“The only day you can sell them, you can sell hundreds of them,” said bartender St. John Frizell, owner of Fort Defiance in Brooklyn. “And the next day, you sell zero.”
He was talking about the Mint Julep, a distinctly American drink with a history longer than that of the republic, but one that is permanently tethered to a single day of the year: the Kentucky Derby. The 144th running of that equine sprint is set for May 5. So what better time to call on all comers to find the best representation of that decadent and florid conjoining of sugar, spirit, ice and mint?
Off to the Races
Frizell was teamed in the accounting by fellow guest judges Stephen Palahach of Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere, a bar known to sell its fair share of juleps year round, and Steve Rhea of the upcoming Holy Ground in Tribeca. Helping to prepare the 15 different juleps, which were culled from bartenders across the United States, was another Maison Premiere bartender, Jon Mullen.
Recent scholarship has shown that juleps were drunk in the States years before anyone toasted the birth of the new nation, or heard the word “cocktail.” Evidence points to the grand old Commonwealth of Virginia as being a probable birthplace. Like many classic drinks, the recipe was more a template than a specific formula; early juleps were most frequently made with brandy or rum, and gin or genever versions were not uncommon. It would take a century or more before whiskey—specifically bourbon—became the refreshment’s de-facto spirit.
Despite bourbon’s longstanding dominance of the julep field, the debate about the base spirit goes on. The judges conceded that the average customer expects their julep to be made with bourbon. But they were not averse to a brandy or rum specimen, or even a mixed-spirit base. Rhea said, when making one for himself at home, he reached for rye. “It’s drier,” he said. “Rye doesn’t bring the sweetness that bourbon does, so there is not too much sweetness in the drink.”
Whatever spirit is used, Palahach thought its alcohol level was critical. “When you have this much dilution, the proof is important,” he said. Rhea added that, despite the tendency of the heaps of crushed ice to dull the flavors of the whiskey, quality still counted. “Better bourbon, better drink,” he asserted.
For the sweetener, a rich simple syrup was preferred by the judges—but just a barspoon or so of that to avoid an overly sweet drink. Though bitters are not typical to the julep, the panel was not opposed to them. And mint, all agreed, was of critical importance. Many adjectives were thrown around to describe the quality of herb demanded. “Ample looking” mint, said Rhea. “Pretty mint.” Enemies of the fine-tuned julep were “sad mint” or, more gently, “not-ideal mint.” (At Maison Premiere, the recipe quotes legendary New Orleans julep-builder Chris McMillian, who commands the use of copious mint.)
Ice, of course, was also paramount. Most of the drinks prepared for the tasting were made with pebble ice, which is now prevalent at cocktail bars, but was not exactly a favorite of the judges. “It dilutes differently,” said Frizell. “There is something about hand-crushed ice.” Palahach agreed about the attraction of cracked ice and asserted that it produces, “a better texture in the final drink.”
Talk of plucking the right specimen of mint and breaking up the ice just-so led to larger thoughts on how a julep was shown to best advantage. The personality and performance of the julep maker, Frizell suggested, can be as important as the drink itself. “More than other drinks, the julep is more technique-oriented then recipe-oriented,” he said. “The julep might have more of the stamp of its maker than other drinks. You can’t batch a mint julep. It comes down to watching the person make it.”
Most of the drinks tasted by the panel were made with bourbon, but there were a few that used brandy or rum, or both. (The oddest entry called for Suze, Strega, bourbon, tonic syrup, lemon and orange peels and mint.) Some examples were found too dry and boozy; some far too sweet.
“If people don’t like a julep,” postulated Palahach, “it’s because it’s badly made or too strong or too sweet. Nobody says, ‘Uh, it’s too minty.’”
The garland of roses for best Mint Julep went to the straightforward effort of Jeffrey Morgenthaler of Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon. He called for 10 muddled mint leaves, one-quarter ounce rich simple syrup and two ounces of Woodford Reserve bourbon. The judges found the drink perfectly balanced, and Palahach deemed it highly “re-orderable.”
Just a nose behind it was the julep from William Elliott of Maison Premiere. Made with one ounce each of Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Bourbon and Russell’s Reserve Single Barrel Rye, one-quarter ounce rich demerara syrup, a dash of Angostura bitters and “an extravagant mint bouquet” (no muddled mint), it was the only recipe that specifically called for chipped ice, broken up by hand.
Third place went to Joaquín Simó of Manhattan’s Pouring Ribbons. He used two ounces of Old Grand-Dad 114 Bourbon, one-quarter ounce rich demerara syrup and eight mint leaves, which were not muddled, but rubbed along the interior of the cup. This mix was topped with one-quarter ounce of Hamilton Jamaican Gold Rum. The judges easily spotted the ripe funk of rum when it was in play, as it was in Simó’s drink, and welcomed the dash of flavor complexity it lent. (Similarly, though it didn’t place in the top three, the complex “tropicality” of Bobby Heugel’s mix of Pierre Ferrand Cognac and a float of Smith & Cross rum was also admired.)
All of the entries were served in the traditional metal cup, rendered frosty by the bountiful ice. And none of the judges wanted to see their julep in any other vessel, be it glass, plastic or whatever. “To be a successful cocktail,” summed up Palahach, “you need the mint, the tin and lots of ice.”