As the bugle blows at Churchill Downs, horse racing fans and casual spectators across the country will be sipping a classic cocktail they may only drink once a year.
Derby day means mint juleps, a drink that, as Libertine Social partner Tony Abou-Ganim puts it, “even in Kentucky and in the South, people don’t drink (juleps), except for the Oaks and the Kentucky Derby.”
That’s a shame, “because it’s a drink that has a deep history, rooted in the South. And when made well, it’s a lovely expression of bourbon whiskey,” adds Abou-Ganim, author of “The Modern Mixologist: Contemporary Classic Cocktails.”
The first recorded mention of an alcohol-infused julep in the Americas was 1803. At the time, it was made with brandy or cognac, and favored by those who enjoyed a morning pick-me-up.
“It was classified as an eye-opener,” Abou-Ganim explains. “John Davis, who is quoted with the first recorded mention of the drink in 1803, said, ‘It’s a dram of spirituous liquor that has mint in it, taken by Virginians of the morning.’ ”
Despite having just four proper ingredients — bourbon, sugar, water and mint — the julep has traditionally reveled in the trappings of luxury: from the silver cup in which it’s served to the mountain of crushed ice that chills it (a rarity in the early 19th century). There are also unconfirmed tales that the modern drinking straw was invented specifically to provide access to every last drop of alcohol in a julep.
For those making juleps at home, Abou-Ganim offers the following suggestions:
■ “The drink has to be made with crushed or pellet ice.”
■ “I would always recommend a higher proof bourbon, to stand up against the dilution you get from the crushed ice.”
■ Because sugar doesn’t dissolve well in ice, use simple syrup made with a 1-to-1 ratio of sugar to water.
■ When muddling the mint, don’t go crazy destroying the leaves, or they’ll turn bitter. “You just want to massage that mint, and coat the entire inside of the julep cup.”
■ Stir until the cup begins to frost on the outside, and then add more crushed ice, “to where you almost have a little mound on the top.”
Contact Al Mancini at amancini @reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.