The first Saturday in May heralds the beginning of good times. Not only do we have the venerable Kentucky Derby – America’s most famous horse race, the first in the Triple Crown – but also the beginning of Mint Julep season, which extends throughout the steamy summer of the American south. Let’s hope that when the Queen visited Churchill Downs last weekend, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to attend the Derby, she was treated to this most potent and genteel of cocktails.
Mint Juleps are to Kentucky what vodka is to Russia. It’s as much a part of the culture as bluegrass, and on Derby day, the whole of America, from the Pacific Northwest to New England, sips this sweet bourbon treat in a nod to the old south. The winner of the Derby is officially toasted with a Mint Julep, though most of the onlookers will have done plenty of toasting long before the winner crosses the line.
According to lore, the Mint Julep was served on the Kentucky plantation of Senator Henry Clay, who brought the drink to Washington, D.C. in the 1850s, where it was – and happily still is – served at the wonderful old Willard Hotel, still an institution in the capitol.
In theory, a Mint Julep should be easy enough to knock up – bourbon, mint, sugar, ice. But that’s like saying a martini is just gin and vermouth. The perfect cocktail is more complex and takes a bit of practice to get absolutely right.
Senator Clay’s recipe goes like this: Take a teaspoon of sugar, six or eight red-stem mint leaves, and a small measure of bourbon; churn it up; then add lots of ice, more bourbon, a splash of water, a sprig of mint and a sprinkling of sugar on top.
There are fierce (but gentlemanly) debates about whether the ice should be shaved or crushed (go with crushed), about whether the glass must be frosted (yes!), and about whether it must be imbibed while wearing seersucker (optional, but recommended). My father used to line the bottom of the glass with sugar, and sip through a straw, to get a sweet shot followed by the mellow taste of the bourbon, but that was just him being quirky and I’d stick to basics. What is certain is that you must use a good Kentucky bourbon (small-batch Booker Noe’s if you can get it, otherwise Maker’s Mark or Knob Creek) and you must drink more than one. In fact, drink them in batches.