The Kentucky Derby is around the corner, and while jockey statistics and fancy hats are well and good, I am most looking forward to the season’s first mint julep. The julep is a study in balance: refreshing yet powerful, simple yet complex, beautiful yet dangerous. It symbolizes not just the Derby but America itself; in fact, cocktail historian David Wondrich dubs it “the first true American drink.”
So why is it so hard to find a good one? For starters, a perfect julep requires things that most bars don’t have on hand: a silver cup, crushed ice and plenty of fresh, perky mint. There is also widespread confusion about what the drink is. Since its introduction some 200 years ago, the recipe has been bastardized innumerable times. (One notorious video from an online bartending school calls for Sprite and sours mix.)
A proper mint julep is elegantly simple, with just four ingredients marrying to create a frosty sip of springtime. Begin by dropping a generous portion of spearmint leaves into your cup. If you don’t have a silver julep cup, a highball glass will do just fine. Add to that a teaspoon of sugar or half an ounce of simple syrup. Lightly crush the mint with a muddler or other blunt object, then add a healthy pour (2½ to 3 ounces) of bourbon. Cognac and Jamaican rum make for excellent variations.
The final ingredient is ice. The most satisfying way to obtain crushed ice, I’ve found, is to place ice cubes in a clean canvas bag and whack it repeatedly with a mallet. Partially fill your glass with crushed ice, give a few vigorous stirs, then mound the ice to the brim. Garnish with a straw and a bouquet of fresh mint. The resulting drink should be fragrant and potent. It will taste sharp, but that’s the idea: Sip slowly, letting it dilute as you sit rocking on the porch or cheering on your favorite horse.