Julep Varietals

JulepDMProposed 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:

JulepJMIt 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.

The Mint Julep

julepProposed 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:Derby'14

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.