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.
Aunt Bernadine's Mint Julep Recipe
Jim Beam's Whiskey Professor, Bernie Lubbers, got this recipe from his aunt, and he suggests placing about a quarter-inch of sugar on the bottom of your julep container -- which works equally well for a single serving or a jug of juleps (not recommended for amateurs).
Bourbon (to taste)
8 mint leaves
In the bottom of your cup (preferably silver, silver-plated, or pewter, in that order) or glass (a highball will do), add a quarter-inch of sugar. Lay mint leaves atop sugar, tapping with a muddler -- hard enough to bruise, but not hard enough to break, which releases bitter oils. Top with crushed ice, then pour bourbon. Place mint sprig on top. A good stir gets the sugar and mint blended in with the bourbon and gives critical dilution.
The Sugar Question
It's unusual to see plain white sugar in a cocktail these days, but it works in the julep. Alternately, simple syrup (equal parts sugar and water) imparts sucrose more swiftly, and demerara (or demerara syrup) has a more savory quality. Infusing mint with sugar is a nice way to expand the mint's presence: Toss some leaves into a one-to-one sugar-water mix and bring to a low boil, simmering for two minutes. Then, strain and press the leaves for maximum expression of oils.
A Note on Crushed Ice
Dropping bags of store-bought ice on the floor is a recipe for a wet disaster. Try the Lewis Bag, based on a canvas coin pouch used for banks. Stuff it with ice and bang it with a hammer or, for a more gentlemanly approach, a muddler. $3.95, CocktailKingdom.com