The Mint Julep
And the Heeltaps...
A classic book is one that everyone has heard of but no one has read. You could say the same for the South’s classic drink.
One of my fondest memories of them, isn’t at the Derby. Just after college I was at the same party as my sister where they were being served. Marie was never a fan of brown water but made an exemption for the bottom half of a mint julep: still slushy, but swimming in sugar and mint. This part is called the heeltaps. We fell into my ordering one, drinking the first half, and handing the heeltaps off to her and getting another. I could do that sort of thing at 25. I was made of rubber and magic back then.
Less personally, think horses and hounds, seersucker and the heat – combine bourbon, mint, sugar and ice and what you have, ladies and gents, is a Mint Julep. That perennial classic is made of local ingredients as well as local spirit, it is as refreshing a drink as you can imagine and, best of all, simple to make.
First of all, use good, solid Kentucky bourbon. A Tennessee bourbon will do just fine as long as it is not Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey or one of its knock-offs. There is a difference. Jack Daniel’s sweetness with throw things off later in the process. Neither Scotch nor Rye will do the trick either. What you need, as Walker Percy put it, is a “little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime.” He wasn’t being fancy, Dr. Percy was an MD.
Now: Put half an inch of sugar into the bottom of a pewter or silver julep cup (if unavailable, a frosted cocktail glass will do), and dampen it with water. Crush a leaf or two of mint and muddle it all together at the bottom with a spoon.
Then: Crush your ice, cubes won’t do. If your fridge won’t give you crushed ice, use the blender or – for the purist – wrap the ice in a kitchen towel and whack it with a hammer. And whack it again. What you are doing is making a bourbon slushy. Slip in another sprig or two of mint along the side of the glass and cram all the ice you can into the glass. Pack it down to where nothing else can possibly fit into the glass.
After which: Pour your bourbon into the full glass. The crushed ice will a) make room for the bourbon and b) frost your cup immediately with a good stir or two. A little grated nutmeg on top and you have stepped into the stuff of legend.
It’s that simple - the classics always are. Tread lightly here, though, this is the drink that introduced William Faulkner to bourbon. If you have the time to prepare a head of time, make a simple syrup beforehand (one part sugar, one part water, brought to a boil for five minutes) which will make the bourbon and the sweet mix more evenly. Either way, there is about five ounces of bourbon in it so savor the flavor. Think of it like a breast, one isn’t enough, three is too many.
And now you know.