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Illustration by RW Icon, Ralph Steadman

This column appears, lightly edited, as it did last year, in honor of Derby Day. Be sure to join us in the shop for a Julep tomorrow, courtesy of Element Shrub.

The mint julep is decadent and depraved. Here is a drink almost wholly associated with one event and, while not a BAD drink, it is nonetheless fairly ridiculous in its conception and its execution. First and foremost, the modern Mint Julep is the beverage of choice for countless thousands who, for one Saturday each May, turn out in their silliest finery and pretend for one debaucherous day to give a damn about horse racing, as though the whole country were suddenly become an inbred, watercolor Vegas. Taste-ful it certainly is not, but — what the hell — Horsey Christmas only comes once a year, so let’s make a Julep.

The littlest things really make a big difference in this drink, so first the basic idea and then some pointers:

1 teaspoon Fine Sugar

2 teaspoons Water

6-8 Mint Leaves

3 ounces Bourbon

Crushed Ice

PROCESS: This is what I do to get the most from the mint and get the best frost built on the glass. Mix the sugar and water in the serving vessel (yes, pewter or silver-plated cups if you’ve got them). You are basically just making simple syrup, so if you want to use that, 2 teaspoons of 1:1 simple should do it. Next, place the mint gently into the glass and press it with a muddler or the back of a spoon. “Bruising” it in this way releases yummy, minty oils and leaves the pretty leaves intact; pulverizing them releases bitter, plant-y flavors. Move the cup to the freezer and pull out the ice tray.

There are special, canvas “Lewis bags” and wooden mallets sold for crushing your ice. But if you don’t have these things, take you a sturdy piece of wood — a short section of 2x4, a baseball bat gripped halfway up, whatever you got that is hefty and mallet-like — wrap your ice cubes in a clean T-shirt (or canvas, if you have it, sticks less), set it on the counter, and go to town. We’re going for consistency here, so try to beat it all level, more or less. The cloth soaks up extra moisture, which keeps the ice dry and aids frosting on the glass. Crush a lot of ice, more than you think is necessary. This drink is all about chill and dilution — it’s meant to be enjoyed over time as the flavors change and the sun scorches.

Retrieve your cup from the freezer (it should be well-chilled) and cram it full of crushed ice. Dump your bourbon over the top, stick a spoon in it, and swirl it all around, mixing in the sugar and chilling the bourbon while remembering that the mint down there still wants to be treated like a lady. This will make room in the glass for more ice, which you should pack in liberally. This mix of alcohol and water will actually dip below 0º C and result in the formation of a thick crust of white frost, the hallmark of a julep. Frost won’t form where you touch the side of the cup with your fingers, so I use a towel or pocket hank to handle it when I remove it from the freezer (you see what I mean about this ridiculous drink?). Once it’s all frosty, pack on a dome of ice, snow-cone style. If you want to preserve the frost and look like a real asshole, handle and serve each cup with a linen doily. Don’t forget a sprig of mint tucked in there to make it look and smell nice!

INGREDIENTS: White sugar is fine. Use a little more if you like it sweet. If you are not using syrup, putting regular sugar in a blade-style spice/coffee grinder will make it finer and easy to dissolve; otherwise, you’ll be stirring for a while. The mint leaves should be of a healthy size and should smell heartily minty. Use more or less mint depending on its potency — follow your nose.

Now, I’m not a huge bourbon guy as I mostly find the stuff a little too sweet and unnecessarily wooden, like licking corn syrup off a barn floor (nonplussed emails to, but my palate and a connoisseur friend of mine tell me Elijah Craig Small Batch is great bang for your buck, and it certainly conveys that “decadent and depraved” Derby vibe pretty well. I also like Knob Creek, but, let’s face it, we are not hurting for choice these days in the under-$50 bourbon market, so grab whatever you prefer. Woodford Reserve is actually the Official Bourbon of the Kentucky Derby, if that sort of thing matters to you. That said, Woodford has about as much historical claim to Derby tradition as Tostitos does to college football. Old Forrester is what Churchill Downs pours into the “juleps” they sell en masse to the non-gentry in the cheap seats.

Whatever your choice of bourbon, I definitely wouldn’t use the good stuff past round two. There’s three ounces of bourbon in these, guys — you won’t notice the downgrade.

Certainly there are better ways to make the historically venerable Julep but, for now, I think I’ll slip into a pastel jacket and quietly hate myself for a while … there are worse things than minty bourbon on a Saturday afternoon, after all.

Drink well.


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