Build Your Best Mint Julep
April 20, 2021 –––––– Susannah Skiver Barton
Iconic in presentation with its silver cup and fresh greenery, the Mint Julep is arguably bourbon at its most refreshing. But historically, the Julep has been made with brandy, rum, and even genever—and occasionally without mint—so there's precedent for flexibility.
Like many classic cocktails, the Julep benefits from a short ingredient list and ease of execution. Frank Caiafa, beverage director at New York City's The Stayton Room and author of “The Waldorf Astoria Bar Book,” says that respecting simplicity is important. “Keep it basic,” he urges. “Stick to protocol.”
Ryan Hart, bar manager at The Crunkleton in Charlotte, North Carolina says that the Mint Julep is easily tweaked to suit the drinker, depending on whether you prefer your cocktail stronger or sweeter. “What's really important is getting the gist of the recipe and learning how to balance it,” he says.
How to Make a Mint Julep
- 1 tsp. sugar or ½oz. simple syrup
- Handful mint leaves, plus a sprig for garnish
- Finely crushed ice
- 2 oz. bourbon
Add the sugar to a Julep cup, along with about a teaspoon of water—just enough to dissolve it—giving it a stir; if using simple syrup, omit the water. Add the mint leaves, reserving one generous sprig, and press gently with a muddler or spoon to extract the oils. Fill the cup about halfway with crushed ice. Add bourbon and stir until chilled. Mound more crushed ice on top. Garnish with remaining mint sprig, and be sure to include a straw for sipping.
⇒ Tweak your technique. Most people apply too much muscle to muddling mint. “Breaking the cell wall [of the leaf] releases chlorophyll, which adds bitterness to the drink,” says Hart, who suggests shaking the simple syrup, bourbon, and a handful of mint leaves with one or two ice cubes to gently awaken the flavor of the mint before building the drink in the cup.
4 Key Elements of the Mint Julep (Besides Whiskey) & How to Hack Them
1. Fresh Mint: Mint leaves are the hallmark of the drink, used for both mixing and garnish. “The bouquet, in both sight and smell, sticking your face into it—that's the whole attraction,” Caiafa says. But even without fresh mint on hand, you can enjoy the Julep's signature flavor.
⇒ Look for other minty items, like tea or candy. Replace the water in your simple syrup with mint tea: Brew 1 cup of mint tea according to instructions, remove the teabag, and combine with 1 cup of sugar until dissolved. Or add 2 teaspoons of peppermint or spearmint extract to a cup of prepared simple syrup. You can even make a syrup with candy canes or other hard mint candies crushed in a Ziploc bag. Combine 1 cup candy, 1 cup water, and 1 cup of sugar and simmer until dissolved.
⇒ Or replace the mint with another ingredient altogether. Swap basil, lemon balm, or other sweet herbs for mint. Or take a page from historic Juleps that included lavish fruit garnishes for added aromatics: citrus slices, pineapple wedges, berries, and cherries.You could even go non-traditional and add a peppermint patty or mint cookie to the rim.
2. Sugar: Whether you elect to use white granulated sugar or simple syrup, which makes mixing easier, it's best to start light, since the Julep has no sour balancing ingredients. “If it's too sweet, it's awful to drink,” Hart says.
⇒ But if you're avoiding sugar, you can substitute a variety of sweeteners. Check out some recommendations here.
3. Ice: Crushed ice is a must for Mint Juleps, as it chills the liquid much faster than larger cubes, but ice that's too small quickly overdilutes the drink. Evaluate your ice crusher or refrigerator ice maker before you begin; the ice should be just fine enough to pack into a mounded shape on top. Avoid using a food processor or blender; the friction of the blades leads to a watery mess.
⇒ Ditch the machinery and do it by hand. Take inspiration from the traditional Lewis bag, a canvas bag in which bartenders crush ice with a wooden mallet. Wrap ice cubes in a kitchen towel or even a pillowcase and smash them with a rolling pin. As the cloth wicks away moisture, it leaves dry crushed ice, ideal for mounding.
4. Silver Cup: The Julep's signature vessel is as unique as the drink itself. But Caiafa says a Collins glass will suffice, as its height and shape maintain some of the cocktail's “regal presentation.”
⇒ Whatever you do, don't forget the straw. The silver cup gets all the attention, but the straw is the Julep's unsung hero, making drinking both practical and pleasurable. Cut the straw to stick up just above the mint sprig, so that your nose is perfectly positioned to inhale those beautiful aromas.
What Whisky to Use?
Whether you use whiskey or another spirit, high proof is key, as the Julep's crushed ice will overdilute something with less alcohol. Consider our favorites or choose your own, but remember that the sweetener may need to be adjusted accordingly.
Traditional: Kentucky straight bourbon is the standby in the state that made the Julep famous.
Wild Turkey 101, 50.5% ABV—Balance and heft make an ideal cocktail ingredient
Heaven Hill 7 year old Bottled in Bond, 50% ABV—Powerful oak, spice, and sweetness
Old Grand-Dad 114, 57% ABV—Bold and potent, with lip-smacking character
Modern: These specialty-finished and non-traditional bourbons break the mold.
Bardstown Bourbon Co. The Prisoner Barrel-Finished, 50% ABV—Graceful, thanks to a finish in red wine barrels
Joseph Magnus Cigar Blend, proof varies—A mix of cask finishes adds extra complexity
Chattanooga 111 Proof Straight, 55.5% ABV—This high-malt style ventures outside the box
Alternative: Beyond bourbon, rye and other American whiskeys mix nicely with mint.
Pikesville 6 year old Straight rye, 55% ABV—Withstands plenty of ice melt with a jab of spice
Balcones True Blue Straight corn whiskey, 50% ABV—Made from roasted blue corn
Jack Daniel's Single Barrel Barrel Proof, proof varies—Tennessee whiskey at its punchiest
Historic: Brandy, rum, and genever have all made appearances in the Julep over time.
Sacred Bond brandy, 50% ABV—Aged in Heaven Hill barrels and bottled in bond
Smith & Cross Traditional Jamaica rum, 57% ABV—Navy strength, with equally strong flavor
Freeland Spirits Geneva gin, 45% ABV—Botanicals top a rye base in this genever-style spirit from Oregon
Esoteric: Crack into a pot still Irish or even a single malt scotch for an eclectic variation.
Barrell Infinite Barrel Project, proof varies—Batches combine styles across American, scotch, and more
Aberlour A'bunadh Alba (Batch 001) single malt scotch, 57.1% ABV—Pure sweetness from bourbon cask maturation
Redbreast 12 year old Cask Strength single pot still Irish, proof varies—Body and rich flavor, with wild spice