Mint juleps are easy, right? Just follow the recipe that popped up when you Googled it. Throw some mint leaves in a cup along with a couple of muddled sugar cubes and a healthy pour of good bourbon. Now mix it up with a handful of ice and presto!—you've got what tastes like a day-old cup of unsweetened peppermint tea mixed with (now) watered-down, expensive whiskey. And don't forget, you'll need 20 of those for the guests showing up in a half hour for your Derby party.
Like most seemingly simple pleasures, a good mint julep is actually pretty complex. But when executed correctly, there's nothing like it: You raise the tin to your mouth, the metal so icy that your fingers stick to the surface. As you tip the cup, your nose finds its way into a bouquet of mint, like a bunch of freshly plucked flowers, as the chilled, minty whiskey flows across your tongue, just sweet enough to cut the heat of the liquor while leaving the oak and spice notes intact. On a hot day, the drink is practically an air conditioner in a cup, not to mention good-looking. So toss out that weak rendition of a southern classic, roll up your sleeves, and follow these 10 steps for an electrifying mint julep. And don't forget to watch the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 5, 2012.
1. You must use a metal tin. No coffee mugs, no plastic cups. Period.
2. Pebble ice—the dense, globular kind that good bars serve—is hard to come by for home use. Your best bet is to get a bag of ice and give it a good beating with a meat tenderizer or a mallet. Don't pulverize it, but do try to get a bunch of tiny pieces. Keep it in the freezer till you need it.
3. There are two ways to incorporate the mint. You can batch and use a mint simple syrup (1 cup water, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup mint, stirred over low heat until dissolved, then strained of leaves), which is a fairly foolproof way of making sure you get a good, strong mint flavor. Or you can go manual and use regular simple syrup (one part sugar to one part water, either white or demerara sugar for a richer, more molasses-y sweetness) and muddle 6 to 8 mint leaves in the bottom of the tin. In either case, use 1/4 oz simple syrup.
4. In the latter case (which you should really learn for the long run), drop the mint into the tin and muddle very lightly—just drop the muddler into the tin on top of the mint a couple times. Don't even apply pressure. Add the simple syrup, then two ounces of a good, preferably overproof, bourbon (Old Grand-Dad 101 is superb). Stir, then add enough crushed ice to fill half or three-quarters of the tin. Use a spoon or a straw to taste what you've got so far. Too dry or hot? Add a smidgen of simple syrup. A tad overdiluted? Add 1/4 oz more bourbon.
5. Now fill the tin with ice to an inch below the rim and begin to stir with a metal spoon. Hold the tin only by the rim (so you don't conduct any heat from your hand or fingers into the drink) and stir slowly. As you stir, the ice will melt, but it will also begin to create a sheen of ice on the outside of your metal tin. It may take a little while, so be patient, and as the ice dissolves, continue to add more and more ice. The more ice, the faster you'll get your frost.
6. If you've left yourself enough room, you should be creating a more or less solid layer of ice on top, and on top of that you can shape a small dome of crushed ice with your hands, like a snowcone. Don't be afraid to pile it on—use both hands.
7. Get 3 or 4 stems of mint (the tops of the stems work best) and leave enough stem at the bottom so you can anchor it on the top of your ice dome. This may take some maneuvering. If the ice isn't allowing you to stick it in the top, cut your losses and slip it in the side. The aesthetic effect won't be too diminished.
8. If you've got some Angostura bitters on hand (which, of course, you should)—or better yet, Old Spice Dram—sprinkle a dash on top of the mint garnish. It'll smell heavenly.
9. Take two straws and cut them so that only an inch sticks up over the rim of the cup. You basically want to force your drinker to stick his nose into the aromatized mint garnish. He should be smelling and drinking at the same time.
10. Serve. Make sure your drinker doesn't compliment the drink's presentation, only to fish out your artfully constructed garnish. The garnish must stay in. And don't let him pick up the tin by any part except the rim. You want to keep that drink as cold as possible. Repeat until the whiskey is gone.
—Christopher Ross, assistant editor at Details