Then comes the zenith of man's pleasure. Then comes the julep - the mint julep. Who has not tasted one has lived in vain...it is the very dream of drinks, the vision of sweet quaffings."
May 30 is National Mint Julep Day, so let's celebrate by deploying this appreciation of the julep published in the Lexington Herald in the late 1800s by Kentucky colonel Joshua Soule Smith.
A julep - from the Persian word julâb, meaning "rosewater" - is a drink in which liquor and syrup are poured over crushed ice, often with mint. There are so many ways to make your mint julep, and entire books have been written about julep lore and variations. (People fight duels over this stuff. Careful how you proclaim your preferred recipe.)
My favorite recipe comes from Chris McMillian at the Bar UnCommon in the Renaissance Pere Marquette Hotel in New Orleans, where a julep is as much a performance, or a ceremony, as a cocktail. This bourbon julep is very much Kentucky-style, with the peach syrup adding a bit of a Georgia note. Handheld or electric ice crushers are easy to find (I scored my Rival Ice-O-Matic on eBay for eleven bucks), but if you don't have one, you can crush the ice in a dishtowel, pillowcase, or canvas bag.
12 to 15 fresh spearmint leaves, plus one sprig
1 ounce simple syrup (or better yet, peach syrup -- Monin brand is good)
2 1/2 ounces good bourbon whiskey
Superfine or powdered sugar (optional)
Place the mint leaves and 1/4 ounce syrup into a metal julep cup or glass, and use a wooden muddler or the back of a spoon to very gently press the leaves, working them up the sides of the glass. Use fresh mint and don't over-muddle, as mint gets bitter when you bruise it too much.
Pack the cup with crushed ice, mounding the ice over the rim of the glass. Drizzle the bourbon through the ice, then drizzle the remaining syrup on top. Clap the mint sprig between your hands to bruise it slightly, and garnish the drink with it. If you choose, dust the drink and the garnish with powdered sugar. If you use a straw, cut it short so your nose will catch the mint's aroma as you drink.
And if you want to change it up, go right ahead! Try different spirits, or syrups: cocktail historian David Wondrich favors a Cognac julep with a dark rum float, while writer Paul Clarke recommends a brandy-and-Champagne julep. You can also get interesting results with bourbon and pineapple syrup, and New York cocktail temple Death & Co. offers a rye whiskey julep made with Grade B maple syrup.
This particular unstirred version produces a drink that changes in the glass, getting sweeter as you drink it and nicely putting you in the mood for a second one. As a nod to the Kentucky Derby winner, I'll Have Another.