The mint julep of modern times is synonymous with long, hot summers of bourbon’s heartland, Kentucky – at the annual Kentucky Derby the crowd is always full of race-goers sipping this cooling whisky drink. But the julep actually has its roots in ancient Persia, where it was a non-alcoholic drink made with rosewater (‘julep’ comes from the Persian for rosewater, ‘gulab’). This recipe then migrated across Europe in the 1600s, picking up mint along the way, before reaching America, where it gradually evolved into an alcoholic drink.
For some time after that it, the julep remained in the hinterland between medicinal preparation and recreational party drink. It wasn’t until the dawn of the commercial ice trade in the early 1800s that it really took off. With crushed ice now freely available, the mint julep quickly became one of the most popular cocktails in the US, and remained so for the rest of the 19th century.
Tips for the perfect mint julep
The mint julep is generally regarded as a whisky drink, but early versions of the American recipe were actually made with French brandy (see recipe below). It wasn’t until the second half of the 1800s that Americans switched from drinking brandy to whisky, and the julep evolved into the cocktail we know today.
If you’re using American whisky to make a julep, then it’s hard to go wrong with bourbon. Made with a good dose of corn in the mix, bourbon tends to be sweeter and more rounded than rye whiskey, which can be a bit spicy for an easy-drinking cocktail like this one.
A julep should be really, really cold. To make it sub-zero, put your glass in the freezer for a few minutes before you use it. If you can lay your hands on a traditional julep tin, all the better. Then wrap it in a paper napkin, Kentucky-style, before you serve, so it doesn’t sting your fingers. And don’t forget the straw!
To make crushed ice, wrap a good lot of ice cubes in a clean tea towel and then beat them to smithereens with a rolling pin.
The fragrant scent of mint is one of the great pleasures of the julep. So give the mint garnish a couple of sharp claps between your palms before tucking it into the glass – this will release the aromatic oils and make the drink smell amazing. And play around with different types of mint – apple mint, chocolate mint or spearmint would all bring delicious new accents to this recipe.
Classic mint julep recipe
10 mint leaves
12.5ml 2:1 sugar syrup*
A big sprig of mint and a straw to garnish
Glass: highball or julep tin
Method: Shake the ingredients with ice and strain into a highball glass or julep tin filled with crushed ice. Churn gently with a long-handled spoon and top with more crushed ice. Garnish and serve.
* To make a 2:1 sugar syrup: dissolve 1 cup of sugar in ½ cup of water over a low heat. Leave to cool, then bottle it. This will make approx. 1 cup of sugar syrup.
3 twists on the julep:
Cognac makes a delicious mint julep. Just follow the classic recipe, using cognac instead of whisky. A young, fruity cognac is best here so go for a VS, VSOP or a cognac designed specifically for cocktails like H by Hine or Merlet Brothers Blend.
Apple & mint julep
Carrying on the brandy theme, you could also try making a mint julep with calvados, the apple brandy from Normandy. Again, go for a calvados on the young side so it’s nice and fruity – try Boulard or Pere Magloire. You could add a splash of pressed apple juice in there, too, to make the drink even more refreshing.
The world’s first cocktail competition was held in New Orleans in 1869. It was won by a soon-to-be-famous bartender Harry Johnson with an ornate twist on a brandy julep garnished with berries, pineapple, orange slices, a dusting of icing sugar and a dash of strong Jamaican rum floated on top. Try making your own using cognac topped with a strong dark rum such as Pusser’s or Wood’s 100 – make the drink and then float about half a shot/12.5ml on the top of the drink.
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Do you have a favourite whisky cocktail? Leave a comment below…