Tomorrow, twenty lightning-fast horses will run one and one quarter miles with twenty really hungry people on their backs, racing for the chance to become the winner of the 139th Kentucky Derby. The outcome of the race is always uncertain, but if you’re watching it, you will undoubtedly be drinking a mint julep. This drink is as essential to the race as the horses themselves, along with getting fancy as only Americans know how. Do mint juleps and silly hats make the horses run faster? No, but on a day when it’s socially acceptable (and joyfully encouraged) to dig up your party hat and get boozy, you throw one on and throw one back and do what you’re told.
So, back to this mint julep business: a mint julep is a cocktail with origins in the American South. Consisting of mint, sugar and bourbon, it gets its name from the original use of the word “julep,” defined as a sweet drink. With such a simple list of ingredients, naturally there are a few different arguments for how it should be made, mostly concerning how to get the mint into the drink. Generally agreed upon options for this: muddling the leaves with sugar; making a mint simple syrup; using a mint tea; or, for the very dedicated, you can infuse the bourbon with mint, an idea that I think this guy might have big problems with.
Since many before me have tried “perfecting” this drink, that wasn’t my goal – I just wanted to play with the recipe a bit. I wondered if a fourth ingredient could be added, for a variation on the traditional recipe. At first I thought of adding some chili, thinking a little spice might be interesting and not overly complicated. But a mint julep should be something you want to drink all day, and lots.
Maybe some fruit, then? I picked up some raspberries, pineapple, cherries, and a pink lady apple, because something named Pink Lady seemed to me like it wanted to be in something called a mint julep.
I made a mint simple syrup by combining: 1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, and 1 bunch mint leaves with their stems in a pot, simmering until the sugar had dissolved, and letting it cool in the fridge for a bit (some recipes say 3 hours, but mine had some good mint flavor going on after about 30 minutes).
I will say this now: the raspberries did not work. I don’t have a muddler, so I mashed the berries together with sugar and mint leaves with a wooden spoon, and let them sit to macerate for about 15 minutes. Strained the juice through a sieve and shook it up with 1.5 tablespoons mint syrup, 2 ounces bourbon and ice.
No. Just no. Raspberries and bourbon in a drink do not work. I probably could have guessed that before going through all that work, but hey, here’s one for science.
Same results for the pineapple – it just proved to be too fruity. I realized I was thinking too much about pairing flavors with the mint, instead of the mint AND bourbon. Staring at the remaining choices, I nixed the apple; however, this made me more hopeful for the cherries, thinking of an Old Fashioned, another bourbon-based drink that adds a maraschino cherry to the mix.
So once again, I mashed the cherries with sugar and mint; let them macerate; pressed them through a sieve and shook the minted-cherry juice up with ice, mint syrup (this time, 2 tablespoons) and 2 oz. bourbon.
Success! The cherries were a nice addition – fruity, but not so bright that their flavor overpowered the mint, or clashed too much with the bourbon. And the color – a deep purple – struck me as something a lady in a fancy hat would find very pleasing for the drink in her hand (for the gentlemen – mint juleps are traditionally drunk out of a silver cup, if your fear of a girlie-looking drink proves too strong).
Traditional mint juleps are arguably the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, but if you feel like betting on a wild card, your chances look good with this variation.
Mint Julep with Bing Cherries
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 large bunch of mint
8 dark cherries, fresh and pits and stems removed, or preserved in juice
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 ounces (4 tablespoons) bourbon
To make the mint simple syrup (can be made ahead and stored, covered, for 2 weeks in the refrigerator):
Remove the leaves from the bunch of mint – set aside 10 leaves and sprig, to be used later. Save the remaining leaves and stems.
Pour 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar in a saucepan; add the stems. Simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved – remove from heat and add the leaves, letting cool for about 30 minutes. (At this point, you can strain the syrup and use right away, or, store in the refrigerator and chill for a few hours, or up to two weeks).
For the Mint Julep:
Place the cherries, 1 tablespoon sugar and 10 mint leaves in a bowl. Muddle or mash with a spoon until cherries and mint have become incorporated together and cherries have started to become “juicy.” Let sit for at least 15 minutes to macerate longer.
When the cherries have let out a bit more juice, strain the minted cherries through a fine mesh sieve, pushing them down to get as much juice as possible. You should end up with about a tablespoon.
Combine minted cherry juice, 2 tablespoons mint simple syrup, 2 ounces bourbon and ice in something you can shake up. Shake ingredients until chilled, pour into a glass, and top with a fresh mint sprig.
You can alter the measurements to your taste: for a stronger drink, add a little bourbon, subtract a little syrup. To lighten it, add a little water.