Half a Wit

Derby Day--Mint Julep

   Sat, May 2, 2009 - 4:40 PM
Plus extra-special bonus Whiskey Smash

Before I went to New Orleans for the first time and ordered my first mint julep, I had assumed that the julep was some Old South equivalent of a wine cooler. Imagine my surprise when I tasted my first cool frosty mouthful of slightly minty straight bourbon. Gave me a whole different view of those southern ladies, on their verandas all day, fanning themselves at the heat, having silently sadomasochistic erotic fantasies about the 'servants,' and sipping juleps all day long. Between that and the laudanum and the corsets, I'm pretty sure that New Orleans ladies were permanently high through probably most of the early 19th century. Serious epiphany.

But I was a tourist, and in subsequent visits to the south, I wondered why it was so damn hard to find a julep, even in good restaurants. And why they're drunk in metal cups, which seems kind of weird and tinny.

Well, because they are reserved for Derby Day, apparently, and the point of the metal cup, I just discovered, is to make your julep super-cold. And there is an art and a tradition to them. The julep is much older than the cocktail, dating back at least a century before the first use of the word 'cocktail' was in public circulation, and was one of the first American fads to spread throughout Europe. Some Kentucky families have had their silver heirloom julep cups for generations. And like any old-world tradition, there is a certain way to make them.

I adore Rachel Maddow. She first got on my radar during the presidential primaries, when she described Hillary Clinton PUMA supporters as "post-rational." Whoah. News people don't use phrases like that. And they don't look like dykey little boys either. They're certainly not obviously, happily and publicly queer. And they're ordinarily not Rhodes Scholars, and they don't actively enjoy intelligent public debate with people who disagree with them--including right-wingers. Also, she is a cocktail enthusiast.

If I was not thoroughly in love with Rachel Maddow before, I am now. Because last night, at the end of her news broadcast, she actually had cocktail virtuoso Dale DeGroff mix her up a pair of Derby Day cocktails. Which they then proceeded to sip. Right there on the air.

Here they are:

Signature drink of the Kentucky Derby (May 2)


3/4 oz. simple syrup or one teaspoon sugar
4 mint leaves and a sprig of mint
(Use tender, young sprigs.)
2 1/2 ounces Maker's Mark Bourbon


Prepare some very cold, very dry powdered ice with large cubes of Kold Draft ice and a canvas ice bag. Bruise the mint leaves in the bottom of a julep cup with sugar or sugar syrup and then remove the muddled leaves. Add ice to the three quarter mark and half of the bourbon. Stir to chill the julep cup. Top off with more powdered ice and the remaining bourbon and continue to stir until the outside of the cup begins to freeze. Garnish with the mint sprig and set aside to rest while the julep cup freezes over on the outside. Pick up carefully and imbibe.

I have no idea what "Kold Draft" ice is, and I don't have a canvas ice bag (though I hear that's part of the julep tradition). I used a double layer of plastic bags and a hammer. But the dry crushed ice is important for the cold frosty bourbon slushie effect. Also I don't yet own silver julep cups (though now that I know the point, I shall acquire a set). I did get a pretty good frost-coating on a hand-painted wine-glass though. Also, apparently they're not traditionally all that minty. A few leaves as all, not a handful as in the mojito.

For a lighter, more lemony variant, during the making of which Ms. Maddow confessed to making 'little pig noises' in anticipation, here is DeGroff's Whiskey Smash recipe:


1 1/2 ounces Maker's Mark Bourbon
1 ounce simple syrup
3 lemon pieces (cut a lemon in half and then quarter one of the halves, use three of the quarters)
5 mint leaves
Lemon wedge for garnish
1 mint sprig for garnish


Muddle the lemon pieces, mint leaves and simple syrup in the bottom of a Boston shaker glass. Add the bourbon and shake well with ice. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Garnish with a mint sprig and a lemon wedge.

Recipe source: www.msnbc.msn.com/id/30524940/


add a comment
Sat, May 2, 2009 - 6:17 PM
yum yum yum yum yum.....WANT
Sat, May 2, 2009 - 10:07 PM
If only I liked Bourbon...but I would drink Mint Juleps if I were in the real south with kindly folks..any old day of tte week!
Sat, May 2, 2009 - 10:25 PM
When you're done can I eat the lemon wedge out of your drink? Or, do you need it to take the edge off of the laudanum?
Sun, May 3, 2009 - 8:31 AM


I never really thought about ice all that much....
Mon, May 4, 2009 - 12:53 PM
I could really use a few of these right now.

I was disappointed that there is no Kold Draft machine available for personal use.
Mon, May 4, 2009 - 5:34 PM
A Natural History of the Cocktail
Are you working on this book?
Mon, May 4, 2009 - 5:46 PM
Yes, Billy. I'm working on it the way all Irish writers do. I am drinking my way up to it.

Please, all of you. Come for a cocktail party at my house RIGHT NOW.
Tue, May 5, 2009 - 9:28 AM
...as often as I have dreamed to sip a Sazerac cocktail while gazing out on Lake Erie on the Niagara Riviera, I must decline due to a previous engagement...
Tue, May 5, 2009 - 5:53 PM
The secret is in the bourbon. Their hand numbered special reserve, or nothin' (I kid you NOT it's magic):