For most Americans, the Mint Julep only makes an appearance once a year during the Kentucky Derby. In New Orleans, it’s a year-round affair.
At Revel Cafe & Bar, bartender Chris McMillian is famous for serving his Mint Julep with a side of performance art, reciting by memory an ode to the drink penned in the 1890s by J. Soule Smith, which opens with, “Then comes the zenith of man’s pleasure. Then comes the julep—the Mint Julep.” This act of hospitality remains spontaneous and unsolicited. “It can be requested, but not always guaranteed,” says McMillian.
His version of the drink, with or without the barside recitation, is the product of many years of dedication. “The beauty of this drink is its simplicity,” says McMillian. “It’s about making each element the best that you can, and understanding that your idea of the best may change over time.”
The first thing to consider is the drinking vessel itself. McMillian keeps 18 silver-plated julep cups in circulation at Revel, both for their classic looks but also for their ability to keep the drink properly chilled. The second thing to consider, of course, is mint. McMillian uses about 10 sprigs (“leaves and stems—the whole buster”) per drink, which amounts to about a pound or more a day at Revel, depending on the occasion. He cautions against aggressively muddling the delicate herb, which might release more bitter flavors from the chlorophyll. “You just want to reduce the volume in the glass to make room for the ice and other ingredients,” he says, “and gently volatilize the oils so you can smell the aroma like fresh-cut grass.”
Despite the high volume of of Mint Juleps he makes on a daily basis, McMillian hand-crushes ice per order using an oversized wooden mallet and a canvas Lewis bag, which he believes results in a much drier ice as the bag wicks away most of the extraneous water. There’s also no denying the element of theater involved in wielding a giant wooden mallet. “We could argue that my single greatest contribution to the global cocktail movement, whether people believe it or not, is the revival of the Lewis bag and mallet, which I’ve been doing for 20 years now,” says McMillian.
After packing the cup with enough crushed ice to form a little mound rising above the top of the tin, he then pours in two to four ounces (depending on the tin in question), of Maker’s Mark bourbon, which he favors for its caramel and vanilla notes, which complement the mint rather than overpower it. He then tops off the drink with a half-ounce to three quarters of an ounce of simple syrup. While McMillian has experimented with building layers of powdered sugar and ice throughout the drink as well as using the syrup during the muddling phase, but finds that this method allows the syrup to trickle slowly through the ice for more even distribution.
He then adds a small cap of crushed ice to account for the loss caused by the room temperature bourbon and simple syrup, and garnishes the whole thing with one or two fresh mint sprigs before serving the final drink with a straw. The Mint Julep comes on strong at first, but it’s meant to reveal itself over the course of drinking it.
“The beauty and charm of the Mint Julep is that it’s an evolutionary experience,” says McMillian. “While often, when you start the drink, you may wonder if you’ve gotten yourself in over your head, but if you enjoy it at a leisurely pace you will find that every sip is different than the one that precedes it. That’s a wonderful quality in a drink.”