Every year, enthusiastic Derby-goers suck down nearly 120,000 Mint Juleps at Churchill Downs. (Please don’t ask how many of those I, personally, was responsible for this year.)
But while the Mint Julep might be absolutely indispensable to the Derby, this should be only the beginning—not the all-too-swift conclusion—of Julep season. Even though it’s associated with a single day in May, the Julep is a perfect summer cocktail. And after extensive, ahem, research down in Kentucky, I’ve found plenty of whiskey experts who agree with me.
“A Mint Julep is always a winner, on Derby Day or any day,” says Elizabeth McCall, assistant master distiller at Woodford Reserve. Here’s why.
It’s Crazy Refreshing
“The Julep is a Southern cocktail; it’s also a summer cocktail,” says Jackie Zykan, master taster for the bourbon Old Forester. “It’s cooling, it’s refreshing, and I definitely don’t think it’s limited to the Derby.” During a long and steamy Southern summer, refreshment is key. And while a drink of little more than bourbon and sugar might not sound refreshing, there’s one key ingredient that makes it so: all that ice.
Let’s get a little technical: “The crushed ice in the Mint Julep is key, as its high surface area allows the crushed ice to melt quickly, bringing down the ABV of the bourbon used,” says Ryan Rogers, founder of HiCotton Hospitality in Louisville. “This allows for a lot more porch sipping time.”
Don’t forget the freshness of mint, either. “Spearmint provides a bracing and cooling flavor, which helps to give the perception of beating the heat,” he says.
And if you think about other muddled cocktails, it’s easy to see how the Julep fits right in. “The Julep is a classic, particularly if you consider its relation to Smash cocktails, like the Mojito and the Whiskey Smash,” says Rogers. “Both of which couldn’t be more related to summer.”
It’s Totally Versatile
There are as many ways to make a perfect Julep as there are Julep drinkers. “The key to a good Mint Julep is customization,” says Chris Morris, master distiller for Brown-Forman, including Woodford Reserve. “If you like mint, you can always add more. If you like a sweeter cocktail, use more simple syrup. I don’t think there’s a wrong way.”
It Can Bring in More Summery Flavors
When working with Woodford’s own bourbon to build a Julep, assistant master distiller McCall suggests “using sorghum or honey simple syrup, instead of traditional simple syrup, to add a fun twist.” Got fresh summer berries at the ready? Peaches, maybe? It’s hard to think of a fruit that doesn’t pair well with mint. Since you’re muddling already, she suggests, “Add different fruits such as raspberries or strawberries.”
It’s a Total Party Drink
It’s hard to imagine a more festive drink than a Julep; there’s something decadent about sipping from a glass piled so high with ice, topped with such a gorgeous garnish. A party with Juleps—that’s a party, and there’s no time like the summer for that.
Juleps are simple to make assembly-line style: Have plenty of bourbon on-hand, enlist a friend with solid biceps to help you crush the ice, and you’re on your way. Have tons of mint at the ready, for the drink and for your garnish, and let everyone go to town.
And make sure you’ve got backup bourbon—it’s hard to have just one Julep.