It's almost Derby time, and the anticipation is building. Celebrating the winning horse crossing the finish line, holding a mint julep, and laughing at all the poor suckers who will have to pay up on their harmless $5 bets is among the best feelings one can have as summer slowly creeps toward us. On Derby Day this Saturday, Houstonians will inevitably end up in a variety of settings to watch the big race, but those mint juleps that they'll drinking will likely vary more than the establishments serving them. Continuing from last week's column on bourbon, here is all you need to know to prepare for the julep madness to come.
The julep is one of many types of drinks -- including the cocktail, the fizz and the sling -- that actually can be made with any spirit. Rum juleps, gin juleps and even tequila juleps could all be made correctly if they followed the basic formula for making a julep. To read more about the lost classes of drinks, read about the Old-Fashioned as well. Of course, today, when people request a mint julep, they are asking for the classic bourbon version.
The Mint Julep
In the base of a julep cup, or a smaller glass, gently muddle the mint leaves and simple syrup. Pour bourbon over the mint leaves and syrup and mix thoroughly. Fill the cup with crushed ice and stir briefly. Pile more crushed ice onto the cup, forming a dome above the brim of the cup. Take a mint sprig and press it until it becomes aromatic. Garnish the julep with the sprig.
TIP: There are countless species of mint. You'll likely only see two at most grocery stores: spearmint and peppermint. Avoid peppermint or any other flavored type of mint. Some work well in juleps; others don't. Keep this cocktail simple; just buy basic spearmint.
You are likely to see a lot of products on store shelves this week that seemingly make this cocktail easier. This cocktail is already easy enough to make; don't take any shortcuts. These pre-bottled products that say "mint julep mix" or "mint-infused bourbon" are completely unnecessary and frankly don't taste very good. Mint is an herb that needs to be utilized at its freshest, and trying to prepare mint flavors in advance will yield a very sub-par julep, lacking all of the refreshing qualities of this wonderful herb.
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Many will also attempt to make a mint simple syrup. While this definitely gets an "A" for effort, this again is a mistake. Mint should not be applied to heat if it is being used in cocktails; it loses delicate flavors when cooked and makes poor mint juleps, mojitos and other cocktails. Speaking of mojitos, if you see a bartender put a lime anywhere near your mint julep this weekend, run the other way. Simply put, there is no reason to not make this cocktail the right way. It is cheaper to do so, and it tastes so much better. The only question remaining is, what type of bourbon?
As discussed in Mint Julep, Part 1: Bourbon, last week's column, bourbons are generally wheated (sweeter, i.e. Makers Mark), rye-heavy (spicier, i.e. Wild Turkey) or less wheat- or rye-dominated (more middle of the road, i.e. Buffalo Trace). The best bourbon to use in mint juleps is the latter. Wheated bourbons are often too sweet for juleps. The mint leaves a perception of sweetness already, and the combination of sugar and a wheated bourbon makes for an unbalanced cocktail. Rye-heavy bourbons, on the other hand, are too spicy and overbearing for the lighter flavors of the mint.
A bourbon like Buffalo Trace, however, makes the perfect mint julep. Buffalo Trace is arguably the best bourbon for your dollar out there, with a price tag generally around $25 a liter. So, give a well-constructed Buffalo Trace mint julep a try this weekend. It is a heavenly cocktail.
Now you're almost ready for the Derby this weekend. The only remaining task is to find out which horse to bet on; we can't help you there. We will say that the strategy of holding a brand-new, well-made julep right when the race starts will alleviate pain caused by misguided bets on horses with crazy, but appealing names. We've been there...