Meet Mojito's Counsin: The Mint Julep

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

When I think of the Kentucky Derby the first thing that comes to mind after the horses, of course, is the Mint Julep. It's the official drink of the Kentucky Derby, and one hell of a refreshing cocktail on a warm day.

Its genesis might surprise you.

The word "julep" actually comes from Arabic, whereby the Persians woud drink beverages called "julabs" that were sweetened by rosewater and were drunk out of metal cups. In the hot dessert sand, the metal cups when filled with ice kept the drink inside very, very cold for a much longer period of time. At one point the "julep" transferred into mainland Europe where the English took to it, combining a generic spirit with crushed mint that was served in a similar (albeit much less elaborate) metal cup. This drink in turn made its way to the south vis-a-vis English settlers and bourbon, made in abundance from the corn fields that thrived there, was replaced as the primary spirit for the drink.

During the 1700s bourbon and gin were used interchangeably in the south for the first drink of the day. Planters rose early to till the rich soil in the south, and the hot, muggy mornings were often christened with the clinking of metal cups containing the bourbon-mint concoction. In fact, their drinkers believed it warded off malaria. I think it was just a refreshing drink on a hot summer's day!

As the years went by expensive whiskey and even brandy temporarily replaced bourbon as the star of the very popular drink. But post-Civil War south, now broke, had to revert back to the cheaper (and I think tastier) locally grown and distilled bourbon rather than the imported Irish whiskeys and French brandies.

And with its simple but refreshing combination of smooth bourbon and crisp cold mint, The Mint Julep took its place as the official drink in Kentucky and eventually of the Kentucky Derby, where sellers couldn't keep up with the demand.

To this day the most traditional of juleps are still served in silver or pewter cups, often charged for and kept as souvenirs from the race. But more often we see them served in basic tumbler glasses, well chilled and piled high with refreshing crushed mint.

The cocktail is quite similar to a mojito and is done in a very similar fashion. You must gently crush the mint (not pulverize it) to extract the essential oils in the leaves. Some recipes use the technique of steeping the mint leaves in the simple syrup, something I often do for cocktails, in order to get that great taste without having to worry about pieces of mint that get stuck in between your teeth. Whereas this drink is sexy, a piece of green leafage when you smile alas is not.

The drink is great and you'll have fun making it and drinking it. Adjust the amount of simple syrup to your taste; some like it sweeter, some like it harder (more bourbon). The choice is yours.

Now check out my recipe for a classic Mint Julep:

Mint Julep
fresh mint (peppermint or spearmint is fine)
crushed ice
2 tablespoons mint simple syrup (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons water
2 ounces good-quality Kentucky bourbon (recommended: Maker's Mark)

Crush or muddle a few mint leaves in the bottom of an 8-ounce mint julep cup (or tumbler), breaking up the leaves but not pulverizing them. Fill the cup 1/2 full with crushed or shaved ice. Add desired amount of mint simple syrup, water, and bourbon. Stir until the silver cup is frosted on the outside. Garnish with more un-crushed mint leaves on top.

Note: if using a glass tumbler the outside won't frost; to achieve this effect you'll need to freeze your tumblers before use for half an hour.

Mint Simple Syrup:
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 bunch fresh mint

In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and water. Add the mint leaves and gently crush them with a wooden spoon, releasing their essential oils. Bring mixture to a low simmer and cook for 3 minutes. Remove from heat and let stand at least 10 minutes so the mint leaves can continue steeping. The longer you leave the mint in, the stronger the flavor will be. Remove mint leaves and pour syrup through a sieve if necessary to remove any mint particles. It's now ready to use.

Refrigerate syrup if using later. Can be made 2 days in advance.

No comments: