The art of the mint julep

April is mint julep month in Louisville 

Written by: Maggie Kimberl

If there’s one thing that most people universally get wrong about the mint julep, it’s that they are supposed to taste awful. Mint juleps are supposed to be light and refreshing, served in the heat of the late Kentucky spring or early summer in order to keep you cool as you attend your favorite outdoor equestrian sporting events. The main reason most people think mint juleps are bad is that they have just never had a good one, opting to try a premade version and judging the entire category on its slacker cousin.

The month leading up to The Kentucky Derby is a special time in Louisville. The Kentucky Derby Festival is basically a three week party to celebrate a two minute horse race, and the entire month is dedicated to showcasing what a mint julep can really be. On Derby weekend at Churchill Downs, about 120,000 juleps will be served.

According to Stacey Yates, the idea for Mint Julep Month came from the convergence of a perfect storm of factors, from partnerships with local bars and restaurants centering around the cocktail, to a desire to highlight Bourbon’s versatility in the springtime.

“We simply declared it so, sent out a press release about it and starting curating anyone else that wanted to participate,” says Yates. “We had seen the success that National Bourbon Heritage Month had for creating a buzz in September and we thought this would be a nice counterpart to that in the spring for a Bourbon push as well. We created a content page on our website and it really took off when the Courier-Journal wrote about it like it has always ‘been a thing’.”

“The mint julep has been a part of The Kentucky Derby since 1938,” says The Silver Dollar bar manager, Susie Hoyt. “It’s become an important part of the event. The Kentucky Derby is a huge event that people come in from around the world for, so Kentucky and Louisville are are associated with The Kentucky Derby and Mint Juleps, even if it’s not during the Kentucky Derby.”

So where do you find the best mint juleps in Louisville? Start your search on social media, says Yates.

“If you follow #mintjulepmonth – especially on Instagram – you will see some really creative spins from Louisville bars and now throughout the country. We also now feed special offers, events, ideas etc. to a website in partnership with Garden & Gun [at] mintjulepmonth.com.”

Crafting your perfect mint julep

“Mint can be delicate so it needs to be stored properly to prevent wilting,” says Hoyt. “It’s tough to leave mint out on the bar on a hot day, but it can work if you are going through it fast enough. I recommend putting cold water in the bottom of an old fashioned glass and propping the mint up like a bouquet. Sometimes we’ll even throw an ice cube or two in the bottom to keep the water very cold. If the temperature is warm, or the mint is not being used regularly, it needs to be left in the cooler.”

Whether you are going all out and hand-crafting each mint julep to order, or just garnishing your Bourbon and mint simple syrup mix with mint, taking the time to combine the ingredients close to when they will be consumed is the key to a pleasant drinking experience.

“With all due respect to the brands,” says Yates. “I simply think there is no comparison to a scratch-made mint julep. One where the mint has been steeped in simple syrup overnight, served in a proper julep cup, and lightly dusted with powder sugar, which is the Kentucky standard bearer. But I’d also add that my favourites are specifically the ones made by my Nonnie on Derby Day served with Old Forester – the house Bourbon.”

This Mint Julep Month, ditch the premade cocktail and whip up your best scratch recipe. Your Derby guests will thank you.

The Silver Dollar’s Mint Julep recipe by Susie Hoyt

INGREDIENTS

• 5-7 mint leaves
• Crushed ice
• 2 ounces Four Roses Single Barrel Bourbon
• 1 ounce demerara syrup

METHOD

To make the julep, slap 5-7 mint leaves and use a bar spoon to pull the mint leaves up the side of the julep tin. You’ll get a great aroma from the mint oil and all the mint leaves are discarded to prevent any grassy/vegetal notes that come from leaving mint inside the tin. The drink is built in the julep cup so the demerara syrup and Bourbon are added next. Add crushed ice. After a quick swizzle with a bar spoon, crushed ice is filled to the top and packed down so it is level with the top of the tin. Then a snow cone of crushed ice is added to the top and packed in as well. Tap one large mint sprig or two medium sprigs to release the oil and place the garnish at the edge of the glass touching the straw. The effervescent mint aroma is key for the mint julep.

Tim Laird’s “Mint Juleps for Many”

INGREDIENTS

In a chilled julep cup add:

• 2 ounces Woodford Reserve Bourbon
• 1 ounce mint simple syrup
• Crushed ice
• Add a sipping straw and garnish with a large mint sprig.

To make the mint simple syrup:

• 1 part water
• 1 part sugar
• 1 part loosely-packed fresh mint leaves

METHOD

In a saucepan, combine the water and sugar. Bring to the boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the water is clear and the sugar is dissolved, remove from the heat and stir in the mint leaves. Allow to steep for 20 minutes. Strain into a glass container and store in the refrigerator.

Note: You can adjust the sweetness of the drink by adding more or less of the mint simple syrup. The mint simple syrup is also a great addition to iced tea. 

 

Barefoot Manhattans

The quest for the ultimate Manhattan

Have you ever had a bad Manhattan? It’s a simple enough cocktail that it ought to be impossible to mess up – whiskey, vermouth, and bitters garnished with a cherry. Unfortunately I’ve had some pretty terrible ones. Last summer I was at a restaurant with my colleague, Rosemary Miller, when she received a Manhattan that was so bad we were convinced it had leftover beer in it. We set about studying our favorite cocktail, learning the ins and outs. What we learned was surprising, even polarizing to some of our readers.

