As one of the small number of British bloggers I sometimes find myself a little mystified by some of the events my contemporaries across the pond use as a thinly veiled excuse to drink (and there are many – both excuses and drinks that is). Today is the Kentucky Derby, a prime example of something I’d never even heard of before I began reading cocktail blogs but now see popping up in my feed reader, Twitter timeline and Facebook homepage every May.
From what I can gather it appears to be the American answer to the Grand National. I’ve never been able to summon much interest in horse racing beyond picking the weirdest name to bet on and admiring the ever more inventive millinery, but this year, by happy coincidence, I’ve found myself very interested in the traditional drink of the Kentucky Derby. The weather here in the UK has been particularly fine over the past few weeks, and after a Pimm’s Cup one of the best hot-weather drinks has to be a well made Mint Julep.
Dating from at least the early 1800s, the Mint Julep hails from the Southern United States and has, over the years, become the drink associated with the Kentucky Derby. “Juleps” were originally medicinal concoctions that sometimes did and sometimes didn’t contain alcohol. At some point in the eighteenth century a drink of spirits, sugar and water became known under the same name, and eventually someone had the fine idea of adding mint and ice to the mixture and the Mint Julep was born.
- 2½ shots / 75 ml / 2½ oz bourbon
- ½ shot / 15 ml / ½ oz sugar syrup
- Handful of mint leaves
- Lightly muddle mint and sugar syrup together in a julep cup, then add Bourbon. Add crushed ice and stir drink gently until a frost forms on the outside of the cup. Top off with crushed ice and garnish with a sprig of mint.
Like any drink that’s been around a long time there are many recipes for the Mint Julep, and many opinions about exactly how to construct one. Personally I like the mint to be a fairly background accent so prefer to use just a small handful of mint leaves and only lightly press them. Either way it’s important not to over-muddle the mint as pulverising the leaves will release a lot of undesirable bitter flavours.
I also like to use sugar syrup rather than plain sugar as it’s far quicker and easier, and also avoids the potential for my pet hate – undissolved sugar granules. As for the bourbon, Woodford Reserve invests heavily in associating itself with the Kentucky Derby but while it does make a fine Mint Julep I personally prefer the slightly spicier notes of a bourbon like Bulleit, which is also a little cheaper than Woodford and, happily, relatively easy to get hold of here in the UK.
If you fancy adding a little extra twist to your Julep, a great addition recommended to me by Ago Perrone of the Connaught Bar is a dash of Fernet Branca. A bar-spoon or so adds a delicious bitter, herbal edge that pairs wonderfully with the mint and adds a lot of depth to the drink. Since trying a Julep with Fernet Branca I’ve not wanted to make one without it…
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