It’s been said that the mint julep is perfect when temperatures are between 70 and 100 degrees. That’s when it does its job best — the job of cooling, soothing, and satisfying.
"And it’s pretty much always between 70 and 100 in Phoenix,” says Micah Olson, co-owner at Okra, Central Phoenix’s sister restaurant to Arcadia's Crudo.
It's 105 degrees when we sit down with Olson on a recent autumn day. An Okra bartender wants to show a new drink idea to Olson, but one of the ingredients is still in the trunk of Olson’s car, so he hands the bartender his keys, commenting, “I’m not going back out there.” Thankfully neither are we, sitting a few feet away from a pound of fresh mint, crushed iced, and plenty of bourbon.
We’re there to talk about the Mint Julep, a featured drink on Okra’s cocktail menu. There are several variations on the drink that can be most simply described as containing a spirit, sugar, fresh mint and crushed ice. It makes a lot of sense that Olson has built a bar program around this drink; the classic old-fashioned is his favorite cocktail to make and consume, whiskey is his favorite spirit. With a julep, he explains, “You’ve got your water from the crushed ice, you’ve got your spirit. To me, your bittering agent is your mint, which also gives you your aroma, and you’ve got your sugar. So it has everything that you’d also have in an old fashioned."
The Mint Julep evolved from a time when liquor was still considered medicine. The French coined the medical term for a mixture of sugar and water — essentially a syrup, Olson clarifies — a "julep," which could help get the liquor down much more easily.
Fast-forward to the American South of the 1800s, when tough manual labor and farming were the dominant professions. "The julep was their tipple that they'd drink in the morning instead of coffee, and that was before you’d farm — you’d go and pound down a julep real quick and then you’re out to the fields," Olson says. "It would make you feel good enough to go to work, take some of those little aches and pains away from the last day of work."
The cocktail was born, consumed for many of the same reasons it's consumed today — though, in those days, per capita consumption of alcohol topped out at over four gallons.
The mint, which could be found growing at the banks of riverbeds, was an American addition.
Colonel Joe Nickel, who wrote a tiny book called The Kentucky Mint Julep, has it on good authority that it was the mint that transformed the julep into “our own American invention."
Though bourbon is now considered the spirit of choice for Juleps, and Four Roses bourbon sits at the bottom of Okra's traditional house julep, the spirit used for the drink has always been up for debate. It's thought to have been a reflection of the drinker's means. A wealthy Northerner was said to choose Cognac, whereas the lower class chose the more crude, cheaper whiskey that predated bourbon. Some sources say brandy distilled from peaches was, at one time, plentiful. But as bourbon, a byproduct of increased corn production, became more popular, it became the dominant choice for the mint julep as we know it today.
For Okra's classic mint julep, Olson wanted a signature touch and chose Four Roses because it's sold by the barrel for private parties. Four Roses sent Olson and his staff samples of various barrels to try — barrels that varied by rye content and yeast strains, among other factors.
"We blind-tasted the barrels and the one we ended up picking had the highest rye content, and I was like, 'Sweet, I know I like rye, and it confirms that I like rye in bourbons, and it confirms those things that you know about yourself," Olson says. "Plus, it's just a fun thing to do, to pick your own barrel and to have a say in the matter. You're more vested, and your staff is, too, because they got to help pick, which is always nice when your staff is helping you make drinks — they want to talk about it, too."
By the time the Kentucky Derby claimed the Mint Julep in the mid-1900s as its signature drink, and as other more complicated cocktails came to prominence, the ubiquity of the julep faded. Today, the Julep is nearly inextricably associated with the Kentucky Derby — over two days, the event sells close to 120,000 juleps. It's apparently a matter of quality over quantity.
"I hear they're really bad," says Olson, laughing. "But I'm not speaking from experience."
"Every cocktail he wrote about in Imbibe has been brought back and been fairly popular, but the julep has been the one that no one has really picked up and embraced for some reason," says Olson, flabbergasted at the timing — as Okra was well under way at the time. "And I was like, 'Why couldn’t you have waited until after I opened with this julep section to say that?' Oh, well," he says with a smile.
When asked if he's excited to be specializing around one drink, he says, "It’s the first time I’ve ever done it on one menu. I’ve done a thousand Old Fashioned and Manhattan riffs, and Last Word riffs, but I’ve never put two on the menu. I’ve maybe had two sours on the menu, but never as specific as this or that little ingredient done every little way and tweaked."
He has little reason to worry that it will catch on, and he has options for every drinker — one julep has smoky mezcal, another contains VSOP cognac. "We've already sold a ton. We're going through over a pound of mint a day. Every day we're picking mint."
Olson points outside with his thumb. He imagines a Kentucky Derby party next year, held in the courtyard outside the restaurant. The lot is still bare but won't be for long. "We'll get a big screen to watch the race and have people with big hats sipping on juleps. I know everybody wants to dress up. People are dying in this town to get the opportunity to dress up, get quirky, do something fun."
Anyone who has seen the sightseeing at the Waste Management Phoenix Open knows this town is eager to dress up in open-air fashion — the big hats, the open-toed shoes, the bright colors or the pastels, and the floral patterns.
"No one will actually be there to watch the race, either," he admits. "They might just come to party, and I’m okay with that, as a party provider. 'I’m here to party'" he says, imitating future patrons.
That's one of the futures on Olson's julep list — but he plans on changing the flavors seasonally with his staff, as temperatures slide down closer to the 70 side of the ideal sipping range.
"[Someone] just made this great champagne julep that we’re going to put on the list here eventually. It’s super-super-tasty."
Expect those changes to show up, Olson says, around "November-ish." When they come around, the spirits and flavors present will darken — spices and herbs doing some warming instead of cooling, when the weather app reads below 70 on chilly desert nights in Central Phoenix.