It’s Derby Day, and that means one thing: mint juleps! There’s also this thing about horses and hats and racing, but I’m a little fuzzy on all that, so I’m going to focus on the important part. The mint julep is a beverage that combines grains (for bourbon) and leaves (from mint) in its production, making it especially suited as a topic for consideration here. A delectable mixed drink of bourbon, sugar, mint, and water, served very cold (usually over crushed ice), the mint julep is popular in the southeast of the USA and is an emblematic drink of the Kentucky Derby.
As the other ingredients are more or less self-explanatory, I will spent some time on bourbon first. Bourbon is a cask-aged grain spirit, associated heavily with Bourbon Country, Kentucky, and is a somewhat-controlled label; in the USA and Canada, any whiskey labeled as ‘bourbon’ must be distilled and aged in the States, though many other nations do not adhere to this protected-origin labeling. To qualify as a bourbon in the USA, a spirit must adhere to these standards, per the Federal Standards of Identity for Distilled Spirits:
- Must be initially brewed from a grain mixture containing at least 51% corn
- Must be aged in new, charred oak barrels
- Must be distilled to no more than 160 proof, or 80% ethanol by volume
- Must enter the barrels for again at no more than 125 proof, or 62.5% ethanol by volume
- Must be bottled at no less than 80 proof, or 40% ethanol by volume
Additionally, if the bourbon has been aged at least two years and has no added color, flavor, or additional spirits may be called ‘straight bourbon’. These regulations create a corn-based whiskey (as opposed to the barley-based spirits of Ireland and Scotland) that can be spicy or softer, depending on the other grains from which it is initially brewed. The brewing process is relatively straightforward (as it is for most spirits) and I will cover it more fully in another review; it is the aging that is most important to the flavor of the finished bourbon (or indeed, any sort of cask-aged drink). The charred barrel interiors contain caramelized tree sugars, which contribute their distinct taste to the finished spirit, as well as carbon, which smooths out some of the harshness of distilled ethanol. Temperature changes are the major driving force behind the extraction of these compounds; warehouses are usually unregulated in temperature, and the cycles of heat and cold over years of maturing causes pressure in the casks to fluctuates, forcing liquid into and then drawing it out of the cask’s wood. This leaches much more from the barrels than simple diffusion would provide, and a significant amount of time is spent in the warehouse, testing and moving barrels in order to evenly age the bourbon inside. Much like teas, oxidation and evaporation play important parts as well, converting harsh compounds into milder ones and allowing some of the volatiles to escape. While typically longer aging results in a darker, stronger-flavored bourbon, it is not always an indicator of quality and it is quite possible to over-age and thus introduce undesirable woody flavors.
The mint julep proper, meanwhile, is (as in so many famous concoctions) of a vague origin, but it seems most likely to have been first created in the southeastern US during the 1700s, with the first known recipe in print appearing in London, of all places, during 1803. The term ‘julep’ originally meant a sweet drink, and is etymologically derived from the Persian golab, meaning rose water, though I’ve never heard it in any context but the mint julep during my own reading. The exact method of preparation varies, but in all cases mint leaves are bruised in some manner (which releases volatile oils and other delightful flavors), then combined with the bourbon, water, and sugar. In some cases the sugar is added as a cube and mixed, while in others it is cooked into a simple syrup to make it easier to combine. This particular mint julep is made by muddling spearmint leaves with Maker’s Mark bourbon, allowing them to infuse for several hours, then mixing with simple syrup and chilling before serving on ice. Traditionally, a copper-cored silver julep glass is used, but here we’ve made do with glass and a freezer….good enough, right?
You can see the color in the image above, and it’s essentially unchanged from the base whiskey coloration. Due to the cold, it’s remarkably light-scented for a whiskey-based drink, mostly redolent of mint—the whiskey itself takes a definite back seat, but the first sip quickly rectifies this. It’s slightly sweet, but from the first to the last the bourbon is the star of the show, sharp and alcoholic on the tongue at first, with a warm glow that starts at the throat and moves upward as the flavor develops. The mint and sugar recede and the soft, rich flavors of grain take precedence, with a bit of caramel and vanilla in the background as well. There’s no sugary aftertaste, which is so often a problem with sweetened drinks, just the aroma of mint, the remnants of a pretty fine bourbon, and a faint alcoholic burn to remind you that yes, it is still about 80 proof! It’s a smooth, refreshing drink, and I can testify that it’s entirely too easy to exceed your tolerance…but for me at least, horse racing has always been more interesting when I’m tipsy. <.<
As the title suggests, this is not just any mint julep we’ve put together, but is instead the wonderful contribution of a dear friend: Mary Herbert, author of the Dark Horse series and a number of Dragonlance novels and short stories. Our families have known each other for nearly 25 years now; her son is my best and most loyal friend, and she and my mother share a similar bond. Derby Day is one of the few rituals that all parties involved can still scrounge up the time for, but it’s always a joy when we can get together. These juleps, made with mint from her garden, are a traditional treat, and both the scent of mint and the sight of a Maker’s Mark bottle remind me of good company, good friends, and the horrible-yet-funny deluge of awful puns that so often happens when she and my mother start getting buzzed. Especially during unbalanced times, it’s beyond comforting to have the company of someone you know cares.Besides being excellent company, she’s a fantastic writer, and if you’re any fan of fantasy at all I highly recommend looking up her books!
Cheers, all of you…and may I’ll Have Another find his way to victory in the Preakness and Belmont!