By Richard Thomas
Like the bourbon that goes into making it or the colonels of legend who supposedly drank it, the mint julep is every bit as much a part of Kentucky culture as horse racing and hot browns. While the term “mint julep” first appeared in 18th Century America and early juleps were made using rum and gin, under the modern definition a mint julep is made only with straight bourbon whiskey, and is therefore a thoroughly Kentuckian cocktail.
I endured 13 years of steamy, pestilential summers in Washington, D.C., a time that gave me a great appreciation for the mint julep. In a very southern summer climate like that of Washington, the warmth of whiskey is often more torture than pleasure, and I found I could only really enjoy whiskey between May and September if I was either bone-tired or sealed away in a room air conditioned down to refrigeration temperatures (and admittedly, there are quire a few bars and restaurants in Washington that maintain such a frigid micro-climate).
Soon I found myself turning to the traditions of My Old Kentucky Home and its juleps for relief, and since so few bars in Washington serve juleps, that meant making them at home. I even started growing mint in quantity to fill my need for mint juleps and minty sun tea (another southern favorite of mine). This is the recipe I perfected over time, and the proportions below fill my 1-liter pewter pitcher. That is enough for four juleps in normal old-fashioned “rocks” glasses.
2 cups of white granulated sugar
A generous handful of mint sprigs
Plenty of ice
1 bottle of middling bourbon whiskey
Before you begin making juleps, place your pewter or silver julep cups (if you have them) in the freezer to frost. I freeze my pewter serving pitcher as well.
The first step is making the julep syrup. Set aside the four most attractive mint sprigs, and strip the leaves from the remainder. Chop those mint leaves, and combine the 2 cups of sugar with 2 cups of water in a saucepan. Put your chopped mint leaves in the saucepan, stir up the contents and bring it to a boil. Turn the saucepan to a simmer and keep it on the stove until it has been reduced by about a third. Strain the mint leaves out of the syrup and let the syrup cool.
You can make the syrup well in advance of making mint juleps, as it stores well in the refrigerator. If you intend to make juleps frequently, make and store the syrup in quantity to reduce your drink-making labor.
When it is time to make the juleps, crush or shave enough ice to fill your pitcher (or julep cups) halfway. If you wish to make your juleps less alcoholic, simply add more ice, but don’t exceed the 2/3s mark. Add your syrup to the ice. Since I use a pitcher, I pour in all the syrup, but if you are working by the glass, then pour 1/4 of your syrup into each glass or julep cup. Pour in enough bourbon to finish filling the glass or cup and give the drink a good stir. Insert one of those attractive mint sprigs you held back and serve.