It's Kentucky Derby week, and that means mint juleps. Over the course of two days at Churchill Downs they'll serve over 120,000 juleps, which will account for 81.2 percent of all mint juleps consumed in the entire United States this year. An additional 13.8 percent of the annual total will be consumed this weekend by Americans attending Kentucky Derby parties hosted by expatriates of the Bluegrass State. The remaining 5 percent, of course, are consumed by tourists in Charleston who assume that, because Charleston was a city in the old South, mint juleps must be the local specialty. (I determined these percentages through estimation, since the Census Bureau is woefully lax in capturing vital statistics such as per capita julep consumption.)
But, if virtually everyone agrees that the mint julep is the perfect drink for Derby Day, that may be about the only thing there's consensus on. Before the Civil War, putting whiskey in a julep was unheard of: brandy and rum were the most common spirits. Today's Kentuckians would swoon at the thought of pouring anything but bourbon in their julep cup, but there still are some Virginians and Marylanders who will adamantly insist upon rye.
But, the real bone of contention is what to do with the mint. Do you crush it to bits along with sugar to extract the essential oils, or let it soak overnight in sugar syrup? Or, do you just slide whole sprigs undisturbed into the top of the cup and let the aroma do the work?
That debate has been going on for over a century. Novelist Francis Parkinson Keyes recalled a Virginia gentleman instructing his children upon his deathbed, "Never insult a decent woman, never bring in a horse hot to the stable, and never crush the mint in a julep." H. L. Mencken, a good Marylander, preferred using rye whiskey and crushed mint in his juleps, to which the Kentucky humorist Irvin S. Cobb replied, "Any guy who'd put rye in a mint julep and crush the leaves would put scorpions in a baby's bed."
The Kentucky Derby has helped give the edge to the Bluegrass State's version. The first Derby was run on May 17, 1875, and by 1919 the mint julep was firmly entrenched as the event's signature drink. That year newspaper articles across the country lamented that it was the last time the famous mint julep would be served at Churchill Downs, since the 18th Amendment had just been ratified and national Prohibition was going into effect in January.
Juleps rebounded after Repeal, and the Derby's management promoted the return of the tradition by selling them in souvenir glasses for 75 cents each. Those glasses have become almost as much of the tradition of the race as the potent libation they contain.
If you need a little inspiration in advance of your Kentucky Derby party, drop by the Gin Joint for a "Julep #1." It's made with Buffalo Trace bourbon served over marble-sized chunks of crushed ice in a classic frosty silver cup (from the collection of co-owner MariElena Raya), and, in a special twist, is topped with a homemade "mint tincture" made from fresh mint steeped in Everclear. It's is a serious enough cocktail to have made Imbibe magazine's list of the Six Best Mint Juleps in America.
And on Saturday, about half an hour before post time, take an icy julep outside on the back porch where it's nice and warm. Sip it slowly. It's not for nothing that it's been called "the great Southern deceiver." One of the most profound properties of the julep's mint and sugar blend is its ability to mask an entire tumbler full of high-proof whiskey, making it go down as easy as iced tea. As that famous julep expert Irvin S. Cobb warned, "The first Kentucky julep an alien drinks is a sensation, the second is a rhythmic benefaction, but the third is a grievous error."
Here are a few julep recipes to try at your Derby party. Don't be intimidated by the partisans and their admonitions about crushed versus coddled versus infused mint. Give them all a shot and decide for yourself.
The Infused Mint Julep, Kentucky Derby Style
The Kentucky Derby itself endorses the mint-infused simple syrup method. The 120,000 or so mint juleps served at Churchill Downs this Saturday will be made with Early Times Ready-to-Serve Cocktail, with a mint syrup already blended into the bourbon. The recipe below, adapted from the Derby's official website, gives the homemade formula.
Mint Simple Syrup
2 c. sugar
2 c. water
8 sprigs fresh mint
Place sugar and water in a pan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring, three to five minutes until the sugar is all dissolved. Remove from heat, add the sprigs of mint, and pour into a jar or plastic container. Refrigerate overnight.
2 oz. Bourbon whiskey
1 Tbsp. mint simple syrup
Mint sprigs for garnish
Fill a silver julep cup (if you're fortunate enough to have one) or a glass tumbler with crushed ice. Pour over the simple syrup and Bourbon. Stir briskly with a spoon until frost appears on the outside of the cup.
The Crushed Mint Variety
In 1903, a lively Mint Julep controversy broke out in the national press, sparked by the lamentations of the Richmond Dispatch that the taste for mint juleps in the state of Virginia was being eclipsed by the newly fashionable highballs. The New York Sun launched an early salvo, declaring that there should be a society founded to revive the classic tipple of the Old South and published a recipe for "The Official Julep." Here's my adaptation of it, which adds measurements and cleans up the instructions to spare you from having to read lines like, "a large glass, such as barkeepers are wont to use in the first bloom of the June roses to confine the Hon. THOMAS COLLINS."
2 oz. Bourbon whiskey
2 sprigs fresh mint (6 to 8 leaves), plus two more for garnish.
1 tsp. sugar
In the bottom of a large Collins glass, crush the mint with a muddle or wooden spoon until thoroughly bruised and starting to break into bits. Leave the crushed mint in the glass and add the sugar. Stir slowly until the mint and sugar are fully blended. (Why it matters whether you stir the sugar in fast or slow after pounding the mint to smithereens with a muddle is beyond me, but that's what the original recipe calls for.) Add enough crushed ice to fill the glass, and then pour over the whiskey. Stir gently with a large spoon until the sides of the glass are coated with frost. Take the two remaining sprigs of mint and plunge them into the top of the glass, stems down, so the imbiber will plunge his or her nose into them upon taking the first sip.
My measure of the bourbon is just an recommendation. The actual Sun recipe calls for "how much your friend will like, and how much will like him, for the julep is the subtlest of the drinks of the field. Spare not the whiskey." Two ounces seems about right to do the trick for an ordinary friend. If you really want to be a heretic, substitute Old Overholt rye for the bourbon.
The Pristine Mint Version
The Philadelphia newspaper Seen and Heard sneered at the New York Sun's recipe, and not just for its purple prose. "What sacrilege!" the editor declared. "Crushed mint in a julep! Abominable!" Taking as its source Simon Bolivar Buckner of Kentucky, "the high priest of juleps," Seen and Heard insisted that "the fragrant herb is to smell and not to taste."
1 Tbsp. sugar
2 Tbsp. water
2 oz. Bourbon whiskey
1 sprig mint, plus 2 to 3 sprigs for garnish
In the bottom of a large tumbler, stir together the sugar and water until thoroughly dissolved. Add the whiskey, then fill the tumbler to the top with cracked ice. Stir thoroughly with a long-handled spoon until the outside of the tumbler is beginning to frost. Remove the bottom stems from the first sprig of mint and push the leaves down through the ice with the spoon. Stir gently, ensuring the leaves aren't bruised or crushed. Plant the remaining mint sprigs stems down into the top of the glass.
"Stick your nose in it and your lips to the mixture, absorb and sigh," Seen and Heard advises. "That is a mint julep."