Greek mythology tells of two weary travelers walking along a darkened road. An old couple took them in, scoured their modest dining board with mint to freshen it for their guests, and prepared for the strangers a meal. The travelers turned out to be gods in disguise, who rewarded the old folks by turning their threadbare little house into a large and glorious temple. Thereafter mint was considered a symbol of hospitality.
The celebrated mint julep came from the Kentuckians’ taste for distilled spirits. The origin is unknown, but one legend is that a nineteenth century Kentucky boatman on the Mississippi River went ashore in search of spring water to mix with his bourbon. On a whim, he is said to have added some mint growing by the spring. Nineteenth century juleps frequently contained wine or brandy, but Southerners turned to bourbon whiskey, which is still the ingredient of choice in Kentucky. It has remained much in favor with genteel Kentucky society and is a tradition associated primarily with the Kentucky Derby.
Traditionally the whiskey used is straight aged Kentucky bourbon. The chilled cup in which the mint julep is served is, also by tradition, made of sterling silver (originally coin silver), about 4″ tall and 3″ in diameter. A specially designed julep cup is presented to the Kentucky Derby winner each year. In the absence of silver, a tall glass is acceptable. The water must be cold and, if possible, from a limestone spring. The sugar is either granulated or powdered, and the ice is usually crushed but may be shaved. Some prefer to sip the concoction through a straw while others drink straight from the cup, being careful to hold the cup only by the rim so as not to disturb the frost on the silver. The only consensus on the mint is that it be only the freshest available.
The Recipe for Mint Julep
The Mint Julep brings forth the image of genteel gatherings with a slow southern drawl. Just thinking about The Kentucky Derby makes one long for a sip from a silver mint julep cup. Easy to make, the Mint Julep will boost your host or hostess status in the eyes of your guests. Try this special mint julep recipe.
1 Bottle of Premium Bourbon Whiskey
Water, preferably distilled or spring
Garnish with mint sprigs and powdered sugar (optional)
- To prepare mint extract, take fresh mint and remove the leaves smaller than a dime. Wash, pat dry put 40 leaves in mixing bowl and cover with 3 ounces of Bourbon. Allow the leaves to soak in bourbon for 15 minutes.
- Gather leaves in bundle, put in clean cotton cloth and wring vigorously over bowl where leaves soaked — bruising the leaves. Keep dipping in bourbon (several times) and wringing leaves so the juice of the mint is dripped back into bourbon. Let this mint extract set.
- For simple syrup, mix equal amounts of granulated sugar and water into cooking pot. (e.g., 1 cup sugar and 1 cup water.) Heat long enough for sugar to dissolve in water. Stir so sugar doesn’t burn. Remove from heat and let cool. This can be done several hours in advance.
- For julep mixture, pour 3 1/2 parts of bourbon to 1 part simple syrup into large bowl. Begin adding mint extract in small portions. You must taste and smell — there is no formula since each extract will vary in strength. Pour finished julep stock in covered jar and refrigerate at least 24 hours to “marry” the flavors.
- To serve your completed julep, fill each silver julep cup 1/2 full with shaved ice and insert a mint sprig.
- Pack in more ice to about one inch over top of each cup. Insert straw that has been cut to no more than one inch from above top of cup so your nose sniffs the “bloom” when sipping the julep.
- When frost forms on glass, pour refrigerated julep mixture over ice and sprinkle powdered sugar on top if desired.