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Platitude-y as it sounds, the only secret ingredients in the World’s Greatest Mint Julep are care and time. There is no rare species of mint to hunt down and you can use pretty much any brand of bourbon you want. Most everyone (myself included) uses Maker’s Mark. Woodford Reserve is widely considered to be an appropriate top-shelf upgrade, but that’s mostly marketing hype (Woodford being the “official” bourbon of the Kentucky Derby). A julep’s mint and sugar bludgeon subtlety right out of any whiskey. This is not a bad thing. It is, in fact, a most yummy bludgeoning.
I do not advocate making juleps in large batches. What I do when I make an individual mint julep is this. I take pinches of fresh mint leaves and I tear them all in two before dropping them into my julep cup. I do this until the bottom of the cup is covered. Then I pour just enough mint-steeped simple syrup in there to cover the leaves. (To make mint syrup: Make simple syrup on the stove in a pot. The moment you hit boiling, turn off the flame and toss in a handful of mint leaves. Stir a bit. Once it’s cool, strain syrup into container.)
I muddle for longer than is comfortable and I listen all the while for that telltale crunch of the leaves’ veins submitting to me. The reason I first covered the leaves with syrup is, once you start smashing those leaves, they start releasing oils and aromatics, and if the leaves were uncovered and dry, all of that would just escape into the air. The syrup keeps those flavoring agents in the bottom of the glass where they belong.
There are two types of people in my worldview: Those who say today is Cinco de Mayo, and those who say today is Kentucky Derby Eve Eve.
I’m one of the latter — hence, the blog records today’s date as the second of Three Days of Julep — but I’m well aware that I’m in the minority. Luckily, I’ve found the perfect cocktail to cover both bases on this not-really-a-holiday-laden day. The Zihautanejo Julep is out of my Death and Co.
stolen menu playbook, and it’s a julep made with tequila.
In the movie of my life, juleps might play the role of the piano in Shine, the spinning top in Inception, Pulp Fiction‘s glowing briefcase or Jerry Maguire‘s mission statement. They have given me pleasure personally and purpose professionally. During my lowest lows, when bartending was all I had going on and I was beginning to wonder what the hell had happened to me, I could fix a customer a damn good mint julep, watch his or her expression change for the better and know there was at least one thing I still did right enough to merit my getting out of bed. I’d also spent a birthday or two at the bar as a customer, cashing in on the staff’s golden rule: You can only order a mint julep for yourself when it is the day of your birth.
Bourbon, paterfamilias of the Martelorre’s alchemy, became a friend to me in 2005 — not coincidentally the year I began bartending. Compared to all the foolish mixed drinks I’d ordered in my youth, bourbon tasted like maturity’s reward. Adult fun, I used to call it. It spoke to parts of me I hadn’t yet gotten to know — a spirit that seemed to be a part of mine.