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No horse in the race

Still, the julep wins May over

Mint juleps

Andrew Saliga

It’s an engulfing sensory experience—everything from the mound of crushed ice nestled in the frosted cup to the straw peeking through the hefty plume of fresh mint and delivering the sweet, chilled bourbon. The mint julep’s claim to fame may be the Kentucky Derby, but this drink isn’t reserved for the bougie flaunting oversized hats and seersucker suits. In fact, the mint julep predates the Kentucky Derby (and its original recipe didn’t exclusively feature bourbon). 

One of the earliest records of the mint julep dates back to Jerry Thomas’s 1862 book “Bar-tender’s Guide or How to Mix Drinks.” Thomas likely never knew his manual for bartenders would become a go-to reference for boozehounds over 150 years later, but it contains some of the most well-documented recipes from that era, including mint julep formulas that use whiskey, red wine, brandy, and gin. 

Spirit choice aside, the julep, at  minimum, requires crushed ice, loads of mint (preferably spearmint), and a tin cup. To make a mint julep, simply add around a dozen mint leaves to the bottom of the serving glass and muddle lightly. The goal is to release the oils, not pulverize the leaves. 

Then add a teaspoon of rich simple syrup and stir in some crushed ice. (Rich simple syrup contains two times more sugar than water.) For the full experience of the frosted exterior, crushed ice must be used, and one should avoid touching the sides of the tin. To keep things simple, you can put ice cubes in a food processor or use the bagged ice that Sonic sells. 

Next, add another portion of crushed ice to near the rim, pour 2 ounces of bourbon, and stir again. Insert a straw and place a large bouquet of mint beside it before packing one last heaping scoop of crushed ice on top. 

For those looking for some variety, using two ounces of another spirit is more than acceptable. The prescription julep is a popular recipe, and it calls for 1 1/2 ounces of brandy and a half-ounce of rye whiskey.

Though the mint julep came some years before any elaborate Kentucky Derby festivities—the first Derby was in 1875—it is appropriately indulgent. Thomas gives the right idea in the “Bar-tender’s Guide” intro, where he writes, “Whether it is judicious that mankind should continue to indulge in such things, or whether it would be wiser to abstain from all enjoyments of that character, it is not our province to decide. We leave that question to the moral philosopher.”

Until you cross paths with a moral philosopher, make sure to don your julep with a sizable bouquet of mint.

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