The mint julep is an iconic American cocktail. It’s also very much tied to the Kentucky Derby and Southern American culture, in general. The drink dates all the way back to the early 1800s, when “juleps” were still considered medicinal applications with herbs, floral waters, and booze (mostly brandy and rum back then), plus a little sugar to make it palatable.
The modern mint julep — an elixir of sugar, mint, and bourbon — was dialed in over the years and falls in the “smash” category of cocktails, along with drinks like the whiskey smash and the mojito.
The brilliance of this drink is that it’s very simple at its core but takes some real technique to do just right. You’ll need crushed ice, muddling skills, and way more mint than you’d first guess. Other than that, this is a pretty quick cocktail to make as long as you have everything ready. It’s super refreshing. And it’s an excellent vehicle to really highlight some nice bourbon.
- 3-oz. Woodford Reserve bourbon
- 2 sugar cubes
- 1 barspoon tap water
- Fresh mint (six leaves for cocktail and more for garnish)
- Crushed ice
Woodford Reserve (grab a bottle here) is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby. So, it makes sense to go with that. Plus, Woodford Reserve’s standard bourbon is pretty damn tasty on its own. So you know you’re in good hands.
Let’s talk about the sugar for a moment. You can 100 percent use simple bar syrup in this drink to really speed up the preparation. In that case, use about 0.5-oz. of simple instead of the sugar cubes. For me, that takes away from the granulated sugar vibe at the bottom of the drink. This drink is meant to be sipped slowly. So by the time you get to the bottom of the drink, the sugar should have fully dissolved. I like to use raw sugar cane cubes. They have a little more of a molasses sweetness and tend to crush and dissolve a little more easily than a standard white sugar cube.
You should use fresh spearmint if you can find it. That being said, I used standard mint and it was fine. I ended up using six mint leaves, plucked from the stem. But they were really big. If you have those smaller mint leaves (think the size of your thumbnail), you’ll need about ten or more.
Finally, there’s the ice. Shaved ice and hand-crushed ice is the fancy way to make this drink. Standard crushed ice works perfectly fine. What’s happening — and what makes this such a great hot-weather cocktail — is that the crushed ice creates a ton of surface area that then refreezes. That extra surface area gets the cocktail so cold, it dips below the freezing point and stops the ice melt for quite a while. That makes this drink a great, long-sipping cocktail.
It also helps with the frosting over the glass, which is nice and chilly to touch.
What You’ll Need:
- Collins glass, large lowball glass, or a pewter cup
- Metal straw
- Add sugar cubes, water, and six whole mint leaves (no stems) to the bottom of the highball glass. Muddle to crush the sugar cubes, which will slightly grind the mint leaves which, in turn, releases their oils. Don’t over crush or grind — just muddle enough that the sugar cubes are broken up and form a nice base.
- Add the bourbon and stir a few times just to marry all the flavors together.
- Add enough crushed ice to fill the glass about two-thirds full.
- Stir until well mixed and a frost starts to form on the outside of the vessel.
- Top off with more crushed ice, creating a small dome. Use your palm to press down slightly, packing in the ice.
- Make a small hole for the straw and mint with your barspoon.
- Take a bouquet of mint (more than you think you’ll need), slap it on the back of your hand a couple of times to awaken the oils, and then place the mint and straw into the hole you made in the ice.
This is amazingly refreshing. It also really lets the bourbon shine. You get all those Woodford bourbon notes of orange chocolates, spicy tobacco, and rich toffee while the mint counterpoints the whole experience. There’s a reason you put that bouquet of mint with the straw. You really want to amp up the olfactory experience of the fresh mint oils to prime your senses before you sip, adding a deeper, minty dimension to the drink.
The sugar is definitely there and reminds you that if you drink too many of these the hangover tomorrow morning will be real. But again, it isn’t overwhelming. It’s more of a nice touch that takes the edge off the bourbon and sweetens the mint, rather than the star (as it is in some tiki-style drinks).
Look at that frost forming. That’s refreshment right there. Try one this weekend or early next week. Caring about the derby is optional.
Sometimes, you’ll see this made with a few dashes of Angostura bitters either in the cocktail or over the ice. It’s completely unnecessary. If you want to add some bitters, go for it! But, it’ll take away from the magic simplicity of this cocktail.
I can definitely see sitting back, watching the horses, and downing a few of these as the day races by.