For many of us, our first introduction to the mint julep is from reading The Great Gatsby — from this we discover it’s a drink offered on silver platters at the Plaza, a drink for rich people who wear a disconcerting amount of pastel. It’s a refresher for breathless damsels in petal-thin dresses, femme fatales named Daisy, wilting away bewitchingly in the summer heat. Coquettishly offer to muddle up a little mint for any sad Gatsby-like sucker, and he’s yours for life.
Only upon sipping our first do we realize this is hardly the demure, lady-like summer beverage it appears to be. Its genteel-sounding name belies a wicked amount of what-the-hell-did-I-do-last-night bourbon. I suppose that’s what makes this southern drink the truest of southern belles — daintily accented with mint, camouflaged with copious helpings of sugary sweetness — yet underneath it all, one shotgun-wielding, hard-ass mama who’d steal your man and torch your debutante dress if given the slightest opportunity.
Far from its Gatsby-like associations, the mint julep since 1938 has been the official drink of the Kentucky Derby and Churchill Downs, the Louisville horse track that’s been host to the event since 1875. More than 80,000 juleps, served in commemorative, collectable Derby glasses, will be sold this weekend at Churchill Downs. The highfalutin celebs and royalty booze up on them while seated in Millionaire’s Row (which in 2004, had the honor of hosting Nick and Jessica, Anna Nicole Smith, Chuck Woolery, and Taylor Dayne). The regular folks, stuck in the infield, also pound ’em all day, viewing the race on big-screen TVs.
Given the heavy, southern-fried menu on Derby Day, the choice of a potent mint julep makes sense. What else are you going to drink with cheese-grits casserole and chocolate-bourbon Derby Pie? But they don’t regard this as the Louisville version of Mardi Gras for no reason. Down too many and you’ll start to think wearing hats like these in public is somehow okay.
In New York, the classic julep seems to get bumped off the menu for Chocolate Martini #253, but some bartenders still include them on the menu — and are adamant about what it takes to make a truly good one. “It’s really all about the quality of the mint leaves, and the care with which it’s muddled with the sugar,” says Patio Bar owner Jimmy Carbone, who shakes up a mean one for $7. “You just take the mint and muddle it gently with the sugar water and the bourbon. If you’re too aggressive, the mint dies. It should just be aromatic.”
Choice bourbon is also key. At Patio and Campbell Apartment, they use Maker’s Mark; Angel’s Share relies on Old Standard for their $11 version. Blue Smoke beverage manager Justin McManus pours eight-year-old Jim Beam Black for his praised $9.50 one, and muddles his mint with ice as well as sugar and a splash of bourbon. “It’s important to make them to order, not just have a batch sitting there,” says McManus. Carbone is in agreement: “Some places will prepare the mint ahead of time, or they’ll put it in a blender… a prepared mint mix just doesn’t do it.” Beware those recipes that call you to mix it up, then freeze it for a few days until ready to use — or god forbid, some foul factory-made version. Despite what you witness on Derby Day, salvation rarely comes from a bottle.
With Louisville a gazillion miles away, there’s little racetrack you can find to recreate true Derby revelry. Belmont Parkway always hosts a Derby party, as do several bars in the city, like Dewey’s Flatiron. Or take matters into your own hands, and toss your own Kentucky Derby soirée. Invite your friends over, turn on the races. Rent Seabiscuit, and make fun of Tobey’s hair. Maybe it’s better after a helluva lot of mint juleps.
Check out Blue Smoke’s recipe:
Blue Smoke’s Mint Julep
2 oz. Jim Beam Black
5 mint leaves
1 tsp. simple syrup
A splash of soda
Put the mint leaves in the bottom of shaker with a handful of ice cubes. Addsugar and mint. Muddle the ingredients together, add bourbon and soda, then shake. Pour into double rocks glass.