What's Mint to Be
By Jason Rowan
Photography by Graeme Montgomery
It was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky who introduced the mint julep to Washington, D.C., in the 1820s, and you can still order one at the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel, where Clay famously dismissed a British naval officer’s claim that rum or brandy would do as well as bourbon. His recipe -- “The mint leaves fresh and tender, should be pressed against the goblet with the back of a silver spoon” -- is still the gold standard. With mint coming into season right about now, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding those fresh, tender leaves. And the Kentucky Derby, on May 5, is all the excuse you need to throw a party.
A julep is quite simple: It’s sugar, mint, and crushed ice, in that order, topped off with a generous pour of bourbon. The Round Robin uses Maker’s Mark, but other bourbons can adjust the profile of this American classic -- sweeter, hotter, or smoother -- depending on your palate. Below, we provide a punch list of which bourbons deliver which qualities.
Traditional bourbons from the 1800s were higher proof than today’s more subtle approaches. Old Grand-Dad Bonded (at least 100 proof) will give you a high-octane kick, while burning through some of that sugar, and Knob Creek (100 proof) packs a complex punch. Both offer a masculine counterpoint to the sweet julep.
At a mellow 80 proof, Blanton’s is a delicate and easy sipper, perfect for a softer julep. And you can never go wrong with the princess of bourbons, Basil Hayden’s (80 proof), resplendent in its delicate floral notes and the insouciant spiciness that comes from its rye foundations.
Wheated mash bourbons deliver rich sweetness, and W.L. Weller 12 Year-Old (90 proof) is a spot-on option, with an aroma of almonds and vanilla that adds further dessert notes. And the wet winter wheat that gives Maker’s Mark (90 proof) its trademark richness makes it a perfect choice for the sweeter route.