With Derby Day right around the corner, it’s almost time to don your biggest hat and sears-iest suckers for the most exciting two minutes in sports. You’ll also want to mix up a mint julep or two. After all, the classic American cocktail, which is also one of the oldest, isn’t just a Southern icon, it’s the official drink of the Kentucky Derby.
But not all juleps are created equal. While Derby high-rollers can enjoy expertly made juleps for $1,000 a pop — featuring select rare bottles of Woodford Reserve bourbon, imported Irish mint, spring water ice cubes from Bavaria, and Australian sugar all in a gold-plated cup — most of the 120,000 juleps served at the Derby will be of a lesser pedigree.
The key to a good julep is patience and care. It’s a multi-step cocktail that requires a light touch. To get some pointers, I chatted with Kim Patton-Bragg, general manager and beverage director at Three Muses in New Orleans. Being in the heart of the South, she has served up her share of juleps. She’s also learned from one of the best: Chris McMillian, a legendary NOLA barman, who has become the definitive voice on the cocktail.
So how can you step up your julep game before Derby Day? Patton Bragg has a few pointers.
1. Muddle Troubles
As cool as you look doing it, fight the tendency to over-muddle.
“Don’t beat the hell out of the mint,” she says. “You don’t need to do too much to release the aromatics.” In fact, she notes that too much muddling will make the mint bitter.
2. Ice is Nice
Ice is an essential ingredient. You want to pack the glass with it. This is especially important if your using a proper julep cup since all that ice is what gives the drink its classic frosty look.
Patton-Bragg recommends smashing the ice in a cloth napkin or some other material that will absorb any excess water. While you want ice, too much moisture will dilute the drink and inhibit frosting.
3. Bourbon Balance
Patton-Bragg says you want your bourbon and sweetener to complement each other. For example, if you’re using something especially sweet like molasses syrup, go with a hotter spirit, possibly with more rye.
4. Layer Lovingly
A good julep should be a “journey in the glass,” according to Patton-Bragg. The various layers of flavor should reveal themselves as you drink — from the sweet syrup at the top, to the warm bourbon center, down to the cool minty bottom.
When it comes to her own juleps, Patton-Bragg is far from orthodox. She happily experiments with new ways of presenting this classic.
“Juleps need to be as flamboyant as your hat,” she says.
In that spirit, here are four alternative riffs on the julep to try at your next Derby party.
Created by Kimberly Patton-Bragg, Three Muses, New Orleans, LA
With the nearby town of Ponchatoula being the strawberry capital of the world, it seems only logical that they’d find their way into Patton-Bragg’s signature recipe.
2 parts Maker’s 46 bourbon
1/2 part Fraises Des Bois liqueur
1/4 part cane syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2 dashes aromatic bitters
4 mint leaves, plus some for garnish
1 strawberry, plus some for garnish
Directions: In a julep cup, muddle strawberry and 4 mint leaves in syrup. Add crushed ice. In a mixing glass, stir the rest of ingredients and pour over the muddled mixture and ice. Stir again gently. Garnish with basil and strawberry.
Created by Bridget Maloney, Witness, Seattle, Wash.
Maloney created the Maker’s in the Market combining Northwest and Southwest flavors in one — think fresh Pike Place cherries, artisanal chocolate and peppercorn spices.
2 parts Maker’s Mark bourbon
3/4 part cherry jam
1/2 part black peppercorn simple syrup*
Dash of chocolate bitters
8-10 mint leaves, plus more for garnish
2 brandied cherries for garnish
Directions: In a shaker, muddle 8-10 mint leaves. Add the bourbon, cherry jam, black peppercorn syrup, and chocolate bitters. Shake and strain over freshly crushed ice in a julep cup. Garnish with two brandied cherries on a pick, and a bountiful beautiful sprig of mint.
For the black peppercorn simple syrup, combine 2 1/2 cups water, 2 1/2 cups sugar, and 1/2 cup black peppercorns in a pot, and bring to a boil. Stir occasionally until sugar has dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool. Strain once you’ve achieved your desired level of spices.
Created by Andrew Record, Ne Timeas Group, San Francisco, Calif.
Offering a San Francisco twist on a traditional julep, Record’s take sports a foamy top paying homage to Karl, the cities ever-present fog. Record’s julep incorporates bourbon with several SF-inspired ingredients from the farmers market: basil (in lieu of mint), green juice, edible flowers, and more.
2 parts Maker’s Mark bourbon
3/4 part basil simple syrup*
1/4 part green juice**
1/2 part lemon juice
1 egg white
2 pinches sea salt
Fresh basil and edible flowers for garnish
Directions: Fill a mixing glass with ice, add the bourbon, basil simple syrup, green juice, and stir. Pour over crushed ice in your favorite julep cup, leaving room at the top for the foam. In a mixing tin, add lemon juice, 1 farm fresh egg white, and 2 pinches of sea salt. Seal tin and shake vigorously for 60-90 seconds. Pour foam directly over your julep. Garnish with a basil leaf and edibles flowers from the market.
For the basil simple syrup, combine 1 cup white sugar with 2 cups near boiling water and 8-10 large basil leaves. Let syrup steep for 15 minutes.
For the green juice, in a blender, add 2 parts of water with 20-25 green edible leaves of your choice (kale, borage, sorrel, etc.) and blend until smooth. Filter out solids. Alternatively, use you can use your favorite store bought green juice.
Created by Niccole Trzaska, The Liberty, New York, NY
This one likely needs no explanation…
2 parts Maker’s Mark bourbon
1 part brown sugar simple syrup*
8 mint leaves
1 part apple cider
Directions: Add the mint and brown sugar simple syrup into your julep glass, and gently muddle. Add crushed ice to top. Garnish with sliced red apple and mint sprig.
Combine equal parts brown sugar and hot water until the sugar is fully dissolved.
Jim Sabataso is a writer, part-time bartender, and full-time cocktail enthusiast living in Vermont. Follow him on Twitter @JimSabataso