Proposed By: David
Reviewed By: Jonathan
When Jonathan and I went to the Kentucky Derby with our wives in the mid 80s, we parked our infield picnic blanket next to some proto-bros with a water balloon catapult. A couple of races in, they found their range and pinned a poor racing form seller inside his tin hut. An official-looking person arrived with commands to desist, but by then they were out of ammo anyway. Around three in the afternoon, they began launching their uneaten ham sandwiches instead.
People drink a lot at the Derby.
Churchill Downs’ mint juleps have a reputation for being a little watery, but I think I remember downing a few that day. And it makes me laugh when people talk about juleps as a genteel drink. At three parts bourbon to one part simple syrup, home versions can be quite strong. The idea is to sip them, allowing the ice to dilute their potency, but I enjoy them so much I seldom manage it.
A mint julep is technically a “smash,” a group of drinks defined by spirit (not necessarily bourbon), crushed ice, and macerated mint (or basil, or something leafy). The idea is to coat the glass with the oils of the leaf and lend an aromatic quality to the libation. In the classic julep, mint simple syrup is the short cut. In one of the julep alternatives I tried, “The Wild Ruffian,” (here’s a link to the recipe) the syrup is made of peach preserves, and the mint is pulverized with a muddler. That drink also called for cognac instead of bourbon, so I doubt anyone would recognize the concoction as a “julep.” Nor do I think Churchill Downs would ever serve one… or certainly not in the infield.
Another of the drinks both Jonathan and I tried was the Oaks Lily (recipe link), named for the featured race for fillies highlighting the day before the Derby. When I lived in Louisville, seeing the Oaks in the grandstands was actually affordable and accessible for commoners—no more, apparently—and the Oaks Lily is also suitably direct, relying on vodka over bourbon and cranberry and lime juices, plus a splash of triple sec, instead of simple syrup. Not a sprig of mint is to be seen anywhere, so it wouldn’t really qualify as a smash, just a way to preserve Saturday for the real julep.
As Jonathan explains below, he tried yet another julep alternative called a Bufala Negra, but, despite our experimentation, we both needed to make real juleps too. It’s not that they’re fancy—what could be plainer than 3:1 bourbon to syrup?—but they are tradition. And, if they are good enough for infielders, they are good enough for us.
Here’s Jonathan’s Review:
It has been my impression that there are many places where the idea of a mint julep is met with disdain. The drink is decidedly a bourbon concoction, but if you love bourbon you don’t need, or want, the dilution and sweetening of the mint or simple syrup. If it is the latter that you like, there’s a good chance that bourbon is not your favorite. All of that is a shame because of how well the flavors go together.
Many years ago David and I had a very bad bourbon experience, and I had sworn off the stuff. A beach trip with our siblings and families helped with my gradual tolerance, and eventual embrace, of the brown liquor. Each sibling had a night when they were responsible for dinner and a cocktail and David chose to make juleps. The key to his mix was a well-crafted mint simple syrup that, to me, makes the difference in a julep. By mixing mint in the syrup, there is no need for dissolving sugar in water, muddling of mint or waiting for the inevitable melding. The two ingredients just mix with their friend crushed ice and a long sip later make for a wonderful combination.
This week was about alternatives though and we tried a couple of them. The first was a drink that was suggested in Southern Living that both David and I tried. I trust that David has provided the recipe for the Blush Lily which is the magazine’s take on the classic drink. It is a nice alternative for those who don’t like bourbon although some may find it more tart than sweet with lime and cranberry as the juices. We tried adding a splash of Blenheim ginger ale and that seemed to address that aspect as well as extend the drink.
My second alternative julep is called the Bufala Negra. I have no idea where that name came from but it is a mix of bourbon and basil with an interesting twist:
4 basil leaves
1 tsp aged balsamic vinegar
½ ounce simple syrup
1.5 ounce bourbon
Muddle 3 basil leaves, balsamic vinegar, and simple syrup. Add bourbon, crushed ice and stir. Garnish with the remaining basil leaf.
The interesting part of this drink is how well the flavors mix. I was wary of drinking even a small amount of vinegar, but mixed with the basil and syrup it was a great match for bourbon. The end result was a less bourbon forward cocktail that still had the sweetness and herbal qualities of a classic julep.
Jonathan’s Take: The classic julep is still the best, but the Blush Lily is great for those who don’t love bourbon and the Negra is an interesting alternative for those who love variety.
David’s Take: The classic is still king, but the others are welcome variations
Next Week (Proposed by Jonathan):
I have been getting some grief about proposing the drink of Wimbledon well before the sporting event. The Pimm’s Cup is a classic drink of summer, however, and there seem to be a number of varieties that showcase different fruits. It is strawberry season all over the country and I wanted a drink that used that fruit without being a return to the sweetness and rum of tiki week.