Towards the end of April I start getting all nostalgic about Kentucky Derby’s of my youth, singing (well, warbling) “My Old Kentucky Home,” and the weeks of debauchery Louisville celebrates leading up to the big day. I’m getting misty eyed just thinking about it, but my friends here in Utah don’t quite get the appeal. There’s a lot to love about my adopted mountain state, but a tradition of extended whiskey-soaked revelry is just not one of them. And don’t y’all EVEN tell me Pioneer Day rallies the same hedonistic enthusiasm. Just stop it. Now.
What’s Derby like? Well, if you haven’t already, it’s a moral imperative you read Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 essay, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.” It’s a marvel of sports reporting and travel journalism wrapped up in complete and utter sublime bullshit that stands the test of time more than forty years later. And it’s Hunter S. Thompson drinking whiskey for three straight days. See, nothing like Pioneer Day.
My secret to a fantastic Mint Julep? Don’t kill your mint! When I see someone grinding mint with a mortar into the bottom of a glass I just cringe. It makes the mint bitter, and plus all of those little mint pieces invariably get stuck in your teeth and who wants that when you are wearing bright red lipstick and a fabulous hat? A pert spank will do, instead, if you make minted simple syrup a day in advance. You’ll love this stuff: in addition to making superlative Juleps, minted syrup is perfect in Mojitos, iced tea, lemonade, and Arnold Palmers.
Minted Simple Syrup
In a big bowl or quart glass pyrex measure, add 2 cups boiling water to 2 cups granulated sugar. Mix with a wooden spoon until sugar is completely dissolved. Meanwhile, place 4-5 big sprigs of fresh mint in a quart-sized Mason or other lidded glass jar. Once the sugar syrup is cool enough to touch comfortably with your fingers, pour over the mint. Cool to room temperature, place the lid on the jar, and set in the refrigerator at least 4 hours or overnight. Remove mint leaves, and store in the refrigerator for up to one week.
A Proper Mint Julep
2-3 sprigs fresh mint
2 oz. Kentucky Bourbon
2-3 oz. minted simple syrup
“Spank” a sprig of mint between your hands (as if you are clapping), place in the bottom of a chilled silver Julep cup. Fill the cup to the rim with crushed ice. Slowly pour over the ice at the same time 2 oz. Kentucky Bourbon and 2-3 oz. minted syrup. Spank another mint sprig and add as a garnish. Gently stir the cocktail with a long handled stirrer until combined.
*Julep purists look away now. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!
I love making Juleps with Rye whiskey, too. It gives them a little more bite, and is a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the mint.
An “Improper” Strawberry Julep
I made this cocktail for my girlfriends who complained that a traditional julep was too strong. Meaning, they don’t like the taste of bourbon. Sigh. Convinced that I could make a bourbon-based cocktail they’d like, I threw this baby together. Now everybody’s happy.
2 sprigs fresh mint
2 very ripe strawberries (plus an additional one for garnish)
1 ½ oz. bourbon
2 oz. minted simple syrup
Splash of club soda
In the bottom of a cocktail shaker, muddle two small very ripe strawberries until they are smooshy. Add bourbon and mint syrup, one sprig of mint, and 2-3 cubes of ice. Shake about 5-6 seconds. Strain cocktail into a highball glass or Mason jar filled with ice. Garnish with a sprig of “spanked” mint, a strawberry sliced almost in half to perch on the rim of your glass, and a splash of club soda if desired.