Bourbon in mint condition

Michael Jackson rediscovers the sensual Deep South... in a cocktail
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

If you haven't spent the past couple of months since the Kentucky Derby sipping mint juleps, now's the time to gather a few sprigs and a bottle of bourbon and get up to speed for Independence Day next Tuesday. The very word "julep" falls from the lips with a liquid sensuality. It aroused my curiosity when I first encountered it in my teens in one of those Deep South novels where sex lingers between the lines.

If you haven't spent the past couple of months since the Kentucky Derby sipping mint juleps, now's the time to gather a few sprigs and a bottle of bourbon and get up to speed for Independence Day next Tuesday. The very word "julep" falls from the lips with a liquid sensuality. It aroused my curiosity when I first encountered it in my teens in one of those Deep South novels where sex lingers between the lines.

A julep seemed to be a mysterious activity shared with a Southern beauty who lolled languorously in a swing on the porch, waiting for a long drink to cool, or inflame, passions. Its literary place could equally have been with one of the Fitzgeralds: that is to say, Scott or Edward. The latter would surely have known a julep as being derived from the Persian gulab, meaning rosewater. Somehow it seeped via the poetry of Milton to colonial Virginia, where it indicated a cocktail of fruit, sugar and alcohol: rum, in the days before Americans distilled whiskey.

Coincidentally, it is a rum cocktail, the Mojito, that seems to have put sprigs of garden mint back on the bar recently. Cuba's lifting of its skirts may have helped promote rum as a sweetish spirit that goes with summery fruit drinks, but bartenders are already tiring of that and turning to bourbons. They are making classics, such as the Old Fashioned and the Manhattan, but also rediscovering the aromatic coolness of the mint julep.

"I think I would drink juleps all summer if bartenders were better at making them," confesses Dick Bradsell, Britain's star shaker and stirrer. "People think there is a mystery to the julep. They assume that it has to be complicated, and start adding unnecessary elements such as bitters and soda. It's just a simple drink of bourbon, mint, sugar and water. It works because bourbon and mint combine so well. They are natural neighbours. Mint grows wild all over Kentucky."

In a moment of heresy, bartender Bradsell concedes that the best juleps are made at home where care, attention and time are not sacrificed to the impatience of customers. The same point is made by master distiller Bill Samuels, who produces Maker's Mark bourbon in Kentucky. "You need to make juleps in large quantities," he urges. "It's the only way to get the proportion of mint right. There is nothing worse than a bad mint julep, but I love seeing the expression on a person's face when they have a really good one."

Method: Bill Samuels deploys a whole bottle (75cl) of his own bourbon for a dozen servings of mint julep. He also uses sugar syrup and mint extract, both of which are easy to make at home.

For the syrup, dissolve 50 grams of sugar in 10cl of water, hot but not boiling, and allow to cool. To make the mint extract, take two or three generous bunches of mint (which must be fresh and young, pale green); pick off the leaves; wrap them in a T-shirt (muslin is too coarse); dip the mint-filled part of the shirt into a good 5cl of whiskey in a small bowl; then "wring the dickens out of the shirt", collecting 2-3cl of "juice". Blend the whiskey, sugar syrup and mint extract in a jug (better still, a litre bottle that can be sealed and stored). For older or stronger bourbons, use slightly more sugar syrup. Add the mint extract gradually, checking the flavour until it suits your taste. Finally, chill the mixture in the freezer (where it will keep for years) for at least a day.

Serve in silver cups, tall tumblers, or even pint glasses, packed very tightly with shaved ice (made by wrapping cubes in the T-shirt and hammering them until they splinter). Garnish the drink with a generous sprig of mint, perhaps lightly sprinkled with icing sugar, and a straw. Cut the straw short so that the drinker noses the mint.

Comments