The classic Kentucky Derby drink requires the perfect balance of mint, sweetness, and bourbon
It’s the drink synonymous with the Run for the Roses, and indeed on Derby Day, vast amounts of Mint Juleps are sipped under cover of splashy hats. The most common version consumed at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby, however, comes from bottles of premixed rubbish, specifically more than 8,000 liters of Early Times Mint Julep Ready-to-Serve Cocktail.
But the Mint Julep, a cocktail of bourbon, simple syrup, and mint served over crushed ice, is easy enough to mix without resorting to ready-mades. Plus, making the drink yourself means you can control its sweetness, which is so often increased to excess.
When to add mint into the Julep equation is hotly debated. Arguments rage over its proper usage, some voting for muddling the leaves with water and sugar, others for infusing them in the syrup, and a third faction maintaining that a sprig as garnish should suffice.
Then, of course, there are purists, who think adding anything at all to bourbon, the exclusive product of Kentucky, borders on the heretical. Henry Watterson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of The Louisville Courier-Journal, whose famous recipe for the Julep still speaks to the old-fashioned Kentuckian desire for unblemished bourbon, says: “Pluck the mint gently from its bed, just as the dew of the evening is about to form upon it … Prepare the simple syrup and measure out a half-tumbler of whiskey.” (Bourbon is a style of whiskey, after all.) “Pour the whiskey into a well-frosted silver cup, throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey.”
We love both straight bourbon and its aromatic alliance with fresh mint. The Julep is not only our staple Derby drink, it’s also a cooler that lasts throughout the summer, especially when made from this recipe, adapted from Cindy Kebbell, head bartender of the historic Old Seelbach Bar, in Louisville.
yield: Makes 1 drink
Ingredients: 1 scant ounce minted simple syrup; 2 cups crushed ice; 2 ounces bourbon (such as Woodford Reserve); Fresh mint sprig, for garnish
Preparation: To highball glass or silver Julep cup, add minted simple syrup, then 1 cup crushed ice, bourbon, and splash of water. Add enough of remaining ice to almost fill glass. Stir well and garnish with mint sprig.