I always look forward to a good cocktail day of celebration. They are usually easy recipes to make, I don’t have to scramble around finding ingredients and they don’t take an hour in the oven. Plus, I always have the option of drinking one in a fine establishment specializing in adult beverages if I don’t feel like making one at home. There’s something just naturally celebratory about a cocktail too (unless of course your cocktail comes at 10 am from a bottle of vodka hidden behind the toilet). But a nice cocktail at the end of the day is always worth a “cheers.” A way to thank the gods for getting us through one more day, to say thank you for the bounty of life and to give way to the promise of the night ahead.
When I saw it was national Mint Julep day I was excited although in truth, it’s a little late in the month for a true Mint Julep celebration. Mint Julep Day should coincide with the Kentucky Derby which is traditionally on the first Saturday in May and it is where the mint julep has been the official drink since 1938. In fact, during Derby weekend, Churchill Downs racetrack will serve over 120,000 of them. That’s a lot of crushed mint (and a wee bit of bourbon too). The first Mint Julep I ever had was on a Kentucky Derby Day. It was only a few years ago and Lola and I were living in New Hampshire. We were out and about on a Saturday doing Saturday things and we stopped in a place for lunch. It was hours before race time but they were still offering a Mint Julep as a special beverage for the day, so we ordered one. They came in neat little copper mugs. I remember they were boozy with that strong taste of whiskey, but the flavor of the fresh mint equally as strong. I sucked it down but it wasn’t the best cocktail I had ever had. Lola had a flavored one like pineapple or something like that. She didn’t like it at all. She’s not much for bourbon.
Oddly enough, the last time I was in this same restaurant was the day I got laid off. It was the closest place to our office that served booze and we needed some booze fast on that ominous day. But in regards to juleps, I remember this particular visit because it was my first one after having heard tales of the Mint Julep for years without ever tasting one. Now I knew what the hubbub was all about. I had officially julepped.
I picked up some fresh mint and club soda after work at Clements today. I knew we had some bourbon in our liquor cabinet, so as easily as that, I had everything I needed. I had reviewed a few recipes earlier in the day and I found one from Alton Brown. I really just needed an overview because I was pretty sure I had the gist of how to make one. The only thing I was missing was a copper or silver julep cup. These cups allow the outside to get nice and frosty so your drink stays nice and cold as you sip it down. It’s tradition, although serving in highball glasses is always acceptable. I opted for a small mason jar. I felt it gave the drink that old school Kentucky feel. I plopped the mint in the bottom of the glass and sprinkled on about a tablespoon of sugar, then I poured in a little bit of soda water. Then I muddled.
I love muddling. You need the right tools to do it right, but as a bartender, muddling was always my favorite. It made you feel like you were actually making a drink, not just pouring. It’s not going to make the job easier and definitely not faster, but it made it slightly more challenging like you were actually crafting a drink. A lost art. To muddle, you essentially just crush whatever is in the bottom of the glass. That releases the essence of your ingredients and for fresh mint, all that mint flavor is let loose. It also combines what you’ve muddled with the sugar and liquid so a syrup forms. When you have it all muddled, you dump in ice and then pour in your booze and in this case bourbon. A julep wasn’t always bourbon. Early on it was a brandy drink, then rum and even gin. It turned to bourbon because that spirit was readily available in the Virginia – Kentucky area and that’s what people started to use. Today I used Jim Beam. After the bourbon went in, I topped it with soda water. I suppose a true Mint Julep only gets a few splashes of water, but I felt like it needed more, like a mojito, so that’s what I did.
This drink was damn good. It actually took me by surprise because I felt like I wasn’t going to like it having had a bad first julep experience (which coincidentally was the name of Jimi Hendrix’s first band). It was nice and minty and I could tell the bartender (me) had taken his time at muddling the herb with the sugar. The size of the drink was perfect too. I think that allowed more soda water in the drink which made it less boozy. It was still boozy – I definitely had a heavy hand. It just wasn’t all bourbon. It was a good balance which is the key to good drink. It was refreshing and well deserved after a long day following a three-day weekend. I was a fan and because I have more mint, I may just make it again.
If horse racing is the sport of kings then the Mint Julep must be their beverage (at least in America). If that’s so, it is a regal choice. It celebrates the joy of fresh herbs and the long tradition of Kentucky bourbon. It’s sweet and minty. Refreshing. The perfect drink to cheer on your favorite thoroughbred with. The occasion to don your finest hat and sing along to “My Old Kentucky Home.” We might not have celebrated all that fanfare today, but we did discover a great cocktail. And like any good cocktail, it was the perfect way to toast the hope of a new day. The Mint Julep is one drink that represents the fun and frivolity surrounding one of the most storied weekends in sports. Any spirit that evokes that spirit of celebration is definitely worth our appreciation and that’s why it was fun to celebrate the julep today. Cheers!
Next Up: National Macaroon Day