THE METHODOLOGY 

We wanted to study each part of a Manhattan cocktail to see how they would interact with the other ingredients so we made an outline of how we thought our study would go. In reality it ended up almost nothing like our initial outline, and that was completely OK. For instance, where we thought we would be dedicating one section of the study to vermouths, we ended up dedicating three. It’s the ingredient we studied most in-depth, because we found it to be considerably more complicated than we first thought. We ended up with nine sections in total and we could have continued forever on the questions that we raised with each one. As with all things, whatever your preference is you should go with. But as Rosemary and I had very similar preferences in Manhattans we set about to discover what was the absolute best Manhattan for us, using the same basic proportions and techniques and swapping out one ingredient at a time to test how it affected the end result.

SECTIONS ONE & TWO – FINDING THE RIGHT WHISKEY 

We began our Manhattan journey with a lineup of whiskeys, both Bourbons and ryes, each with different mash bills and proofs. In our first study we chose Michter’s 10 years Bourbon at 94.4-proof for the age, Old Fitzgerald Bottled-In-Bond because it’s a wheater, Michter’s 10 years rye at 92.8-proof for its age, and Rittenhouse Rye Bottled-in-Bond because it is a standard among Louisville bartenders. 

We quickly discovered we liked the spice of rye whiskey in our Manhattans better than the sweetness of Bourbon.

Next we lined up four rye whiskeys – the Michter’s 10 years rye that we had preferred the last time, the Rittenhouse Bottled-in-Bond rye that is a favorite among local bartenders, Kentucky Peerless rye which is very young at two years old but also higher proof at 107.4, and the Michter’s US-1 Barrel Strength with no age statement but a proof of 109.6. 

What we determined was that barrel entry proof and bottling proof play a bigger role than we had initially anticipated. Kentucky Peerless is barreled at 103° and Michter’s at 107°, giving the end product more access to the water soluble wood sugars that lead to greater caramel and vanilla notes. 

Though we liked the Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye best the Kentucky Peerless came in second, driving home the point that age isn’t all-important and other factors are able to compensate.

THE IN-DEPTH VERMOUTH STUDY SECTION 

After what we thought would be our only vermouth session we quickly realized we would need at least three. We broke up our potential vermouths into French, Italian, and then a runoff between the two.  

In my struggle to find four French vermouths at a well-stocked local liquor store I grabbed something that was very close to vermouth – Byrrh Grand Quinquina. It ended up taking our Manhattan game to the next level. We still like the Barolo Chinato Cocchi best out of the strictly vermouth category, but we were also surprised to discover that Martini and Rossi remained a strong contender throughout. There’s a reason it’s on most every back bar.

SHAKEN OR STIRRED: THINGS GO OFF THE RAILS

We had initially intended to look at this part after each of the ingredients, but we received so much feedback from the bartending community we had to change course. Traditional bartender wisdom dictates that you are supposed to stir a cocktail that only contains spirits, like the Manhattan, and shake a cocktail that contains juice,
like a Margarita for instance. 

There are two reasons people give for stirring a Manhattan. First, you don’t want to “bruise” the vermouth. Admittedly I never found out exactly what this means, though I did try. 

Second, shaking a Manhattan is supposed to make it foamy. 

THE BITTER TRUTH 

As Albert Schmid put it in his book The Manhattan Cocktail, bitters are the spice cabinet. You can tailor a Manhattan to a drinker’s preference very easily by swapping out the bitters. 

We were split in our final result between Woodford Reserve Spiced Cherry bitters and the classic offering of Angostura. 

Again, there’s a reason why there’s a bottle of Angostura bitters on every back bar across the American nation.

AND A CHERRY ON TOP 

Garnishes finish the cocktail, giving it that special touch that tells the imbiber this was crafted by hand just for you. Luxardo is the gold standard, Bada Bing are very nice, but we discovered a new brand that is now our favorite – Jack Rudy Cocktail Company Bourbon Cocktail Cherries. 

THE ROSEMARY & MAGGIE MANHATTAN 

INGREDIENTS

  1.5 oz. Michter’s Barrel Strength Rye
  0.5 oz. Byrrh Grand Quinquina
  2 dashes Angostura or Woodford Spiced Cherry bitters
  1 Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Bourbon
Cocktail Cherry

METHOD

Combine rye, vermouth, and bitters in a cocktail glass with ice and stir. Strain with a Hawthorne strainer into a coupe glass. Garnish with a cherry.

The Thorn

Ingredients
• 50ml Four Roses Single Barrel
• 15ml Amaro Nardini
• 10ml vanilla sugar syrup
• 2 dashes ‘Aztec’ chocolate bitters
• 6 large mint leaves

Method
Build in a julep tin over crushed ice, taking time to muddle the mint leaves, and churn well with a spoon before topping with more crushed ice.

Garnish
Serve with a straw and garnish with a mint sprig.

Four Roses
Single Barrel 100% Proof
This high-strength expression from Four Roses is one of those key bottles that no Bourbon lover’s whiskey shelf should ever be without. Waxy wine gums and plums accompany rich spice and maple syrup in a palate that just keeps going and going.