This weekend, brace your livers for impact. Sunday is Cinco de Drinko Mayo. Thankfully, I already have that base covered with how to make an awesome margarita. But first, it's time to get out your ludicrously oversized hats for the Kentucky Derby on Saturday. If it's time for the Derby, it's time for mint juleps.
While reading up on mint juleps, I discovered two things: First, everyone is convinced that their method of making a mint julep is the best and only way to do it. Second, no two bartenders make theirs the same way. Naturally, I have my own way of doing things, mostly courtesy of Gary Regan and his excellent book The Joy of Mixology.
A common thread with many mint juleps is to muddle mint and sugar in a glass, much like when making mojitos. I'm in the minority here, but I think mint juleps are better when the mint serves solely as an aromatic garnish.
I know what you're thinking: How can I call it a mint julep when there isn't any mint in the drink? There's a simple explanation: Most of what we perceive as taste is actually smell. Don't believe me? I have a science experiment for you. Have someone blindfold you, and hold your nose shut. Then, take a bite of an apple, and a bite of an onion. The two will taste indistinguishable. That's because anything past the basic tastes (sweet, salt, sour, bitter, umami) is carried through scent.
If you load up the glass with a bunch of fresh mint, and then cut the straw short so you have to bury your nose in the mint every time you take a drink, the drink will have a brighter, fresher mint taste than if you muddle mint into the drink. That's not to say that making the drink taste minty is a bad thing. But, if you want to do that, you're better off making mint-flavored simple syrup. After you're done with the juleps, try adding some to your iced tea; it's lovely.
The most important part of making a mint julep is that the drink is properly chilled. Silver julep cups are a great way to serve the drink, but are hardly practical. Start with a well-chilled Collins glass, and then swizzle the drink until a layer of ice forms on the outside of the glass. Make sure you handle the glass carefully; body heat will destroy the ice layer you've so carefully prepared. Hold the glass at the very base, preferably with a napkin between you and the glass. If you use high-proof spirits (such as Booker's bourbon, which is downright amazing), the ice can re-form under your fingertips while you hold it, sending your drink crashing to the floor.
Oh, one more thing before the recipe proper: You haven't lived until you've replaced a little of the sugar with peach schnapps. Trust me on this.
The recipe: Mint Julep Make sure you're not using spearmint, not peppermint. Mint is available at most grocery stores, but the best price by far is at Asian grocers. You can also find mint at a good price at some Mexican grocers; ask for yerbabuena. 3 ounces bourbon 1 ounce peach schnapps (optional; if using, reduce simple syrup to ½ ounce) 1 ounce simple syrup (or mint simple syrup; recipe follows) 5 or 6 sprigs fresh mint (or more as desired)
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Fill a chilled julep cup (or Collins glass) with crushed ice. Add bourbon and simple syrup. Swizzle until glass is nicely frosted. Add more crushed ice to fill glass. Garnish with enough mint to fill top of glass. If drinking through a straw, cut straw to barely stick out of glass.
Mint Simple Syrup 1 cup water 1 cup sugar 1 small handful fresh mint
Combine everything in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer. Let simmer five minutes, then remove from heat, cover, and let cool to room temperature. Strain out mint, and store in refrigerator until ready to use.