors we met, more than a little strange. A good part of my affection for Juleps comes from that day and others. When I have a sip of a Julep, I think of Jonathan and Debbie, and, for that alone, I regard it with gratitude.
We identify memories and feelings about those memories by what urges them into our consciousness. Juleps remind me of the years I attended the Oaks the day before the Derby and the many Derby parties my wife and I have attended and hosted since then. More than anything else, the Derby excuses celebrating, and the race, whatever goes on behind the scenes or rattles through the television tube broadcast, offers a thrill that reminds me to be grateful for chance, the sense that nothing has been written yet.
None of which helps anyone understand what a Julep is like or how it might be good or bad. You will have to look for that elsewhere.
David Take: Mint Juleps are May, and vice versa.
Jonathan’s Take: The julep may have chosen us, but I am happy to choose it back.
Next Week (proposed by David):
Both Jonathan and I have sons graduating from college this May. Josh, Jonathan’s son, graduates next week and my son, Ian, on the 21st. In honor of their achievement and with pride in their accomplishment, I’m proposing a Blue Sky Champagne Cocktail. As chance has it, their schools—Carolina and Columbia—use the same blue (almost), and I’d like to raise a toast, with Jonathan, to our boys.